Twelve traditions that make a French Christmas

The Local France
The Local France - [email protected]
Twelve traditions that make a French Christmas
Photo: AFP

Christmas in France isn't quite like anywhere else, and the French have plenty of centuries-old, quirky traditions. Here are twelve to follow.


Flexible Christmas Day

Photo: Pxhere/Wikicommons

Obviously the French don't actually move Christmas Day around, but they are more flexible when it comes to giving presents. In the north of the country, gifts are often offered to children on December 6th, the feast of St Nicolas. Many families prefer to exchange presents on Christmas Eve and others, who must have impressive willpower, do the giving and receiving on January 6th, the Feast of the Kings.

Postcards from Père Noël

Photo: AFP

Letters from French kids to Father Christmas don't just disappear into dustbins or drawers in France. Since 1962, France has had a law that stipulates any letter to Santa must be responded to in the form of a postcard.

The law has no doubt helped boost the myth of Santa Claus among France's children, although it's doubtful the postmen appreciate all the extra work.

La Tante Airie 

La Tante Airie (also spelt 'Arie') hails from the Pays de Montbéliard in the Franche-Comté region in eastern France where she steals the Christmas limelight from Santa Claus. The folklore goes that this good fairy takes people who have been frozen by the cold into her grotto and warms their hearts once more by performing a miracle. 

But that's not all. 

La Tante Airie, who is always accompanied by her donkey, also listens to children's wishes which are carried to her by the wind and gives the good children wonderful gifts, while leaving the naughty ones with nothing but a boot of twigs. 

Gather round the fire

There is a long held tradition that lives on in certain parts of France, of neighbours gathering around a giant fire on Christmas Eve. Known as hailhe de Nadau (also spelt 'haille' or 'halha' de Nadau), in some parts of France people still meet around the fire to share a moment, as well as enjoy some Christmassy treats, drinks and music to accompany the flames.
Crèche Crazy

The traditional nativity crib is a common sight in households across the world at Christmas, but in Provence they take the crèche to a whole new level. It's not just the usual characters like Baby Jesus, Mary and Joseph who make an appearance in the crib, but all kinds of figures, (known as santons), including vegetable sellers, bakers, men selling roasted chestnuts, local dignitaries... in fact, anyone you can think of.

Find out more about the tradition HERE.

Father slapper

Photo: Wikicommons

This character has a few different incarnations in countries around Europe, but in France, at least in the north and east of the country, he is known as Père Fouettard. Although social services would be on the lookout for Père Fouettard today, back in the day the Whipping Father, or Slapping Santa as he was known, would accompany St. Nicholas and was said to bring a whip with him to spank any naughty kids.

Clogs by the Fire

Photo: dmertl/Flickr

In France, children leave out their shoes or socks in front of the fireplace, hoping Père Nöel will fill them to the brim with little presents, sweets, fruit, nuts and anything else that will fit in there. Children with small feet must feel shortchanged.  

Quality not Quantity


Christmas market??

Une publication partagée par Xueting Wang (@wang_xueting0316) le 25 Nov. 2017 à 10h15 PST

More habit than tradition, but when it comes to Christmas shopping the French don't go as bananas as their British and American counterparts. In France the motto is "quality not quantity" and people will shop in the traditional Christmas markets as much as in the deluxe stores, although some doubt the quality on offer at the markets these days.

There are no Boxing Day sales either, unlike in Britain. That madness is deferred until the New Year. Having said all that, the sight of shoppers laden with bags is becoming more common, so the trend for Christmas shopping sprees may be catching on.

Here's a list of the best traditional Christmas markets in France.

La Messe de Minuit

Midnight mass with 'living creche'. Photo: AFP

France might officially be a secular country, but the tradition of midnight mass lives on. And it's no surprise, given the array of stunning cathedrals across the country which are often packed to the rafters for a midnight mass, where traditional Christmas carols and hymns are sung to get everyone in the festive mood, and also to work up an appetite. (See next).

Christmas Eve Feast

Photo: Wikicommons

Otherwise known as Le Reveillon, the big Christmas meal in French families will often take place late on Christmas Eve or even in the early hours of Christmas morning after midnight mass. The menu for the feast will vary depending on the region but turkey stuffed with chestnuts is a regular on tables, as well as goose, oysters and foie gras.

The Burning of the Yule Log

This custom is observed mainly in the south of France, where families burn a log in their homes from Christmas Eve until New Year's Day. In the old days, the tradition was that part of the log be used to make the wedge for a family's plough, in order to bring good luck for the coming harvest. The custom these days, however, is more likely to see families tuck in to a chocolate version of the Yule Log rather than the wooden one.

Galette of Kings


My galette des rois ?✨

Une publication partagée par Cat (@meowmeowbycat) le 5 Janv. 2017 à 12h46 PST

The French mark the 12th day Christmas or the feast of Epiphany, by scoffing down one final pastry - known as the galette des rois or "cake of kings". Inside the cake is hidden a charm known as a fève. Whoever finds it in their portion is a king or queen and wins the right to wear the crown and choose their partner. This ritual may sound daft, but it's still taken very seriously.


Join the conversation in our comments section below. Share your own views and experience and if you have a question or suggestion for our journalists then email us at [email protected].
Please keep comments civil, constructive and on topic – and make sure to read our terms of use before getting involved.

Please log in to leave a comment.

See Also