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12 unusual ways the French mark Christmas

From abseiling Santas to floating choirs and mechanical elephants, the French do have some unusual Christmas customs that need explaining.

12 unusual ways the French mark Christmas

You may know all about the Christmas markets, or even that there’s something of an oyster frenzy at this time of year – but have you heard about the couture Christmas trees in Paris or the thirteen different Christmas desserts in Provence? 

Here’s a closer look at 12 unusual French Christmas traditions.

Floating carol singers in Colmar

In the Little Venice of Colmar in northeastern France, children decked out in red Santa hats sing Christmas carols on boats along the canal. They make four stops throughout the city centre, performing four or five songs each time to the audience gathered on the quays. 

“Many of them only join the choir for this event,” director Evelyne Fleck told Source d’Initiatives Magazine. “What they really love is singing all huddled together on the boats, in the cold at night in front of large crowds.”

Photo: Alsace Tourism Office

Santa’s Descent

In 1966, the northern city of Douai became the first to feature the spectacle of Santa Claus rappelling down the belfry tower with his elves as the town looks on.  About a dozen climbers rappel down the tower for the event each year.

Last year a young man fell to his death during a rehearsal for the event. This year (and last year), Santa descended from the Hotel du Dauphin instead, much to the chagrin of some locals. 

Photo: AFP

Wild Christmas pressies 

Even animals deserve Christmas presents. In recent years at the Zoo de la Flèche in Le Mans, the animals were given gifts to open, which they did with much enthusiasm. 

Photos: AFP

Santa’s nemesis 

The city of Wissembourg in Alsace puts on a nocturnal parade including a torchlight procession and light show.

The principal character of the parade is Hans Trapp, known in regional folklore as “a wild man dressed all in black, with chains and large boots, who carries a baton and a large sack,” according to the Wissembourg tourism website.

He strikes fear in the hearts of all children. He’s accompanied by the baby Jesus, who tosses out sweets to the children. 


13 desserts in Provence

One dessert is not nearly enough if you’re celebrating Christmas in Provence. It’s tradition to have thirteen dessert options after the Christmas meal, to be shared by everyone, symbolizing the sharing of Christ. These desserts traditionally include pastries, candied fruit, dried fruit, and nougat. 

Photo: AFP

Mechanical animals at Noel aux Nefs

On the site of the former shipyards in Nantes is a unique artistic project called Les Machines de l’Ile, described on its website as a “crossroads of Jules Verne’s ‘invented worlds’, the mechanical universe of Leonardi da Vinci, and of Nantes’ industrial history…”

A highlight of the project is a 12-metre mechanical elephant that can take 50 passengers at a time for a ride around the shipyards. Every Christmas, the Machines de l’Ile puts on a Christmas show called “Noel aux Nefs”, featuring ice sculptures, circus performers, ballet dancers, and other festive activities.

Les Santons of the South

Nativity scenes are popular throughout France, but the people of Provence put their own unique spin on them with small, clay figurines called santons, or “little saints”.  

These figures, traditionally handmade at home as a family, can be vegetable sellers, bakers, men selling chestnuts, local dignitaries, or other personalities from daily village life. These nativity scenes are supposed to be representative of the ideal Provencal village. Marseille holds an annual Santon Fair at the end of November to kick off the holiday season.

Photo: AFP 

Designer Christmas Trees

In Paris, an annual exhibition of reimagined Christmas trees created by big names in fashion, design, and architecture, takes place this year at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées. The avant-garde trees have been designed in the past by artists such as Alexander McQueen, Chanel, Karl Lagerfeld, Jean Paul Gaultier, Dior, Louis Vuitton, and more. After the show, the trees are auctioned off and all proceeds go to charity. 

Photo: Les Sapins de Noel des Créateurs

Santa Claus Race

The Parisian suburb of Issy-les-Moulineaux brings a sportive atmosphere to the holidays with their annual Santa Claus race. Called the “Corrida de Noel” after its Spanish counterpart, the race is accompanied by orchestras and shows. See the results and pictures from this year’s event here

Photo: Corrida de Noel Issy-les-Moulineaux

Coquilles de Noel

Since the 16th century, people of the Nord Pas-de-Calais region have been testing their arteries with a type of brioche, or sweet bun, filled with butter, sugar, and raisins.  

Bakers in the north churn out these pastries, made in the shape of coquilles or shells, every December.  According to France 3, a document from 1579 states that the sweets were thrown to the people from the top of the belfry tower.

Photo: Niriel/Flickr

Corsican Christmas Fire

In Corsica, the yule log takes the form of a bonfire lit in front of the village church after the midnight mass on December 24th.

Traditionally, it’s up to the children of the village to gather the logs and branches, all of which must come from the fields and the yards of the village.  Once the fire has died out the next day, the villagers each take some of the still-warm cinders to put in their own fireplaces.

Photo: Stéphane Lagarde/Flickr

Holiday Acrobatics in Rennes

The city of Rennes puts a unique spin on their holiday festivities with an acrobatics show in the main square, Place de la Mairie. Recent years have seen aerial dancers and tightrope walkers performing in front of the courthouse, typically on the evening of December 31st. 

Photo: tangi bertin/Flickr

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Will anywhere in France get a white Christmas this year?

A white Christmas might be at the top of many people's festive wish list but will it actually come true for anyone in France this year?

Haut-Koenigsbourg castle in Orschwiller, eastern France.
Haut-Koenigsbourg castle in Orschwiller, eastern France. Non-mountainous parts of the country will not see snow this year. (Photo by PATRICK HERTZOG / AFP)

If you’re in France and have been dreaming of a white Christmas, you are probably out of luck. 

It has been freezing in recent days with temperatures falling to a low of -33.4C in Jura on Wednesday morning, but the cold spell isn’t going to last. 

Temperatures across the country will hover around the 10C level in most of France by the afternoon on December 25th according to Météo France, with parts of the country including Brittany and some parts of eastern France experiencing rainfall. 

By the afternoon on Christmas Day, the chances of snow look extremely limited. Source:

On Saturday, there will be some snowfall, but only if you are high in the mountains at an altitude of 1,800-2,000m. On Sunday, places above 1,500m could also see snow – but this rules out the vast majority of the country. 

Roughly half the country will see sunshine over the weekend. The French weather channel said that this Christmas could be among the top five or six warmest since 1947. 

Last year, Météo France cautioned: “While we often associate snow with Christmas in the popular imagination, the probability of having snow in the plains [ie not in the mountains] during this period is weak in reality.”

One of the last great Christmas snowfalls, outside of France’s mountainous areas, came in 2010 when 3-10 cm of snow fell in Lille, Rouen and Paris. In Strasbourg, 26cm fell. 

On Christmas Day in 1996, 12 cm of snow fell in Angers – ironically, this was also the day that the film, Y’aura t’il de la neige à Noël? (Will there never be snow at Christmas?) was released. It had been ten years since France had seen such snowfall outside of the Alps and Pyrenees. 

Météo France directly attributes declining rates of Christmas snowfall to climate change. Compared to 50 years ago, even the Alps receives the equivalent one less month of snowfall per year.