These Are the Surprising Differences Between Christmas in France and Abroad

The holiday season is upon us, which means you might be wondering how to wish the French-speakers (and/or fellow French students) you know, “Happy Holidays” in French.

Or maybe, as you go about celebrating your own culture’s traditions, you’re wondering what the winter holidays are like in France. Is what you’ve learned in French class true? What is it like to celebrate Christmas in France? How do they ring in the new year?

In many ways, the French winter holidays (les fêtes de fin d’année) of Christmas and New Year’s are celebrated in much the same ways they’re  celebrated in the rest of the Western world – but there are a few important differences. From greetings, to gifts, from celebrations to decorations, let’s look at what it means to celebrate the holiday season in France.

What holidays do people celebrate in France?

The two main winter holidays celebrated in France are Christmas and New Year’s.  

When it comes to the winter holidays, most people in France celebrate Christmas – nine out of ten French people, in fact, according to a survey by Hello Life.  This includes Christians (practicing or not), as well as people who simply like the tradition or are participating with their family. As in most countries where people from other cultures and religions live, many non-Christians also like certain aspects of Christmas and take part in some festivities or celebrate it in certain ways. 

In some parts of France, la Saint-Nicolas, the feast day of Saint Nicholas, is also celebrated, as a separate holiday. Held on December 6, this holiday is more focused on the traditional representation of St. Nicholas, rather than the red-and-white wearing Santa Claus most of us are familiar with. Saint Nicolas often distributes little gifts and sweets, and is sometimes accompanied by le Père Fouettard, a hooded, frightening figure who, at worst, whips or kidnaps bad children, and at best gives them things like onions or coal. I’ll talk a little more about him later on.

Since it’s non-religious, just about everyone in France celebrates New Year’s.  

Hanukkah is celebrated in the French Jewish community, although to a much lesser extent than it is in countries like the US, where it’s a rough equivalent to Christmas. But as we’ll see further on, it’s more discreet and less included in the general French idea of the winter holidays.

The 4 must-know French holiday greetings 

In French, as in English and many other languages, you have several options when it comes to expressing your holiday cheer:

Joyeux Noël. Whether you want to say Merry Christmas or Happy Christmas in French, just say <<Joyeux Noël>>!

Bonne année. Literally “Good year”, Bonne année can sometimes be followed by the name of the new year – especially when it’s written in a card, text message, etc. For example, Nous vous souhaitons une très bonne année 2019. (We wish you a very good 2019.) 

Joyeuses fêtes. This is the general way to say “Happy Holidays.”  

Meilleurs vœux. The closer literal translation of this expression would be ‘Best wishes’, but in this context, it’s the French equivalent of “Season’s greetings”.

If you want to get more creative, do an internet search for something like “façons originales de dire [plug in expression that you want to be creative with]”.

How do people celebrate Christmas in France?

Christmas decorations on a tree

Most French people who celebrate Christmas have Christmas trees in their homes – even in small Parisian apartments (well, we have small trees, anyway). 

French cities and villages alike string up lights, illuminating the cold winter streets with holiday cheer. 

But when it comes to other Christmas traditions, you may be a bit disappointed, or simply disoriented. Here are some typical French Christmas customs…or lack thereof:

Christmas colors and decorations

In the United States, we “color code” holidays. For Americans, Christmas colors are red and green and Hanukkah colors are blue and white/silver.  But in France, there’s none of that going on at all. It threw me off at first to see the many Christmas trees in shops that are covered in blue and silver ornaments, but ultimately, it allows for more creativity. 

Although many French people don’t go overboard when it comes to decorating their home (inside or out), tastefully pretty lights and window displays in towns and shops are de rigueur in most of the country. 

Paris is even famous for the holiday window displays in its grands magasins (department stores), which feature different themes each year, and incorporate puppets, animatronics, video art, designer clothes and jewelry, toys, and much more in innovative and whimsical ways. The department stores with the most famous window displays include the BHV, Printemps, and Galeries Lafayette, whose breathtaking, enormous Christmas tree underneath the store’s stunning Art Nouveau glass dome is a must-see, even if you don’t like Christmas. Going to see les vitrines (the shop windows) is an annual tradition for many families in Paris.

Music is not important

Although there are a few exceptions, notably Petit Papa Noël(most famously sung by Tino Rossi) and Vive le vent (the French version of “Jingle Bells”), Christmas carols really aren’t a big deal here in France. In stores that want to play on the Christmas spirit (to open potential customers’ wallets, more than their hearts), you might hear some English-language carols over the radio. But for the most part, music just isn’t a part of Christmas in France the way it is in many other places.

Cards aren’t very popular

Every year in my Franco-American household, the holiday season brings an onslaught of cards.  These pretty much all come from the American side of the family. While sending cards, especially cards with photos of your family/kid(s)/pet(s) on them, is extremely typical in the US and other places, it is not in France. You might get a holiday card from someone from an older generation who’s not going to see you in person,  but receiving a glossy photo of a kid on Santa’s lap with the words Joyeux Noël pasted over it is simply not done here.  

Christmas movies are not a ‘must’

Christmas movies also aren’t as big a deal in France. Sure, lots of French people can watch classics or cheesy newcomers to the Christmas cannon via Netflix or maybe occasionally on TV, but there are very few French Christmas movies. Those that do exist, like Alain Chabat’s Santa et Cie. aren’t near and dear to the French psyche.

It makes sense if you think about it: In general, Christmas movies tend to play up the sappy side of the holiday. Even comedies like “A Christmas Story” or “Bad Santa” have a fundamentally sweet message behind them. But pure, treacly sentiment like this is not a French thing. 

During the holiday season, the French seem to prefer to watch simply magical-type things, like the Harry Potter films (for a few years, one French TV station showed one film per week leading up to Christmas), or crude movies that completely mock Christmas (like Le Père Noël est une ordure, which is near and dear to the French psyche). Austrian film “Sissi l’impératrice” is an historical epic that for some reason is often shown around Christmas, but that’s like saying you’re watching “The Sound of Music” or “Gone with the Wind” for the holidays – nary a Santa or tree in sight.

French christmas markets and regional crafts

Christmas market on the Champs Elysees in Paris at night
Christmas market on the Champs Elysees in Paris at night.

The largest Christmas market in the world is in France – in the city of Strasbourg, to be precise. This may seem a bit strange, since the French aren’t the most “Christmassy” people. But Strasbourg is on the border with Germany, which is a pretty Christmas-crazy country.

Facts like this help you keep in mind that although it can be helpful to get a general lay of the land, not every person or place is uniformly the same. 

For example, santons are small sculptures that can be added to a manger (crèche). You won’t find them everywhere in France, but artisans in Provence are famous for the ones they create. 

Local fun and attractions

Most towns, cities, and villages get very festive at the end of the year. In addition to their usually elegant decorations, you might find a skating rink and rides (manèges) set up, as well as a small Christmas market. 

Some places make a name for themselves with things like light sculpture displays, including the famous annual Fête des Lumières (Festival of Lights) in Lyon, where the facades of the city’s buildings are illuminated in different artistic and interesting ways each year. 

If you’re planning a trip to France during the holiday season, definitely make sure you look into events taking place around where you’re going.

Midnight mass in France

When I learned French in school, I thought that going to midnight mass (la messe de minuit) on Christmas Eve was something most people did. But when I actually came to France, I found out that this isn’t the case. For one thing, as I’ve mentioned, not all people who celebrate Christmas here are practicing Christians. For another, it’s not particularly practical, especially if you have young children or live far from a church. And speaking of that last one, not all churches offer midnight mass, to begin with. 

One year, I went to celebrate Christmas with a friend who lived in a village near Strasbourg. I was pleasantly surprised to find out his family actually went to midnight mass. I went with them, feeling like I had stepped into the pages of one of my old French textbooks. Whatever your religion, if you can make it to a midnight mass in France, I’d definitely recommend going at least once in your life. It was beautiful, and the music, a mix of hymns and (the rare) popular carols, was lovely.

Christmas presents in France

People in France usually exchange Christmas presents with family and loved ones, as well, of course, as anyone they’re spending the holiday with. Many offices also do a Secret Santa. 

French Christmas presents depend on who you’re getting them for, and who you are. Some people make grand gestures, while others keep it simple. But one thing I have noticed is that, as with French birthday presents, Christmas gifts between adults tend to be simpler or subtler. You may get or give something expensive, but it’s not done with a lot of fanfare, and generally speaking, adults don’t exchange multiple gifts. 

French people tend to exchange gifts on the night of Christmas Eve (le réveillon (de Noël)), rather than on Christmas Day (Noël/le jour de Noël), although kids do often get their presents from le Pere Noël on Christmas morning.

In addition to Le Père Noël (Santa Claus/Father Christmas – more on him a little further on), French children will usually also get presents from relatives, family friends, etc. Some kids will get more presents than others, but here again, the amount and cost of presents rarely seem excessive.

Chocolate: the go-to French Christmas gift. If you have to buy a present for a French person and you don’t know what to get them, chocolates are the traditional holiday gift. Even the smallest corner shop will have a display of several different boxes of chocolates, from the upscale, to the affordable, to kid-friendly brands like Kinder and Milka.

As a general rule, if you want to impress someone, or if they’ve been very generous with you (say, for example, they’ve invited you to Christmas dinner), you should try to get chocolates in a higher price range, if you’re able. 

The easiest way to do this is to visit a boulangerie that is also a chocolaterie (often written as chocolatier (chocolate maker)) – that is, one that makes and sells its own chocolates, or simply to visit a famous chocolate shop. 

You can find a city or region’s best chocolatiers  simply by typing “meilleurs chocolatiers”, followed by a city/region.

The real meaning of French Christmas: Food?

All this chocolate talk is doing more than making me hungry – it also shows what might be the most distinctive thing about Christmas in France: the importance of food.

While other countries have their traditional Christmas meals and treats, their importance often seems on par with things like carols, films, decorations, and so on. But in France, food is what seems to make the holiday.

Most Christmas-related ads you’ll see are glittery catalogue pages, billboards, and TV spots for different luxury foods (usually to be washed down with champagne), especially caviar/fish eggs (pro tip: oeufs de lump (lumpfish eggs) are much cheaper but still super-delicious spread on buttered toast), chocolates, oysters (huîtres), scallops (coquilles Saint Jacques), smoked salmon (saumon fumé), and, of course, foie gras. 

This last one is la vedette (the star) of Christmas.  Not all French people eat foie gras (although that’s usually simply because they don’t like it, rather than animal rights-related issues), but for most of the population, it’s the essential part of a true holiday celebration. Different surveys show between 80% and 60% of the French consider foie gras a holiday “must”. Look at how, even with only 60% of the vote, it outranks other typical French holiday fare.

The holiday season in France isn’t just about eating food – it’s also talking about it! Remember how I said Christmas movies aren’t really a thing here?  Well, special news reports and segments, as well as entire documentaries, about these special holiday foods are. You’ll find them on just about every mainstream French TV station.

Yummy French Christmas desserts

Chrismtas chocolate yule log

As a pastry lover and sugar fiend, I’m always surprised by how all of that takes a back seat to salé (savory) foods in France, a country where delicious sweet treats abound. Sure, chocolate is a go-to French holiday gift, but it seems like much more thought and devotion are given to the savory part of a holiday meal.

The typical French holiday dessert is the bûche de Noël (Yule log), and in keeping with the aesthetic aspect of decorating here, you’ll find everything from a basic round log with delicious swirled ingredients, to innovative (often very expensive) versions created by famous pâtissiers (pastry chefs). 

That said, while any mainstream French household worth its salt had better be serving foie gras, the bûche de Noël is typical, but not a “must”. My husband’s family, for example, prefers ice cream, which is a let-down every year for me, since I’m more of a cake person. Luckily, like many boulangeries, my local one sells bûchettes de Noël (mini Yule log cakes), so I can still get my fix. 

A few other French holiday desserts that you’re likely to find throughout France include chocolates (of course), dried dates (dattes), often filled with almond paste, as well as other exotic fruit. Marrons glacés (caramelized chestnuts) are also fairly common.  

Is there a Santa Claus in France?

When I first came to live in France, I worked as an English teacher in a few elementary schools. As the winter holidays approached, a strange thing started happening. Several of my students, who usually adored me and were very enthusiastic about learning English, would skeptically say, out of nowhere, “You know, Santa was created by the Coca-Cola company.”

That was inaccurate, of course; historically Santa Claus is based on Saint Nicholas of Myra, , and if you’re talking about contemporary representations of him, that would be attributed to 19th century caricaturist Thomas Nast. But I got what they meant; Santa was popularized by the likes of the Coca-Cola company (among many others) to sell products. It seemed that, like many French people, their parents were cynical about globalization, industrialization and commercialization. This is very common among French adults, whatever their background or political beliefs, and most of the time it’s kind of hypocritical, since very few of them will actually boycott the commercial lifestyle that offends them. 

The same goes for Santa Claus.

The French may not embrace Christmas with the same innocence and enthusiasm and all-in feeling that many other cultures do, but most French families let their kids believe in Santa, watch any Christmas movies or TV episodes they might come across, get presents, and so on. Although it’s not extremely common in France, you will occasionally find someone at a shopping center, Christmas market, or department store dressed like Santa that kids can talk to or take photos with.  So, for French kids, just like kids in other countries where Christmas is celebrated, Santa does exist. Their parents just may not like him very much.

What’s the deal with le Père Fouettard?

In recent years, the Krampus, an angry Christmas demon in Central European tradition has become popular, with increased press coverage of Krampus Night (December 5), not to mention his own horror movie!  France has a very rough equivalent of the Krampus, though a bit less scary-looking: Le Père Fouettard (literally, Whipping Father).  

You may have learned about le Père Fouettard in your French classes. He’s supposed to accompany French Santa and whip or scoop up all the kids who’ve been bad and put them into a sack. Pretty darn terrifying. A less frightening alternative is his giving out things like coal or onions to naughty kids.

Like some other Christmas traditions I’d learned about, it seems like this one isn’t really a thing anymore. In the years I’ve lived in France, I’ve met all kinds of families, from all kinds of backgrounds, and nary a one has ever included le Père Fouettard in its Christmas beliefs. Still, if the concept of the naughty list ever stops working on my son, I might just tell him about le Père Fouettard one day…. 

Is there a ‘War on Christmas’ in France?

In the US, people often hear or even use the expression “the war on Christmas”, to indicate that Christmas traditions and greetings are being removed in favor of more inclusive practices and terms. An example of this is saying “Happy holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas.”

I’ve never been a fan of “the war on Christmas” concept, not the least because I come from a two-faith family and always celebrated both Christmas and Hanukkah. Luckily, in France, there doesn’t seem to be any problem with either wishing everyone a Merry Christmas, or something else. 

When it comes to celebrating, there’s less opportunity for people to get up in arms about Christmas anyway, since things like Christmas pageants or concerts in public schools don’t exist, and non-Christians tend to be relatively private about their faith. This is because one of the principles of the French Republic is laïcité – secularism. The separation of church and state is taken very seriously here. Your kid might come home from school with a Christmas craft or two, but that’s about it. 

That said, a majority of the French population is Christian, or at least follows Christian traditions even if they’re non-practicing.  So a French person may sincerely and with good intentions wish you a “Joyeux Noël” without considering that you might not celebrate. If this happens, don’t take it as an insult or a challenge to your own beliefs and traditions; remember that it’s kindly meant, and comes from someone who probably hasn’t been exposed to a lot of people openly showing that they don’t celebrate Christmas.

How present are other faiths and celebrations during the winter holidays in France?

Hanukkah

In some countries, the winter holiday period doesn’t just mean Christmas, but celebrations like Hanukkah or Boxing Day. 

The Jewish community in France does celebrate Hanukkah (la Hanoucca), but because it’s a traditionally relatively minor Jewish holiday (it was amped up in places like the US for commercial and cultural preservation reasons), and because of the unfortunate (to put it mildly) history and even current signs of anti-Semitism in France, this holiday is less well-known and popular here.

That being said, there are Hanukkah celebrations, both in individual homes and in Jewish communities. This year, I even noticed an ad announcing that a menorah (une hanoukkia) lighting would be broadcast live from the Champs-Elysées.

My favorite thing about Hanukkah in Paris is that you will occasionally come across vans or cars with huge menorahs on top of them, blasting Yiddish or Sephardic music. It’s a sight that always makes me laugh – it’s so goofy and joyful, despite the history of Jews laying low in France. I always look forward to a Hanukkah van or car sighting.

Other winter holidays that you might be familiar with would generally be celebrated within their communities. In global cities like Paris, you might even find a way to participate in them. 

How to talk about New Year’s and the new year in French 

In France, New Year’s is a very important holiday because it includes pretty much anyone, regardless of their faith, culture, etc. It’s the perfect combination of festivity and secularism.

That said, for a non-native speaker, it can be hard to get the hang of exactly what words to use when talking about this holiday!

There are two main ways to say “New Year’s Eve” in French: la Saint-Sylvestre or la réveillon (du Jour de l’an).

La Saint-Sylvestre refers to the fact that December 31 is the feast day of Saint Sylvester. Still, many non-practicing Catholics or Christians might use this term. I don’t think I’ve ever heard an atheist or someone from a non-Christian religion say it, though.

You might have noticed that I already included la réveillon when I wrote what Christmas Eve is called in French. This is because réveillon means “Eve”, so as in English, you have Christmas Eve and New Year’s Eve. The difference is, French people mostly rely on context, rather than specifying which réveillon” it is. 

When it comes to saying “New Year’s Day” in French, you have three options, but at least they’re all very specific: le Jour de l’An (New Year Day), le Premier de l’An (the first (day) of the year), or le Nouvel An (New Year’s). I’ve heard all of these used interchangeably, although le Premier de l’An tends to be slightly less common.

As in English and other languages, when you want to talk about the new year in general, not the holiday, there is a different term – in French, la nouvelle année. So, to sum up: le Nouvel An means New Year’s Day, and la nouvelle année means the new year to come.

How is New Year’s celebrated in France?

Now that we know how to say it, here’s how French people typically celebrate New Year’s. Unlike in some other places, New Year’s in France tends to focus on friends, rather than family. It’s much more typical for young French people and adults to ring in the new year at a party or restaurant, rather than in their family’s home. I’ve also noticed that young kids aren’t encouraged to stay up till midnight, either.

Another notable difference is that people will count down to the new year, but there is no single, standard, formal countdown on TV, etc. Each channel might stop their (usually not particularly New Year’s-themed) programming for a brief countdown, but generally speaking, it’s everyone for themselves. As an American who pretty much depended on the ball in Times Square to tell me when the year had changed, this still kind of throws me off.

Once the new year arrives, everyone goes crazy, sending messages to just about anyone they know, wishing them Bonne année. Until recently, this would be done with text messages and calls, tying up the phone lines. You would end up waking up the next day to a mass of finally-arrived texts (often from festive vague acquaintances) from the night before. It was inconvenient (and possibly dangerous if there had been an emergency), but kind of a cool way to start the new year. Recently, though, between social media becoming more popular, and maybe phone signals improving, this seems to happen a lot less, at least in my experience.

Is it fun to celebrate the winter holidays in France?

While winter holiday traditions may be different from what you know, the holidays in France still do have that warm spirit, and as I hope this article shows, you’ll be able to get into the spirit of the season in a lot of ways. 

What French winter holiday traditions do you like the best? Are there any that surprise you?

However, wherever, and whatever you celebrate, Joyeuses fêtes! 

Alysa Salzberg

Alysa Salzberg is an American writer, worrier, teacher, and cookie enthusiast who has lived in Paris, France, for more than a decade. She has taught English and French for more than ten years, most notably as an assistante de langue vivante for L'Education Nationale. You can read about her adventures here, or feel free to stop by her website.

6 thoughts on “These Are the Surprising Differences Between Christmas in France and Abroad”

  1. Bonjour! Do children still leave a glass of wine for Pere Noel on Christmas Eve? What percentage of families would you guess have a creche?
    Thank you

    Reply
  2. This is my fourth Christmas in France and I find it completely charming; very much as you’ve described. Every town has a festival. We spend our weekends from late November to New Year’s going to fairs and markets. Larger cities have much larger displays that fill the squares and go on for many « blocks ». Last weekend it was a foie gras, wine and food festival with a brass band of Péres Noël. This week is a polar plunge of hundreds into the Mediterranean. In St. Étienne two years ago Santa came down in a helium ballon and then slid down a rope to a cheering crowd.

    I find Christmas in France much more genuine, focusing on joy and celebration instead of commerce. I also seek out a mass for Christmas and Easter, though I am not a Catholic. They are not to be missed. In some rural areas there are not enough priests and congregants to go around so one église will host the mass for several towns, but I’m sure every parish will have some official mass.

    I can’t address what it’s like in Paris.

    Reply
  3. Having just spent Christmas here, I would never come to France for Christmas again. We spent the week before in Sweden and that was much much more festive. In Sweden there are decorations everywhere. Outside and inside. Everybody gets into it. Not in France. Gaudy commercials. No spirit. (France seems to lack any spiritual inspiration at all.) There is a lot of historical inspiration but contemporary France seems to have the life sucked out of it.

    Reply
    • Bonjour Kelly, and Happy New Year!

      This is a really surprising take on Christmas in France! You’re right that the spiritual side isn’t as played-up; this is because France is very much a secular country where people are less open about discussing/showing their religion.

      That said, you didn’t see any churches with manger (creche) displays, or Christmas trees outside them? And the cities/towns/villages you visited didn’t have light displays and Christmas trees? These are all very, very common throughout the country, and as I wrote in the article, there are also events like midnight mass in some places, as well as local religious celebrations around holiday time.

      And light displays and decorations are usually EVERYWHERE. For example, I spent Christmas in a very small, remote village, and even their small mayor’s office had decorated the few streets with lights, and the village church, while mostly unused due to the small population and other churches being nearby, was beautifully decorated with Christmas garlands. In bigger towns and cities, decorations are much more elaborate. I live in Paris, where most of the store windows (including the famous holiday displays at major department stores), streets, and shops are lavishly decorated, inside and out, and even neighborhoods on the outskirts of the city have Christmas trees on dispaly, courtesy of their arrondissement’s mayor’s office.

      In terms of Christmas being commercial in France, that surprises me, too, but this may be because I grew up in America, where Christmas is SUPER commercial – compared to that, I find the French way of celebrating Christmas to be much more lowkey and far more focused on food and the spirit of the season than things like presents.

      I’d love to know where you went in France that you had such a negative experience of the holidays. In any case, I hope you at least found some moments of joy and magic.

      Reply
  4. Having just spent Christmas here, I would never come to France for Christmas again. We spent the week before in Sweden and that was much much more festive. In Sweden there are decorations everywhere. Outside and inside. Everybody gets into it. Not in France. Gaudy commercials. No spirit. (France seems to lack any spiritual inspiration at all.) There is a lot of historical inspiration but contemporary France seems to have the life sucked out of it.

    Reply
    • Bonjour Kelly, and Happy New Year!

      This is a really surprising take on Christmas in France! You’re right that the spiritual side isn’t as played-up; this is because France is very much a secular country where people are less open about discussing/showing their religion.

      That said, you didn’t see any churches with manger (creche) displays, or Christmas trees outside them? And the cities/towns/villages you visited didn’t have light displays and Christmas trees? These are all very, very common throughout the country, and as I wrote in the article, there are also events like midnight mass in some places, as well as local religious celebrations around holiday time.

      And light displays and decorations are usually EVERYWHERE. For example, I spent Christmas in a very small, remote village, and even their small mayor’s office had decorated the few streets with lights, and the village church, while mostly unused due to the small population and other churches being nearby, was beautifully decorated with Christmas garlands. In bigger towns and cities, decorations are much more elaborate. I live in Paris, where most of the store windows (including the famous holiday displays at major department stores), streets, and shops are lavishly decorated, inside and out, and even neighborhoods on the outskirts of the city have Christmas trees on dispaly, courtesy of their arrondissement’s mayor’s office.

      In terms of Christmas being commercial in France, that surprises me, too, but this may be because I grew up in America, where Christmas is SUPER commercial – compared to that, I find the French way of celebrating Christmas to be much more lowkey and far more focused on food and the spirit of the season than things like presents.

      I’d love to know where you went in France that you had such a negative experience of the holidays. In any case, I hope you at least found some moments of joy and magic.

      Reply

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