French Christmas traditions often highlight France's deep-rooted Catholicism. There are many traditions, and they are strongly integrated into the celebrations of most French families. From a special meal on Christmas Eve, to the exchange of gifts, traditions vary across different regions of France, as well as among different families.
French Christmas Season
The Christmas season in France begins with St. Nicholas Day which is December 6th. Historically, gifts were always exchanged on this day, at least for children. Nowadays, some families have retained this tradition, while others have changed their gift-giving date to Christmas Eve, when Père Noël visits the homes of children. Other families celebrate both days with gifts.
For religious families, the Christmas season begins on the first Sunday of Advent, which is the four Sundays leading up to Christmas. These four Sunday masses are special ones at Catholic churches, much like the Christmas Eve midnight mass is easily distinguished from a generic Sunday mass.
From the specialty lighting on the streets at night, to singing in churches, the Christmas season lasts throughout December and carries on until Epiphany-a full twelve days after Christmas. The Epiphany celebration, with its special cake with a treat hidden inside it for one lucky eater, signals the end of the Christmas season.
French Christmas Traditions
As with any special day in France, food is a focal part of Christmas traditions. In addition, there are traditions with music, religion, gifts, and decorations.
The special Christmas meal in France is most often served following the midnight mass on Christmas Eve. This meal is called le Reveillon, and the food served at the meal varies by region and family. Expect a large meal, complete with soup or other appetizer preceding, and followed by a delectable dessert (most often the Bûche de Noël or 'Christmas Log') and a cheese platter. Popular main courses are goose and other exotic poultry, as well as seafood. In French fashion, the meal will last a long time, be served on a beautifully-set table, and be accompanied by wine. While some French Christmas traditions are relatively new, the festive meal has always been a part of Christmas in France.
Traditionally, French Christmas carols consisted mainly of hymns from the church. Over time, non-religious songs have been translated from different languages into French, such as Mon Beau Sapin (from German O Tannenbaum) or Vive le vent (from English Jingle Bells). In addition, French singer-songwriters have come up with their own Christmas songs as well, the most popular of these being the children's classic Petit Papa Noël.
The Catholic religion shows up in many French Christmas celebrations. Many homes feature nativity scenes instead of a Christmas tree, and many families participate in the special Advent masses leading up to Christmas, as well as in the Christmas mass itself. Church bells ring more often and for longer periods of time, and church choirs grow during the Christmas season.
Christmas Gifts in France
While Christmas gifts are a rather new tradition in France, it is a quickly-growing trend. Gifts are becoming larger and being exchanged with more people than was historically the case. Gift-giving varies widely by family in France.
Perhaps the most impressive moment to walk around any French town or city in the evening is during the Christmas season. Main avenues are decked out with impressive arrays of lights, and tall Christmas trees are often decorated on main squares along these avenues. While most French families do not decorate the exterior of their home, cities and towns do a beautiful job of making public space festive.
Enjoying the Christmas Season in France
Should you find yourself in France at Christmas, or in the month leading up to it, be sure to enjoy the atmosphere. Many larger towns, especially those in the Alsace region, have Christmas markets that provide a wealth of decorations and crafts, as well as an unforgettable Christmas atmosphere.
The Christmas season in France is a delightful one, infused with great food, and music, lighting, and decorations to lift the spirit.