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10 things that make a traditional French Christmas dinner

Emma Pearson
Emma Pearson - [email protected]
10 things that make a traditional French Christmas dinner
The traditional French Christmas dinner is a lengthy affair. Photo by JACQUES DEMARTHON / AFP

From seafood banquets to traditional desserts, via the best things to drink and snack on, here's how to create a traditional French Christmas dinner.


Shops across France are starting to fill up with festive treats as Christmas approaches, so here's what to expect.

1 Oysters

The absolute number 1 tradition at Christmas in France is oysters. And it's not just at Christmas itself - from the end of November you will start to see temporary oyster stalls springing up in towns and cities, while fishmongers and supermarkets put on huge displays of the delicious salty molluscs.

They are a staple treat at French Christmas markets and it's common to see them at normal markets as well, often at a bar with a few stools where you can treat yourself to a couple of oysters and a glass of white wine after you have finished your shopping.

2 Seafood

Oysters form the centrepiece of the classic French seafood banquet - which is served on December 24th and known as Le Reveillon - traditionally the banquet begins late at night once the family have returned from Midnight Mass, although an increasing number of families are junking this tradition and just having it in the evening.


The exact composition of the banquet varies but it usually includes crab, mussels, cockles, clams, langoustines and maybe a lobster if it has been a good year.

The major advantage of this style of banquet is if you are the cook - you simply buy all your shellfish ready prepared from the fishmonger and serve with lemons and a good mayonnaise or aïoli, plus plenty of baguettes (which you buy from the boulangerie).

3 Foie gras

The fatty goose liver might be controversial from an animal rights point of view, but you will see blocks of it piled high in shops at this time of year.

It's traditionally served on pain d'épices (gingerbread) or toast as either a starter or a canapé with the pre-dinner drinks. You're likely to also see onion chutney or jam on offer to go with it.

4 Caviar and blinis

The other option for a posh canapé or starter is caviar with smoked salmon served on blinis (little pancakes) - shops sell ready-made blinis but you can also make your own.

5 Roasted fowl

While the seafood banquet on December 24th is a fixture for many, things get more varied when it comes to December 25th and there isn't really one single 'traditional' dinner.

The most common is some kind of roasted poultry served with vegetables - turkey is popular, as is goose, duck, guinea fowl, quail or pheasant - a chestnut stuffing is traditional. There isn't a particular tradition of a Christmas ham, although some families might choose to serve a ham or roasted pork.

However plenty of families have created their own traditions so it's not uncommon to see people just eating their favourite meal. Although Brussels sprouts are on sale throughout the winter, they're not seen as having any particular link to Christmas.


6 Bûche de noël

The traditional dessert is bûche de noël - an iced cylindrical cake that represents the 'yule log' of pagan tradition. It usually has either a chocolate or chestnut filling, but other flavours are available.

These are widely on sale in pâtisseries and most French families buy them rather than making them at home - although the traditional family dessert is one big cake, pâtisseries also sell mini bûche from the start of December so there is no need to wait until Christmas for a taste of this cake.

7 13 desserts 

If you're in Provence, the local tradition is the '13 desserts of Christmas', which are served after the main meal (the 13 represent Jesus and the 12 apostles).

If you think you couldn't possible eat 13 desserts, don't panic - most of them are just nuts or dried fruit although there is a traditional cake called "pompe a l'huile".


8 Marron glacé

Christmas is of course also a time for sweet treats, either to give as gifts or to snack on if you're still hungry after eating a turkey the size of a toddler or several dozen oysters, and one of the most popular in France are marron glacé.

These are chestnuts marinaded in a sweet glaze.

Through the winter you will also see roasted chestnuts - without the sweet glaze - sold at markets and street stalls as a warming snack for cold days. 

9 Pâte de fruits 

The other popular Christmas sweet is pâte de fruits, fruit flavoured jellies that often come in elaborate boxes and are presented as gifts.

10 Champagne

Is it even a celebration without Champagne? The Christmas dinners are served with wine - usually a white to accompany the seafood and a red to go with the poultry, but there isn't a particular wine that has any special resonance with Christmas.

Many people use the autumn foire au vins to stock up on a few special bottles and a discount price and then save them for Christmas.

But for pre-dinner drinks or just general celebrations, Champagne is traditional and you will see expanded wine sections dedicated to fizz at this time of year. If you're watching the centimes, bear in mind that there are some equally excellent sparkling wines - crémants - produced in other areas of France.

For the kids there is Champomy - sparkling apple juice or pear juice that comes in a bottle that looks like a Champagne bottle.


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