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The lingo you need for a Christmas in France

Catherine Edwards · 22 Dec 2015, 09:12

Published: 22 Dec 2015 09:12 GMT+01:00
Updated: 22 Dec 2015 09:12 GMT+01:00

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Getting through the holidays in a country far from home can be tricky - especially if you're not yet fluent in the language. Here's a quick guide to handy French phrases you can use in every festive situation.


Nedelag Laouen, Bon Natale, Bon Nouvè, E güeti Wïnâchte, and Zorionak eta | Merry Christmas

So you’ve figured out how to say Joyeux Noël? Great, but to really impress, try saying it it in some of France’s regional dialects. The above examples are Breton, Corsican, Provencal, Alsatian and Basque.

If you want to wish someone a Merry Christmas and a happy New Year you can also say Bonnes fêtes de fin d’année or just Bonne fêtes for Happy Christmas.

Cantiques and Chants profanes

Photo: Jim, the Photographer/Flickr

These are the two kinds of chansons you’ll be hearing everywhere from shopping centres to your child’s Christmas concert this holiday. But what’s the difference? Well, a cantique is a religious carol, sung in churches, whereas les chants profanes are more modern and have less to do with the traditional Christian Nativity story.

Joyeux Nono

Roughly equivalent to wishing someone a ‘merry Crimbo’ in the English-speaking world, this slang greeting might help you feel more French. Alternatively, you could try using ‘verlan’, a kind of French slang where you reverse the syllables in a word, so Noël could be Elno, although you might get a few strange looks as that hasn't really taken off yet.

Noël malin | Christmas sales

Photo: Jeff Pachoud/AFP

Keep your eyes peeled for signs with these magic words, as well as ‘soldes d’hiver’ which means the same thing. The secular French have traditionally waited until the New Year to cut prices, but the trend for Boxing Day sales is starting to catch on - and some shops even slash their prices in the run-up to Christmas.

Vive le vent | Long live the wind

After battling through France’s less-than-pleasant winter weather, you may feel that cursing the wind is more appropriate than singing its praises. But these are the lyrics to the chorus of a classic French holiday song, sung to the tune of Jingle Bells, so get practising.

Qu’est-ce que le père Noël t’a apporté? | What did Father Christmas bring you?

Photo: Kenzo Tribouillard/AFP

This phrase could prove useful if you’ll be spending time around children this festive season. Lack of French skills will not be accepted as an excuse for forgetting to keep up the Father Christmas myth.

Noël au balcon, Pâques au tison | Christmas on the balcony, Easter around the fire

Various traditions link the weather on Christmas Day to the harvest and weather for the coming year - this expression means that a warm Christmas will bring a cold spring. Reeling off a few old proverbs like this is a good way to fill any awkward silences at big family meals and move conversation back to the safer territory of the weather.

La Réveillon

Photo: WikiCommons

This is the name for both the main Christmas meal, which takes place late in the night of Christmas Eve, and for the dinner on New Year’s Eve. It comes from the verb ‘veiller’ – ‘to stay awake’ or ‘to keep vigil’. In Brittany, legend says that the dead come back to the houses they once lived in and join the current occupants at the table at midnight, just for the amount of time it takes for the clock to strike twelve…

Finir les restes | To eat the leftovers

What you’ll almost certainly be doing the day after La Reveillon.

Je me régale, c’est vraiment génial/sensationel//intéressant | I love it, it’s really great/stunning/interesting

Photo: Nikolaj Potanin/Flickr

Whether you genuinely want to express your gratitude for a thoughtful gift, or need to fake it when you receive a jumper of questionable taste from in-laws or co-workers, these words should do the trick. Even better, using the reflexive verb ‘se régaler’ sounds much more sophisticated than boring old ‘j’aime’.

Le Père Fouettard | The Whipping Father

He may not sound like he’s got into the Christmas spirit, but the Whipping Father is the bad cop to Père Noël’s good cop. While the French equivalent to Father Christmas gives out gifts to the good children, Le Père Fouettard has a whip in place of a sack of goodies, ready to smack any children who have been badly behaved. Again, this is a particularly useful phrase for anyone spending their Christmas with French children, in case they need an incentive to help you tidy up after Christmas dinner.

Noël sous la neige | White Christmas

Photo: Fred Dufour/AFP

Will you actually have a chance to use this phrase? Unless you’re spending Christmas in the Alps, it’s more likely that you’ll be having a mild, cloudy and wet Christmas, but there’s no harm in hoping.

La Grande Vadrouille | The Great Stroll

You’re likely to hear these words a lot over the festive season because it’s the title of a comedy film often shown on French TV over Christmas. First released in 1966 and set during the time of Nazi occupation in France, it tells the story of two Frenchmen who help the crew of an RAF bomber escape through France after their plane is shot down.

Story continues below…

Santé/À la tienne/Tchin-tchin | Cheers

Photo: Dan Thoburn/Flickr

At Christmas, you’re likely to be indulging in French wines more than ever, so make sure you’ve brushed up on the various ways of saying ‘cheers’. And on the subject of toasting traditions in France, make sure you don’t cross your glass with anyone else’s – if you do, it means you’ll suffer from seven years of bad sex or bad luck, depending who you ask.

On chante tant Noël qu'il vient | We sing about Christmas so much that it has arrived

Here’s a French proverb which will help you sound wise, even if you’re actually still struggling with the language. Casually insert it into the conversation whenever someone mentions how early Christmas adverts or decorations came out this year, and you’re sure to get heads nodding in agreement.


Catherine Edwards (catherine.edwards@thelocal.com)

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