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LANGUAGE AND CULTURE

Nine phrases that will help you survive Christmas in France

Obviously the Christmas holidays will be different this year because of the Covid-19 pandemic, but these French phrases may still come in handy.

Nine phrases that will help you survive Christmas in France
A lone Christmas tree vendor in Bordeaux. Photo: AFP
France is one of the countries that has decided to allow for travel and letting people get together for the holidays – albeit in smaller groups than usual
 
So if you're heading off to spend the holidays with French people, here are a few French classic phrases to help get the conversation going.
 
1. Joyeux Noël – Happy Christmas
 
A basic one to start with, but if you're spending Christmas Day with someone it's nice to wish them a happy Christmas.
 
Once you’ve figured out how to say Joyeux Noël to really impress, try saying it it in some of France’s regional dialects. The examples below are Breton, Corsican, Provencal, Alsatian and Basque.
 
Nedelag Laouen, Bon Natale, Bon Nouvè, E güeti Wïnâchte, and Zorionak 

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.

 
2. Qu'est-ce que le père Noël t'a apporté ? – What did Father Christmas bring you?
 
Perhaps more appropriate for children, but there's nothing wrong with keeping the magic alive and asking adults what they got for Christmas either. If you want a slightly more grown up version you could ask Tu as reçu des beaux cadeaux ? – did you get some good presents?
 
 
Although bear in mind that Christmas in France tends to be less consumer focused than in the UK or the US, so people are less likely to talk about the mountains of expensive gifts they have received.
 
Especially for adults, presents are often more of a token than something hugely expensive. 
 
 
3. Je me régale, c'est trop jolie/génial/intéressant – I love it, it's really pretty/great/interesting  
 
Nevertheless, people may well get you a gift and here are a few more effusive ways to say thank you than a simple merci.

If the gift is clothing or jewellery you can add Je le porterai ce soir/demain soir.– I'll wear it tonight/tomorrow night. Or if it's something for the house you could say Il sera parfait dans la cuisine – It will be perfect in the kitchen.

 
4. Santé/à la tienne/tchin-tchin – cheers
 
One way to cheer up any occasion is to start drinking, and here's how to toast people.
 
When you make a toast in France is considered polite not to drink until you have clinked glasses with everybody present, and you should look a person in the eye when you are clinking glasses with them. Not doing so is not only considered rude but legend has it that it will condemn you to seven years of bad sex. One to avoid.
 
5. C'est délicieux, comment tu l'as fait ? – This is delicious, how did you make it?
 
If your new mother-in-law has cooked Christmas dinner for you, it would be wise to praise her cooking, whatever she has produced. And asking for la recette (the recipe) or how to make a particular dish might be a good idea too. 
 
 
 
6. Quelle est la tradition française de noël que tu préféres/Quel est ton plat de noël préféré? – What is your favourite French Christmas tradition/favourite Christmas dish?
 
If conversation is flagging, why not start a discussion of Christmas traditions in your respective countries. Christmas in France tends to be less prescriptive than in other countries – especially in the matter of what to eat on Christmas Day – so lots of families have their own traditions familiale or family traditions.
 
One thing that does tend to happen everywhere though is La Réveillon – the Christmas Eve feast of seafood which generally involves crevettes, moules, coques, palourdes, langoustines, homard (prawns, mussels, cockles, clams, langoustines and lobster) and always les huitres – oysters – which are a big Christmas tradition in France.
 
If you're spending Christmas in Brittany, local legend has it that the dead return to join in the Christmas Eve feast at midnight so that's something to look forward to.
 
 
 
Glass clinking is taken seriously in France. Photo: AFP
 
7. Noël au balcon, Pâques au tison  – Christmas on the balcony, Easter around the fire  
 
If things are getting really strained there's always the weather to fall back on.
 
The above is a traditional French proverb expressing that mild weather at Christmas is usually followed by a harsh winter.
 
But 2020 was a year of extreme weather in France, from record-breaking temperatures during the canicule/vague de chaleur (heatwave) during the summer to les tempêtes/orages et les inondations (the storms and floods) that followed during the autumn, especially in the southeast, so there should be a good few minutes of chat to be had from the weather.
 
And if you're sure it's not going to cause an argument you could also speculate that the extreme weather could be due to changement climatique – climate change. 
 
 
8. Oui, c'est vraiment bizarre – Yes, it's really weird
 
And if all else fails, start describing a particularly bizarre Christmas tradition from your country.
 
9. Le Brexit ? Actually no. Just no. However long the gaps in conversation get, don't be tempted to go there. 

Member comments

  1. Hi everyone!
    Thanks for what your doing: as a French, I like this different perception of my country!

    A small mistake got into your script: in section 6,you should have LE réveillon instead of LA réveillon.

    I wish you all a merry Christmas!

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LANGUAGE AND CULTURE

Le Havre rules: How to talk about French towns beginning with Le, La or Les

If you're into car racing, French politics or visits to seaside resorts you are likely at some point to need to talk about French towns with a 'Le' in the title. But how you talk about these places involves a slightly unexpected French grammar rule. Here's how it works.

An old WW2 photo taken in the French port town of Le Havre.
An old WW2 photo taken in the French port town of Le Havre. It can be difficult to know what prepositions to use for places like this - so we have explained it for you. (Photo by AFP)

If you’re listening to French chat about any of those topics, at some point you’re likely to hear the names of Mans, Havre and Touquet bandied about.

And this is because French towns that have a ‘Le’ ‘La’ or ‘Les’ in the title lose them when you begin constructing sentences. 

As a general rule, French town, commune and city names do not carry a gender. 

So if you wanted to describe Paris as beautiful, you could write: Paris est belle or Paris est beau. It doesn’t matter what adjectival agreement you use. 

For most towns and cities, you would use à to evoke movement to the place or explain that you are already there, and de to explain that you come from/are coming from that location:

Je vais à Marseille – I am going to Marseille

Je suis à Marseille – I am in Marseille 

Je viens de Marseille – I come from Marseille 

But a select few settlements in France do carry a ‘Le’, a ‘La’ or a ‘Les’ as part of their name. 

In this case the preposition disappears when you begin formulating most sentences, and you structure the sentence as you would any other phrase with a ‘le’, ‘la’ or ‘les’ in it.

Masculine

Le is the most common preposition for two names (probably something to do with the patriarchy) with Le Havre, La Mans, Le Touquet and the town of Le Tampon on the French overseas territory of La Réunion (more on that later)

A good example of this is Le Havre, a city in northern France where former Prime Minister, Edouard Philippe, who is tipped to one day run for the French presidency, serves as mayor. 

Edouard Philippe’s twitter profile describes him as the ‘Maire du Havre’, using a masculine preposition

Here we can see that his location is Le Havre, and his Twitter handle is Philippe_LH (for Le Havre) but when he comes to describe his job the Le disappears.

Because Le Havre is masculine, he describes himself as the Maire du Havre rather than the Maire de Havre (Anne Hidalgo, for example would describe herself as the Maire de Paris). 

For place names with ‘Le’ in front of them, you should use prepositions like this:

Ja vais au Touquet – I am going to Le Touquet

Je suis au Touquet – I am in Le Touquet 

Je viens du Touquet – I am from Le Touquet 

Je parle du Touquet – I am talking about Le Touquet

Le Traité du Touquet – the Le Touquet Treaty

Feminine

Some towns carry ‘La’ as part of their name. La Rochelle, the scenic town on the west coast of France known for its great seafood and rugby team, is one such example.

In French ‘à la‘ or ‘de la‘ is allowed, while ‘à le‘ becomes au and ‘de le’ becomes du. So for ‘feminine’ towns such as this, you should use the following prepositions:

Je vais à La Rochelle – I am going to La Rochelle

Je viens de La Rochelle – I am coming from La Rochelle 

Plural

And some places have ‘Les’ in front of their name, like Les Lilas, a commune in the suburbs of Paris. The name of this commune literally translates as ‘The Lilacs’ and was made famous by Serge Gainsbourg’s song Le Poinçonneur des Lilas, about a ticket puncher at the Metro station there. 

When talking about a place with ‘Les’ as part of the name, you must use a plural preposition like so:

Je suis le poinçonneur des Lilas – I am the ticket puncher of Lilas 

Je vais aux Lilas – I am going to Les Lilas

Il est né aux Lilas – He was born in Les Lilas  

Islands 

Islands follow more complicated rules. 

If you are talking about going to one island in particular, you would use à or en. This has nothing to do with gender and is entirely randomised. For example:

Je vais à La Réunion – I am going to La Réunion 

Je vais en Corse – I am going to Corsica 

Generally speaking, when talking about one of the en islands, you would use the following structure to suggest movement from the place: 

Je viens de Corse – I am coming from Corsica 

For the à Islands, you would say:

Je viens de La Réunion – I am coming from La Réunion 

When talking about territories composed of multiple islands, you should use aux.

Je vais aux Maldives – I am going to the Maldives. 

No preposition needed 

There are some phrases in French which don’t require any a preposition at all. This doesn’t change when dealing with ‘Le’ places, such as Le Mans – which is famous for its car-racing track and Motorcycle Grand Prix. Phrases that don’t need a preposition include: 

Je visite Le Mans – I am visiting Le Mans

J’aime Le Mans – I like Le Mans

But for a preposition phrase, the town becomes simply Mans, as in Je vais au Mans.

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