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FRANCE EXPLAINED

10 of the best French Christmas traditions

The Christmas and New Year holidays in France are not quite as big a deal as they are in some countries, but they are still full of fun traditions - from eating 13 desserts to visiting a light festival or being stalked by a terrifying old man with a whip.

10 of the best French Christmas traditions
Photo by Ludovic MARIN / AFP

The Christmas holidays are undoubtedly a major event in the French calendar – kids get two weeks off school, families go away for the holidays, towns light up and people exchange gifts.

However it isn’t quite the same unbridled orgy of capitalism as it is in the US, or of drinking as it is in the UK.

Here are some of the French traditions that you can expect to see;

Light festivals

Towns and cities across France decorate themselves in Christmas lights, but also popular at this time of year are Fetes des lumières (light festivals) which feature huge light installations, often with music too.

The biggest and most famous of these festivals is in Lyon, but there are lots of smaller ones including one in the Jardin des Plantes in Paris. Take an evening to spend wandering around (possible with a hot chocolate or vin chaud in hand) and enjoy the light displays.

Everything you need to know about Lyon’s light festival

People visit Le Sentiers des Lanternes (The Lantern Trail) n Metz, eastern France. (Photo by JEAN-CHRISTOPHE VERHAEGEN / AFP

Père Fouettard

Literally translating as ‘Father whipper’ or ‘Father flogger’, Père Fouttard is part of the St Nicolas celebrations that take place in the north east of France on December 6th.

What you need to know about St Nicolas Day in France

On this day, jolly St Nicolas visits the well-behaved children and brings them sweets and gifts. Bad kids, on the other hand, get a visit from the scary old priest with his whip.

The name Père Fouttard is sometimes used in a more general way to mean ‘the bogeyman’ or the scary figure. 

Writing to Père Noël

Assuming that your children are little angels, they’re more likely to get a visit from Père Noël than Père Fouettard, and he might even bring some gifts. French children like presents as much as any other children and enthusiastically embrace the tradition of writing to Santa to request special presents and toys.

The French postal service La Poste employs a team of helpers at this time of year, so that all children’s letters to Father Christmas which are sent via La Poste get an answer. Santa has modernised though, these days you can also email him via La Poste’s website.

How and when to send Christmas gifts from France

Cribs (and the crapper)

French laws on laïcité (secularism) prohibit religious displays in public buildings, so you won’t see the Christian nativity scene at the town hall or your children’s school – but that doesn’t mean it isn’t on display in other public locations including shops and the town square.

In some small towns they even create a living crib with real cattle and donkeys.

If you’re in south west France and you see a model crib scene, keep an eye out for a slightly unexpected addition – a small figure (often a celebrity) having a poo.

The belen (crapper) is mainly a Spanish tradition, but you’ll find them in areas of France which have a Catalan influence as well. 

Vin chaud

Hot, spiced wine is not limited to France, but here it is not just a Christmas thing – it’s drunk throughout the winter in the colder months and you will frequently see it on sale in cafés and at sports grounds as the temperatures fall.

The wine (usually red, but not always) is warmed with fruit such as oranges and lemons and spices including cinnamon and star anise. During the pandemic years when many bars were closed for months at a time, more and more places started offering vin chaud to take out, and happily this tradition seems to have stuck. 

Four things to know about vin chaud in France

Photo by Thomas SAMSON / AFP

Christmas markets 

In Europe, Germany is the undisputed leader of Christmas markets, but they happen in France too especially in the north east of the country, which has historic links to Germany.

Most towns and cities in France will have some sort of market at Christmas selling gifts and food (especially oysters) but the biggest and most famous are in the historic region of Alsace, on the German border. 

14 of the best Christmas markets in France in 2022

Seafood

As an anglophone, Christmas might say turkey to you, but in France it’s all about the seafood.

The seafood banquet is served on the night of the 24th, traditionally after Midnight Mass but many French families in modern times skip the Mass and move the meal to a more sociable time. 

The banquet always involves oysters, but the rest of the shellfish is up to you – you would likely see prawns, mussels, whelks and crab or lobster. One bonus of this type of meal is that it involves virtually no cooking – you buy your shellfish ready prepared from the fish-seller then serve with bread and mayonnaise or aoili, which means that Christmas is a day off for the cook too. 

Why do the French eat so much seafood at Christmas?

In France December 24th is the main celebration day of Christmas, as it is in most of mainland Europe, and this is the day when French people visit their families and have the big seafood banquet.

On December 25th people often eat poultry, although turkey is less popular than goose, guinea fowl or capon, but a lot of families have their own traditions.

When it comes to dessert, the tradition is the Bûche de noêl, the cake in the shape of a yule log, that is usually chocolate.

But in general the food choices are more individual, although Champagne is of course popular and you’ll see a lot of foie gras on sale around Christmas and New Year.

13 desserts 

There’s one part of France that has a very special Christmas tradition though – Provence, where people traditionally eat 13 desserts after their festive meal.

Before you reach for your loose-waisted trousers, however, this isn’t quite as gluttonous as it sounds, because the ‘desserts’ are mostly things like dried fruit, nuts and marzipan sweets. In a traditional family dinner the 13 are served together after the main meal, and they represent Jesus and the 12 apostles.

Throughout Provence and southern France you’ll often see packs of fruit, nuts and sweets on display at this time of year with 13 separate elements.

Limited consumerism 

French families do swap gifts at Christmas, and of course shops are decked out with decorations and special promotions as they try to encourage people to buy as many gifts as possible, but in general gift-giving is more modest than you might expect in anglophone countries.

The focus is mainly on children while adults swap smaller gifts – a book, candles, a pair of earrings or some nice chocolates or wine. It’s the thought that goes into the gift that counts, not spending loads of money.

New Year

New Year’s Eve is celebrated in France where it’s generally known as Le Réveillon de la Saint-Sylvestre but if you’re expecting a huge booze-up as is the tradition in the UK then you might be a little disappointed as celebrations in France are a little more muted and often involve family get-togethers. 

If you’re in a city you might witness one unusual tradition – and one much hated by authorities – that of burning cars on New Year’s Eve

. . . but no days off

France is pretty generous with its public holidays so it often comes as a surprise that official days off are limited over the Christmas period.

Only December 25th and January 1st are public holidays and if they happen to fall on a weekend – as they do this year – then there are no extra days off work.

That said, many businesses do give staff extra days off and you can expect offices to be closed or have limited open hours over the period of Les fêtes des fin d’année (the end-of-year holidays or Christmas and New Year).

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FRANCE EXPLAINED

Cabbage and Christmas: What the French and Germans really think of each other

From baguettes to Birkenstocks, clichés on France and Germany die hard, even as the two countries celebrate 60 years since the post-war treaty establishing friendship between the two European giants after decades of rivalries and conflict.

Cabbage and Christmas: What the French and Germans really think of each other

On the occasion of six decades marking the signing of the Elysée Treaty, AFP spoke to some Franco-German couples about their culture clashes on everything from food to Christmas.

Bread and cheese

The French national obsession with the baguette – recently elevated to UNESCO world heritage status – can be hard for Germans to comprehend.    

The omnipresence of the elongated bread at mealtimes is a source of consternation for Verena von Derschau, born in Germany and married to a Frenchman.

“It doesn’t even get eaten! It just ends up as crumbs by the plate,” she says.

Reader question: How many baguettes does the average French person eat per day?

By contrast, pungent cheese and other sources of French gastronomic pride can lead to a certain hauteur vis-a-vis other cuisines, with fingers pointed notably at Germany’s love of potatoes and cabbage.

François Dumas, a Parisian who lives with his German partner, winces at the idea of some Teutonic preparations such as Maultaschen, a meat-filled dumpling usually served with broth.

“I give up there!” he says.

Comfortable shoes

While Birkenstocks now belong to the same stable of luxury brands as Louis Vuitton, the cork-soled sandals – on occasion sported with socks – remain emblematic of the German love of practical clothing.

“Germans dress like sacks, always comfort first,” says Roland, a Frenchman in a bi-national couple for years.

Schools

Meanwhile, in France it is children who suffer discomfort in the country’s strict school system. “I feel sorry for them, they have such long days,” in contrast to the German pupils who often have the afternoon free, Julika Herzog says.

Technology and trains

When the family is on holiday in Germany, it is her husband’s turn to complain. “There’s nowhere you can pay with card,” François Dumas says.

“And the trains are always late,” he says, the opposite of the German efficiency many expect.

Bells and bunnies

Festivals reveal yet more differences. The relative absence of the Easter Bunny in France was a surprise to Verena von Derschau. Instead, “they have bells”, she says, puzzled by the images of a winged bell bringing goodies to children during the spring holiday.

Flying bells and a giant omelette – how the French celebrate Easter

Christmas follows a different rhythm on either side of the border, too, with the French dressing up their trees early in December, while many Germans wait until Christmas Eve.

Germans also lean towards a more sober tree decoration, says Verena von Derschau, who has banned blinking fairy lights in her household.

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