French Christmas traditions

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Christmas is all about enjoying your favourite traditions, and everyone’s are a little different. Find out how they celebrate in France!

France is only a short trip away across the Channel, but when it comes to Christmas, our traditions often seem miles apart. And depending on which part of France you’re in, you might find something other than turkey on your plate at Christmas dinner, and open presents on a different day entirely!

Let the festivities commence

Generally speaking, here in the UK Christmas is celebrated on the 25th December, and that’s when we all sit together and swap gifts. The only discrepancy tends to be whether your family opens their presents before or after Christmas dinner. Well, in North and North-Eastern France, children receive their presents much earlier in December on the 6th, which is St Nicholas’ Day.

There is an old folklore story told in France about three little children who get lost and captured by a wicked butcher, Père Fouettard. Fortunately for the kids, St Nicholas rescues them, which is how he became the patron saint of children. And so, every year on the night before the 6th December, children leave out a boot or a shoe for St Nicholas who gives out gifts, sweets and gingerbread to all the good children, and Père Fouettard leaves the naughty ones lumps of coal.

Children in France leave shoes or boots out for St Nicholas to fill with gifts
Children in France leave shoes or boots out for St Nicholas to fill with gifts

Elsewhere in France, families exchange presents on Christmas Eve, which tends to be the biggest day of celebrations throughout Europe. Some families in France even wait until the 6th January, which is Epiphany or ‘Three Kings Day’, to give their gifts to each other.

Why a shoe and not a stocking?

The favourite British tradition of the Christmas stocking isn’t really a thing in France, as it’s replaced by children leaving out their shoes and boots for St Nicholas instead. Both traditions come from the same place, however. According to the story, St Nicholas threw gold coins or gold balls through the window or down the chimney (depending on the version of the story) of a needy family. They landed in the family’s shoes or stockings, and this now represented by chocolate coins in gold foil and oranges, respectively, which are traditional stocking fillers.

Everyone’s favourite meal of the year

Whether you’re a fan of sprouts or not, it’s safe to say that Christmas dinner is one of the best meals of the year. Not necessarily just for the food, but also because it’s a time when you get to sit down and enjoy spending time with your family and friends whom you might not get to see as often as you’d like. And in France, as with present-giving days, the big Christmas meal is often eaten on a different day, as well.

Turkey is traditionally served stuffed with chestnuts in France
Turkey is traditionally served stuffed with chestnuts in France

The prevailing tradition in France is for everyone to sit down together and feast on the 24th December for a long, often luxurious meal called a réveillon. This tends to start in the evening, sometimes following a day of fasting, and goes on until midnight and beyond. As well as turkey served with chestnuts, you may also find lobster, snails, and oysters on the table, and for dessert, a Bûche de Noël, which is a chocolate yule log.

All of this rich food is accompanied by fine wines and champagne for that little extra indulgence, and it’s traditional to sing carols and songs around the table. As you can imagine, Christmas dinner is a lively, merry affair in France!

What else is served at Christmas dinner?

In Provence, there is a delicious tradition of 13 desserts served at Christmas dinner, which represent Jesus and his 12 disciples. There is usually a mix of figs and dried fruit, as well as a traditional cake called the pompe à l’huile, which is bread-like in texture, and made with olive oil and flavoured with orange blossom.

If you find the charm, or the fève in your slice of galettes des rois, you get the crown!
If you find the charm, or the fève in your slice of galettes des rois, you get the crown!

Another festive cake eaten in France is the galette des rois, or cake of kings, which is enjoyed particularly at Epiphany on the 6th January. Made of puff pastry filled with frangipane or apples, a small charm or bean called a fève is hidden somewhere inside, and if you find it in your slice you are crowned king or queen for the day!

Do you and your family fancy celebrating Christmas a little differently this year? Book your tickets with us early to get the best price on fares!