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French Christmas traditions are similar in many ways to the Christmas traditions in Canada. Being an ex-pat, it is fun to observe, learn, and partake in these Christmas traditions of France. France has many regional Christmas traditions that have unique customs.
The following French Christmas traditions, seen through a Paris lens, are based on my observations, experiences, and conversations with my French friends.
1. The Store Windows In Paris
Store windows at Christmas time can make even the grouchiest of humbugs find some joy in the season! Wander through Paris and the elegant and festive window displays will get you immediately into the Christmas spirit.
The department stores get this French Christmas tradition started in early November. Be sure to visit Le Bon Marché, Galeries Lafayette, BMV, la Samaritaine and Le Printemps. You won’t be disappointed. They pull out all the stops and create elegant and entertaining Christmas window displays for all ages to enjoy. Don’t stop at the sidewalk, step inside amidst glittering decorations and twinkling lights. You might get a little Christmas shopping done too!
The enormous Christmas tree in the centre of Galeries Lafayette is a Paris Christmas tradition that no one should miss. Soaring heavenward to the art deco dome, the magnificent tree is decorated differently each year. Stand in awe and wait for the Christmas carollers to start. It is truly magical.
2. French Christmas Traditions: Advent Calendars
Advent calendars, as in many countries, are a French tradition at Christmas. Look for them on sale in November. Will you choose one with chocolate behind each door? Who can’t wait to open up the first door on December 1st?
3. Sparkling Christmas Lights
What is the Christmas season without Christmas lights? This Christmas tradition in France sparkles! In Paris, twinkling garlands and lights are strung across many streets. For fabulous light displays, walk up the Champs Elysées, saunter over to Place Vendôme, stroll avenue Montaigne and stand at the corner of rue Cambon and rue Saint Honoré. These Christmas light displays dazzle. There are plenty more magical Christmas lights in Paris! Where are your favourite?
This open bus tour takes you past the dazzling Paris Christmas lights!
If one of your favourite Christmas traditions is admiring glorious light displays, make time to visit the Festival of Lights in Lyon. This French Christmas tradition started in 1643 when the Lyonnais lit thousands of candles in their windows to thank the Virgin Mary. The Fête des Lumières in Lyon runs from December 8 – 11, 2021.
4. Christmas Traditions In France: Write A Letter To Père Noël
In 1962, it became French law that any letter written to Santa (Pére Noël) would be answered. This popular Christmas tradition in France delivers a lot of joy to children in the form of a postcard arriving in the mail. If you happen to be in France with young ones, join in this French Christmas tradition and mail your letters to Pére Noël at:
Père Noêl au Pôle Nord – 33500 Libourne – France
Since 1997, Pére Noêl can also be reached by email at père-noel.laposte.fr
5. The Christmas Markets
French Christmas traditions involve at least one afternoon spent at a Christmas market. There are many towns where little chalets are set up selling artisanal goods, local gourmet items, figurines for the nativity scene and mulled wine.
The Christmas market in Strasbourg, known as the Christkindelsmärik, is the most famous of French Christmas markets. This French Christmas tradition was started in 1570. The Christmas market in Strasbourg draws approximately 2 million visitors a year. Will you stroll the chalets around the cathedral, munching on roasted chestnuts, from November 26 – December 30, 2021?
Can’t make it to a small town to experience this French Christmas tradition? Not to worry, Paris has quite a few Christmas markets to enjoy. Step into the magic of Christmas in Paris and stroll through the Christmas markets in the Jardin des Tuileries, Square Viviani, Place des Abbesses, Saint-Germain des Prés, and the Champ de Mars.
6. French Christmas Traditions: A Pine Tree
In Paris, getting a Christmas tree home to the apartment is a feat! This French Christmas tradition can be done in quite a few ingenious ways. Christmas trees are seen balanced on bicycles, pulled home in wagons or carried in pairs. The scene makes me smile every time.
French traditions at Christmas also include decorating the home with large bouquets of holly and loose pine boughs. Watch the prices of the pine trees and boughs! Last year I asked the price of a simple pine bough and it was exorbitant. When I told the shopkeeper I was from Canada and the price was rather steep, she broke into giggles and said, “Well Madame, you can just walk into the woods and cut a branch.”
7. French Christmas Traditions: La Créche
When chatting to my friends about French Christmas traditions, the nativity scene (la crèche) definitely holds significance. At the beginning of December, most families will create the crèche, some including a whole village scene. The crèche is decorated with small figurines or little Saints called “des santons.” Des santons, an artisanal tradition, are made of clay, spun glass or plaster and can be purchased at Christmas markets. Des santons appear at the nativity scene year after year and are handed down through the generations.
The magical moment of this French Christmas tradition is placing Baby Jesus in the manger at midnight on December 24th, just as the Christmas story goes.
8. Midnight Mass On December 24
I walked through the quiet streets, met one of the soldiers surrounding Eglise Saint-Sulpice wished him a “Joyeux Noël” and slipped into the huge church. Carol singing was already underway and at midnight the long train of priests and altar boys made their way up the aisle swinging incense.
I followed along as best as I could, happy to participate in one of the French Christmas traditions in a magnificent, sacred space. When the priests left the chancel, I thought the service was over. Little did I know that they were in procession to lay Baby Jesus in the manger (la créche).
There are many services at the churches at Christmas time. The midnight mass I attended was indeed a full mass and when I crept out at 1:20 in the morning it was still going!
9. Christmas Traditions in France: Le Réveillon de Noël
Of all the French Christmas traditions, le Réveillon de Noël, Christmas Eve, is one that is talked about a lot. Families gather and a feast that lasts for hours takes place. Believe you me! The food that graces the elegant dining table is planned and discussed in great depth! Of course, it is! The French LOVE their food!
The food of this French Christmas tradition includes some or all of the following
- seafood platters including snails, clams, and oysters (here’s how to eat oysters)
- foie gras
- capon or turkey stuffed with chestnuts
- vegetables – often buttery green beans and potatoes
- the cheese course (read about French cheeses)
All of the courses are accompanied by flowing champagne and wine that has been thoughtfully paired with the food.
10. The Bûche de Noël
The Bûche de Noël is part of the December 24th feast, I know. But given my love of French pâtisseries, this Yule Log gets a special write up. This Christmas tradition in France is a sponge cake and buttercream roulade in the shape of a log. The frosting is chocolate and often scored to look like a log and sprinkled with confectioner’s sugar to resemble snow. A Bûche de Noël can be decorated with berries or marzipan holly.
For my first Christmas in Paris, I knew, without a doubt, that I would partake in this delicious part of French Christmas traditions. I purchased my Bûche de Noël at the fabulous pâtisserie Maison Mulot. They come in various sizes and, as Christmas fell in the midst of a Covid wave, I purchased one for four, a small gathering. It was the height of deliciousness…
11. French Christmas Traditions: 13 Desserts
Of all the French Christmas traditions, the thirteen desserts, (les treize desserts) cannot go unmentioned. This French Christmas tradition is followed in Provence in the South of France and has religious significance. The thirteen desserts represent Jesus Christ and the twelve apostles at the Last Supper.
Imagine eating THIRTEEN desserts after oysters, foie gras, turkey and cheese. It’s important that every person taste all thirteen desserts in order to have good luck for the coming new year but luckily, the desserts are laid out until December 27 which gives ample time to enjoy them all.
The thirteen desserts of this French Christmas tradition can vary locally and from family to family but often include nuts such as walnuts and hazelnuts, dried fruits including figs and grapes, fresh fruit such as tangerines, marzipan, nougat, and a sweet olive oil brioche called the Pompe à l’Huile. No wonder this Christmas tradition of France is known far and wide!
12. Christmas Traditions In France: Put Out A Shoe
This French Christmas tradition is what the young children look forward to all season! At midnight on December 24, French children place a shoe under the Christmas tree or in front of the fireplace. Everyone’s hopes are high that gifts will be placed in the shoes by Père Noël.
As in other countries, a little snack is left for Papa Noël and a few carrots for the reindeer.
13. December 25: The Feast Continues
On December 25 in France, the festivities continue. The main gathering is at noon for another family meal. You can be sure as French Christmas traditions dictate, that this gathering will include more oysters and be accompanied by plenty of champagne and wine.
14. French Christmas Traditions: New Year’s Eve
As the season goes, French Christmas traditions spill into New Year’s celebrations. Traditionally, Christmas is very family-oriented and New Year’s Eve is for celebrating with friends. Another feast, plenty of champagne, mistletoe suspended here and there and dancing mark the evening’s festivities.
How about getting the champagne flowing at the Moulin Rouge and a Seine River Cruise?
15. La Fête des Rois: Epiphany
The French celebrate Epiphany on January 6, when the Magi visited Baby Jesus, with a melt in your mouth pâtisserie. The Kings’ Cake or Galette des Rois, a puff pastry filled with frangipani, make a grand appearance just as the last Bûche de Noël leaves the shelf! Look for round golden cakes in the pâtisseries window topped with a golden crown.
In France with its culinary regional distinctions, there is a different Kings’ Cake in the south of France where the tradition is a brioche-style cake with candied fruit.
This grand finale to the season of French Christmas traditions involves playing a game to see who will be crowned king or queen. Read all about Galette des Rois here.
I hope you enjoy the French Christmas traditions as much as I do! Which is your favourite?
Until next time,
More Paris Info…
Where To Stay In Paris At Christmas Time:
Book in advance as Christmas is a busy time in Paris. Check out availability here.
Where To Explore In Paris At Christmas Time:
If you love that village feel in Paris these areas sparkle during the festive season:
Montmartre, much like Ile Saint- Louis, feels like a small village. This post on Montmartre leads you to the most popular sites as well as some lesser-known places on the hill.
La Butte aux Cailles, tucked away in the 13th arrondissement, is another place in Paris that has retained its village-like charm. My article on La Butte aux Cailles will lead you to discover some the area and its visually enticing street art.
Canal Saint-Martin is another place full of small restaurants, boutiques and plenty of character. Stroll the bridges of the canal under the chestnut trees and feel like a true Parisian. All the details on this “bobo” district are in this article on Canal Saint-Martin.
Gastronomy In Paris:
Read about where to find the best croissants in Paris. There are also plenty of café suggestions for the Marais area in this post: Tips from a Local. And if you are exploring the area around Canal Saint-Martin, here are the best places to stop for a bite or to find the fixings for a picnic.
Travelling to Paris alone? This article on navigating Paris alone is full of tips and tricks for the solo traveller.
This page has all my articles on Paris that will help you plan out your trip, including day trips from Paris. I hope you subscribed to my newsletter to get my free download – An Amazing 2-day Itinerary in Paris.
If you are going further afield in France, make sure to check out my page on France.