Despite being a secular country, France gets all dolled up for the Christmas season: decking the halls with twinkle lights, exchanging gifts, and even playing some classic English Christmas carols.
That said, the French do have a few unique Christmas traditions that may seem a little bit foreign – here are just a few of my favorites.
Before Christmas: the Advent Season
Advent is the liturgical season that comes before Christmas, and in France, that means one thing: Advent calendars.
These calendars begin appearing on store shelves as early as October, though the idea is that you start your calendar on the first of December. (I have one good friend who likes to do a “practice” calendar in November, but this is by no means traditional!)
Most Advent calendars in France depict a winter scene and contain 24 windows to open, each hiding a little chocolate. These days, Pixar- and superhero-themed calendars have appeared as well, not to mention gourmet versions from top chocolatiers.
A newly popular version of the Advent calendar to come into fashion in France is the beer calendar: these boxes contain 24 different craft beers, one of which is intended to be drunk every day in the month leading up to Christmas.
The French Christmas Dinner
It’s perhaps no surprise that in gastronomically-minded France, a key of the holiday festivities is Christmas dinner. The meal, generally held on the evening of the 24th rather than on the 25th, is characteristically chock-a-block with gourmet delicacies.
The first question to ask when planning a French Christmas dinner is to cook or not to cook: while many French families do prepare their Christmas dinner at home, many others outsource the work to a traiteur.
Often translated as “caterer,” a traiteur is actually the predecessor to the restaurant, with one caveat: you don’t buy food to eat in, but rather to take away.
Traiteurs offer special Christmas meals where each individual course is prepared and ready to heat and serve, doing away with the stress of ensuring that everything is perfect for Christmas dinner.
Whether you cook or purchase your meal from a traiteur, however, French Christmas meals do share a few characteristics.
You’ll start with hors d’oeuvres or canapés, for which the classic choice is foie gras.
One TNS Sofres poll found that 76 percent of French people couldn’t imagine Christmas without foie gras, and of the 92 percent of French people who eat it, 86 percent choose to do so at Christmas (generally served on brioche-style bread with a glass of Sauternes).
Another option for a gourmet hors d’oeuvre is caviar: shops selling the Russian specialty do most of their business around Christmastime.
Other classic choices include oysters, escargots, or smoked salmon. (On my first Christmas spent with my French in-laws, we had all of these, which made moving on to the main a definite challenge).
You may be surprised to learn that these days, turkey is the most common main dish, even though turkey originally comes from the Americas – this is why my butcher, upon hearing my order for a turkey for the month before, started calling Thanksgiving “American Christmas.”
Aside from turkey, other large poultry, from capons to Guinea hens, are also sometimes served, usually with a stuffing or side featuring seasonal products like chestnuts and potatoes.
The traditional cheese course follows the main, and then you’ll finally dig into dessert: the bûche de Noël or Yule log.
The bûche comes in two forms: pâtissière and glacée.
The former is made with a genoise cake and buttercream, and you’ll see versions of it in nearly every French pastry shop, from the simple to the elaborate.
While these works of art are certainly a symbol of Christmas in France, many French families opt for the bûche glacée or frozen buche for two reasons: firstly, the ice cream-based cake is a bit less expensive, and secondly, it’s easier to eat a slice of ice cream than a rich, decadent cake when you’ve already been eating for two hours!
Many French families will finish things off with a clementine or mandarine before leaving the table and waiting for Père Noël to deliver presents.
French Regional Christmas Traditions
While most French regions are tuned into the same Christmas traditions as we see in the U.S. – with slimmer and taller Père Noël or Father Christmas standing in for the fat and jolly American Santa Claus – some regions have their own festive traditions as well.
In the North, for example, Saint Nicolas stops by homes to place coins in your shoes.
This tradition is usually celebrated a bit earlier in the month – on Saint Nicolas Day, the 6th, — but some families celebrate closer to Christmas.
Provence, in Southern France, is home to the traditional santons, which are clay figurines that you’ll find in Christmas crèches or Nativity scenes.
The figurines have been handmade by locals since the Middle Ages and hand-painted to be very colorful additions to your Christmas décor.
Provençaux also follow up their Christmas meal with not one, not two, but 13 desserts, representing Jesus and the 12 apostles.
The desserts are made up of a variety of dried fruits and nuts: the quatre mendiants (four beggars) are raisins, walnuts or hazelnuts, dried figs, and almonds, each representing one of the four mendicant monastic orders.
Added to these are dates, representing Jesus’ region, dried plums, and a variety of fresh fruits or local delicacies such as Aix calisson candy, nougat, or gingerbread, depending on local family traditions.
In the eastern French regions of Alsace and Lorraine, the major Christmas tradition is one that echoes that of Germany, Poland, and Eastern Europe: Christmas markets.
Nearly every town, no matter how small, will see small chalets appear, selling local Christmas specialties from pain d’épices (a local gingerbread) to hand-made ornaments.
This tradition has spread past Alsace and Lorraine to other regions of France, so these days, you will even find Alsatian Christmas markets in Paris.
To learn even more about French Christmas traditions, there’s perhaps no better way than to explore the ways in which the French themselves depict them.
Here are some of my favorite French Christmas films (just bear in mind: the Hallmark-style “feel-good” Christmas movie is not at all en vogue in France – many French Christmas movies are sad, dramatic, or just plain raunchy).
- Max is a comedy following Toni, a big-hearted widower, and his daughter Max, who gives him a prostitute for Christmas.
- La Buche is a family story uniting three very different sisters and their recently widowed mother. The touching drama earned Charlotte Gainsbourg a César in 2000.
- Joyeux Noël is a 2005 drama recounting the true tale of the unofficial 1914 truce on the Western Front, allowing the opposing sides of the First World War to celebrate Christmas.
- Le père Noël est une ordure is a classic French Christmas comedy set at a telephone helpline for the suicidal on Christmas Eve, a situation that the provocative French sense of humor takes to an extreme.
Joyeux Noël! Merry Christmas!