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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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MONEY

Calculator: How rich are the French?

France's national statistics agency has published new data showing just how much wealth the average French person has - and the average amount of assets might surprise you.

Calculator: How rich are the French?

National statistics agency Insee has published a new report into the patrimoine (wealth) of the French population, showing that the average person has assets (money, property, other possessions) worth €177,200.

However it’s important to note that this is patrimoine brut – gross wealth – and so doesn’t take into account any outstanding loans such as mortgages.

When we look at net wealth (the value of property with any outstanding loans/mortgages subtracted) the value falls, but perhaps not as much as you would expect – €124,800 is the average net wealth in France. 

One explanation for this could be the French inheritance system, whereby parents cannot disinherit their children so it’s common for French adults to inherit the family home, often mortgage free. Second homes are not only the preserve of the wealthy in France, many average-income families have a second home, which has often been inherited from family members. 

Throughout the country 3.2 million homes are classed as maisons sécondaires, the vast majority of them owned by French people.

The overall assets assessment doesn’t take into account income or savings – so you could have a valuable home but no money in the bank.

In 2022, the average salary in France was €39,300 per year, after taxes (or €2,340 net per month).

Just for fun, French news site BFMTV has created this wealth calculator, where you can enter your total wealth (including the value of any property you own even if it’s mortgaged, other assets like a car, any savings or shares you have) and it will tell you how many people are wealthier than you.  

For the average household, property (whether mortgaged or not) represented 62 percent of their wealth, followed by financial wealth such as savings or shares at 21 percent, business assets at 11 percent and all other assets (eg cars, household equipment, artworks) at 6 percent.

Graphic: Insee

To be in the richest 10 percent of the French you need to be worth €716,300 and to be in the top one percent you need €2.24 million. 

And wealth is heavily concentrated among the older generation – under 30s have on average assets worth €71,200 while the 50-59 age group are worth on average €401,300. 

Graphic: Insee

The land of égalité? Not quite, the poorest 50 percent of households own just eight per cent of the country’s wealth, while the richest half own 92 percent of the assets. 

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