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Saint Nicolas: What is the festival celebrated in parts of France on December 6th?

While Christmas is the main event in terms of December festivals, certain parts of France have an extra day of celebration on December 6th.

Saint Nicolas: What is the festival celebrated in parts of France on December 6th?
The German influence on north-east France means that Saint Nicolas Day is celebrated. Photo: AFP

For people in north-east France, Monday, December 6th marks Saint Nicolas Day – with family celebrations and lots of gingerbread.

The reason the festival is only really celebrated in one corner of France is connected to the history of Alsace-Lorraine, which passed between French and German hands several times in the nineteenth century, leaving the inhabitants with a lot of German influences on language, cuisine and festivals.

READ ALSO Why is Good Friday not a holiday in (most of) France?

Decorated pain d’épices (gingerbread) is an important part of the festival. Photo: AFP

The north east of France is generally known as the ‘Christmas centre’ echoing many of the traditions of a German Christmas while Strasbourg, which hosts a huge Christmas market, bills itself as the ‘Christmas capital of France’.

And the celebration of Saint Nicolas is the mark of another German influence as the festival – known over the border as Nikolaustag – is a big deal in Germany.

Saint Nicolas is said to have saved three children who were kidnapped by a butcher, and is therefore the patron saint of children. He is a different figure to Father Christmas (Père Noël), although some of some of his traditions are similar. 

READ ALSO Why is Nikolaustage celebrated before Christmas in Germany?

Père Fouettard brings a whip to naughty children, while well-behaved ones get sweets. Photo: AFP

In France it’s a bit more low key, but still an important tradition to the inhabitants of Alsace-Lorraine.

French language expert and founder of French today Camille Chevalier-Karfis, whose family is originally from Alsace-Lorraine, said: “It’s an important festival in the Christian calendar but it’s also important to families who grew up in that area, my mother always liked to have us all visiting for Saint Nicolas.

“He is the patron saint of children and traditionally on December 6th he brings little gifts – sweets, dried fruits, chocolate or gingerbread – for children. But – crucially – only well-behaved children, naughty children get a visit from Père Fouettard who brings a whip for bad kids.

“Traditionally Père Fouettard had black servants but that doesn’t really happen any more.

“For some strict Catholic families in that area, Christmas is celebrated purely as a religious event and so Saint Nicolas is the time for visiting family, having a nice dinner together and giving little gifts.”

Many places also have parades or festivals of Saint Nicolas, while shops in Alsace-Lorraine sell the region’s famous decorated gingerbread.

Camille added: “Celebrating Saint Nicolas as well as Christmas is actually quite practical – if my whole family are together for Saint Nicolas then we can visit in-laws or other family members at Christmas.”

Camille Chevalier-Karfis is a French language expert, and founder of FrenchToday.com  

Member comments

  1. St Nicolas is an important festival in Belgium and the Netherlands also. And I believe in parts of Denmark.
    St Nikolaas in Dutch/Flemish became Sinterklaas which in the US became Santa Claus. The old name was Father Christmas or Father Winter or Father Frost in other countries. In the Ardennes St-Nicolas is associated with chocolate bonbons.

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DISCOVER FRANCE

French family defend naming their son Canard (duck)

A family from Perigord, the duck-farming region of south west France, have defended giving their baby boy the middle name of Canard after a wave of online mockery.

French family defend naming their son Canard (duck)
A family from the duck-farming region of south west France have defended giving their child the middle name of "Canard" Photo: Pascal Guyot/AFP

Baby Dyklan Bret was born in August in south west France, but his middle name only became public when civil servants in the area published a list of the ‘most unusual’ names registered in 2021.

Many people assumed that the name referred to Périgord’s reputation as the duck-farming capital of France, and the family were mocked on social media as “cas sociaux, alcooliques” (alcoholic social-work cases).

But in fact, the name has a very different origin, which the baby’s grandfather has shared with French TV channel BFM.

“It’s a tribute to my mother, a war orphan,” he told BFM.

“In 1943, she was abandoned in front of the church in Châtellerault (Vienne) because she came from the traveller community. She was then taken in by social services, and then adopted seven months later by a man called Georges Canard, a French soldier who later worked on the railways and was involved in the resistance.

“For my son, it was a mark of respect towards his grandmother. We wanted this surname to live on through the new generations even though it is no longer our family name, as women often lose their surname when they marry.”

French courts have the power to block certain baby names if they are deemed harmful to the child – among those refused are Nutella, Deamon and Fraise (strawberry).

READ ALSO The French baby names the law won’t allow

Until 1993, French parents had to choose from a list of acceptable names. This has now been scrapped and parents can make their own choices, within certain limits.

Local authorities in Périgord have raised no issues with Canard, which has parents say will not be used on a daily basis, as it is only a middle name.

EXPLAINED is your name ‘French enough’ for France?

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