Joyeux Noël! – French Christmas Traditions, and Vocabulary
Histoire et traditions – Le Réveillon and Père Noël to French Christmas music, movies, vocabulary and a classic French winter cocktail recipe. Here are our favorite French Christmas traditions.
Modern French Christmas traditions include the appearance of Le Père Noël (Santa Claus.) However, Le Père Noël has only been popular since the 19th century. Before that, Saint Nicolas was celebrated on December 6th by Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium and the east of France. Saint Nicholas later inspired our modern-day Santa, dressed in red, thanks to American cartoonists like Thomas Nast and writers such as George Webster.
French Christmas Music – Chansons de Noël
While most chansons de Noël (Christmas songs) are in English and come from the United States (“All I Want for Christmas is You” by Mariah Carey is obviously a classic!), France has some traditional and popular Christmas songs too. The most well-known is Petit Papa Noël sung by the French singer Tino Rossi in 1946.
Some other songs have also been translated into French, like Mon Beau Sapin in 1856 from the original German song O Tannenbaum, and Vive le Vent in 1948 that is a French adaptation of the American song Jingle Bells.
French people, however, don’t usually embrace Christmas with the same passion as some other countries like the United States. Consequently, Christmas carols aren’t a big deal in France and you probably won’t hear Christmas songs on the streets or in malls if you go shopping!
Christmas in Paris
If you’re in Paris in December, though, take a look at the window displays of the luxury stores Les Galeries Lafayettes Haussmann or Le Printemps Haussmann. Windows come to life with animated puppets and light shows. If you go inside Les Galeries Lafayette, you’ll notice the magnificent Christmas tree that stands under the dome.
For a magical French Christmas, go to the third floor of the main store and admire the stunning view from the 9-meter long walkway suspended 16 meters high in the air. If you feel like spending a lot of money, go to Le Bon Marché, which is another luxury store, located in the very chic 7th arrondissement of Paris. They display magical decorations for an enchanted (but expensive) Christmas.
French Christmas Movies
During the holiday season, some classic movies are featured on TV such as Le Père Noël est Une Ordure (Santa Claus Is a Stinker) which is a well-known French comedy that was first released in 1982.
French Christmas Markets – Marchés de Noël
During Christmas-time, many Marchés de Noël (Christmas markets) are held throughout France. The Christmas market tradition has its origins in Western and Central Europe, mainly Germany, as well as in the east of France. One of the most famous and oldest marché de Noël takes place in Strasbourg every year. Located on the Grande Île near Strasbourg Cathedral, this Christmas market boasts a stunning sapin de Noël (Christmas tree). Christmas markets normally start in early December and feature small shops selling Christmas decorations, and traditional Christmas food like pain d’épice (gingerbread), vin chaud (mulled wine), and other home-made products. Christmas lights embellish the place and music may be played too.
Traditional French Christmas Cocktail – Vin Chaud
In the mood for a comforting Christmas drink at home? Here is the recipe of the traditional vin chaud that you can easily make yourself:
- 1.5 liters of vin rouge (1 and a half bottles of red wine, inexpensive is fine)
- 200 grams of sucre roux (1 cup brown sugar)
- 1 zeste de citron (zest of 1 lemon)
- 1 zeste d’orange (zest of 1 orange)
- 2 bâtons de cannelle (2 cinnamon sticks)
- 2 étoiles de badiane (2 star anise)
- 2 clous de girofle (2 cloves)
- 1 morceau de gingembre coupé (1 piece fresh ginger, sliced)
- 1 pincée de noix de muscade moulu (pinch of ground nutmeg)
Pour the red wine in a large pot and bring to low heat. Add the brown sugar, stirring well. Then, add the other ingredients: cinnamon sticks, star anise, cloves, ginger, nutmeg, and lemon and orange zest.
Gently bring to a simmer and wait for 5 to 10 minutes, until the sugar is dissolved, and the wine is hot. Serve it hot immediately using a sieve to strain the solid ingredients.
Le Réveillon et le Jour de Noël
Children are told to behave all year long to get presents for Christmas. In early December, they write a letter to le Père Noël, saying how good they’ve been over the past year and what cadeaux (presents) they wish to have.
Kids are told that Santa is coming from the North Pole and will give out presents between December 24th and 25th from his traîneau (sled) pulled by des rennes (reindeers). Des lutins (the elves) help Père Noël pack the mountains of gifts on his sled.
French kids normally have a calendrier de l’Avent (Advent calendar) before Christmas. Every day, from December 1st until Christmas Day, they open a door behind which they find a chocolate treat.
La Veille de Noël – Christmas Eve in France
On la veille de Noël (On Christmas’ Eve), families gather at night and celebrate over a special dinner. Dinner usually starts around 8PM and people se mettent sur leur trente-et-un (Literally, “they dress up on their thirty-one”, which means they dress up to the nines).
Foods served may vary but a typical Christmas dinner is made of: foie gras, saumon fumé (smoked salmon), escargots (snails), huîtres ou fruits de mer (oysters or seafood), un chapon ou une dinde aux marrons (a capon or a turkey served with chestnuts).
Lastly, the dessert is usually une bûche de Noël (literally, a Christmas Yule log. La bûche is a dessert shaped like a log that consists of a rolled cake full of…butter and chocolate). Du champagne (champagne) is traditionally served à l’apéritif (before meal) or/and pour le dessert (for dessert). Food is an important part of Christmas in France and dinner may last for several hours.
Slippers Under the Christmas Tree
Unlike in the US, kids do not hang their stockings over the fireplace. Instead, they leave their chaussons (slippers) or chaussures (shoes) underneath the Christmas tree. This way, le Père Noël knows whose slippers are whose and where to leave the presents when he comes down the chimney. Kids may also leave some cookies and drinks for Santa as well as milk for the reindeer underneath the Christmas tree.
While presents are traditionally opened on Christmas Day in the morning, more and more kids are opening them on Christmas Eve. One of the reasons is that adults also give presents to one another during or after the meal.
Catholics may go to la messe de minuit (midnight mass) after Christmas Eve dinner to attend mass and celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ. Many families also arrange une crèche (a nativity scene) underneath the Christmas tree when they decorate their Christmas tree.
On le jour de Noël (On Christmas day), family members gather together. When you have a large family, you may spend Christmas Eve with some relatives and Christmas Day with some others or your belle-famille (family-in-law). Christmas lunch is not that different from Christmas Eve dinner and may last the entire afternoon! If you’re invited to a French Christmas lunch or dinner and don’t know your host very well, une boîte de chocolats (a box of chocolates) is the perfect gift!
French Christmas Vocabulary
Décoration et Esprit de Noël
- Les boules de Noël : Christmas ball ornaments
- Les cadeaux : Presents
- Les chaussons : Slippers
- La crèche de Noël : Christmas nativity scene
- Les fêtes de fin d’année : Winter holidays
- Les guirlandes : Tinsel
- Joyeux Noël ! : Merry Christmas!
- Joyeuses fêtes ! : Happy holidays!
- Le marché de Noël : The Christmas market
- Le père Noël : Santa Claus
- Les rennes : Reindeer
- Le sapin de Noël : The Christmas tree
La Nourriture de Noël
- La bûche : Yule log dessert
- Le champagne : Champagne
- Le chapon : The capon
- La dinde : The turkey
- Les fruits de mer : Seafood
- Les huîtres : Oysters
- Les marrons : Chestnuts
- Le saumon (fumé) : (smoked) Salmon
- Le vin chaud : Mulled wine