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Why do the French eat so much seafood at Christmas?

The Local France
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Why do the French eat so much seafood at Christmas?
Oysters are on sale across France in the run-up to Christmas. Photo by Dimitar DILKOFF / AFP

If you've spent time in France over Christmas one thing you're likely to have noticed is the amount of fish and seafood that is around, so what are the roots of this festive tradition?


From piles of oysters at Christmas markets to the December 24th banquet, fish and seafood is big news in France over Christmas.

The December 25th meal varies quite a bit from region to region and many French families just eat whatever they like with no particular regard for tradition.

READ ALSO The 12 dishes that make up a classic French Christmas feast

But one thing that is still widely observed in France is the Reveillon de Noël banquet on December 24th and for that there is only one thing to serve - seafood and lots of it.


Tradition dictates that this is a late-night feast often running past midnight and into the early hours, or sometimes not even beginning until the whole family has returned from Midnight Mass.

These days, however many families - especially those with young children - find that tradition a bit cumbersome so just have their sumptuous spread of fish at a more usual dinner time.

Exactly what is on the platter varies according to taste but you will usually see prawns, mussels, cockles, clams, langoustines, maybe a dressed crab or a lobster if it has been a particularly good year - and definitely oysters.

Oysters are a big Christmas tradition in France and there will generally be at least one oyster stall at most Christmas markets for a festive snack.

The seafood platter is generally served with bread, slices of lemon and other seasoning and a good mayonnaise or aïoli and accompanied by white wine or champagne.

But where does this tradition come from?

Is it because throwing a few prawns onto a plate is a whole lot easier and more pleasant for the cook than slaving away for most of the day to produce an enormous roast dinner with all the trimmings? Well no, although that is an undeniable bonus if you are in charge of the catering.

In fact the tradition dates all the way back to the Middle Ages and is Biblical in origin.

In the Catholic Church it was traditional for people to ether fast or eat a simple meal before feast days and that meant eating no meat.


Since tofu was yet to be invented, people generally ate fish on no-meat days - which included Friday, the day before major festivals like Christmas and, for the more devout, the whole of the period of Lent before Easter.

Fish was widely seen as a second class foodstuff, and items like oysters were looked down upon as peasant food, a far cry from their status today as an expensive luxury item.

So while to modern eyes it might look like the sort of spread a monarch would sit down to, in fact your Christmas Eve fish feast represents a simple and humble meal. Just don't expect that to be represented in the prices your fishmonger charges you.


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Anonymous 2020/12/21 13:17
Though my parents are now gone, my family and I have kept our culinary Christmas tradition. On Christmas Eve, dinner is always simple and after the Christmas mass, a good onion soup. On Christmas Day, at lunch a platter of oysters and other seafood will be served, as well as foie gras or smoked salmon, followed either by a leg of lamb or a roast goose (we are no fan of Turkey), accompanied by seasonal vegetables, or a Savoyard gratin (with cheese), then a salad and a cheese platter, all topped off with a Bûche de Noël preferably with moka cream, or a Charlotte with pears.

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