As Christmastime comes near, you may find yourself wondering how to talk about this holiday in French. So, here’s a little gift from us to you: French Christmas vocabulary!
French Christmas ambiance and traditions
- Noël – Christmas
- Joyeux Noël – Merry Christmas/Happy Christmas
- le réveillon (de Noël) – Christmas Eve. Note that réveillon means ‘Eve’ (evening before), so it’s also used for New Year’s Eve. Knowing which réveillon is being discussed usually depends on the context.
- le jour de Noël – Christmas Day
- un sapin de Noël – Christmas tree
- décorer le sapin de Noël – to decorate the Christmas tree
- une guirlande – garland. This can be an actual branch, artificial, or even tinsel.
- une guirlande lumineuse – a string of Christmas lights/fairy lights
- une carte de vœux – Christmas card/holiday card
Note that French people don’t tend to send as many Christmas cards as people in some other countries (like the US) do. This includes family photo Christmas cards, which are a novelty in France.
- une décoration de Noël – a Christmas decoration
- un cadeau – a gift/a present
- le papier cadeau/l’emballage cadeau – wrapping paper/gift wrapping
- un repas – a meal
Food is probably the most important and obvious way the French celebrate Christmas. Carols aren’t a huge thing, gifts are important but the French tend to be less materialistic, décor tends not to be over-the-top. But food-related commercials and even news segments abound at Christmastime in France. The most common gift to exchange with acquaintances, teachers, etc., is chocolates. So, the Christmas Eve and Christmas Day meals are a BIG DEAL. You can read more about this in our article on French Christmas traditions.
- la neige – snow
- un flocon de neige – a snowflake
- un casse-noisette – a nutcracker
- une couronne -a wreath
- un chant de Noël – a Christmas carol
There are a few famous French Christmas carols but the French aren’t as big on carols as many other countries/cultures are. You’ll often simply hear famous English-language carols playing over the radio in French shops.
Note that the title of Charles Dickens’ Christmas classic A Christmas Carol is sometimes translated as Un Chant de Noël but is also known by the titles Cantique de Noël, Chanson de Noël or Conte de Noël.
- le gui – mistletoe
- une boule de Noël – Christmas ball/Christmas ornament
- une bûche de Noël – a Yule log. This can be a log in the fireplace, but it most often means a delicious, log-shaped cake that’s a traditional French holiday pastry.
- le houx – holly
- des bougies – candles
- un sucre d’orge – a candy cane
Candy canes aren’t traditionally French and it can be almost impossible to find them here, but due to globalization, they’re an easily recognized Christmas symbol in France.
French Santa Claus words
- Le Père Noël – Santa Claus/Santa/Father Christmas
- Saint Nicolas – Saint Nicholas
- La Saint Nicolas – Saint Nicholas Day (Saint Nicholas’s feast day, December 6).
In some regions of France, this day is celebrated with traditions including someone dressed as Saint Nicholas (sometimes accompanied by a donkey) giving out treats.
- Le Père Fouettard – Father Whipper. This usually black-clad figure accompanies Santa (especially on Saint Nicholas Day) to whip or give coal to children who have been bad.
Although you might learn about le Père Fouettard in French class, he’s not as commonly known among French children as he once was, due to a more global influence of the Santa story. But he is still a part of Saint Nicholas Day celebrations in some regions. And it’s still probably a good idea not to be naughty around Christmas time!
- un soulier – a shoe or slipper. In French culture, Santa leaves little treats (most traditionally an orange) in children’s shoes, not their socks or stockings.
- la hotte du Père Noël – Santa’s sack of toys
- le charbon – coal
- le traineau – Santa’s sleigh
- un renne – a reindeer
Religious Christmas words in French
- la crèche (de Noël) – the crèche or manger
- la messe de minuit – midnight mass. French Catholics traditionally attend midnight mass at midnight on Christmas Eve (leading into Christmas Day).
- un calendrier de l’avent – advent calendar
- un santon – a figurine of a saint or shepherd. These can be placed in a manger/crèche but are also used for decoration and as the fève (small object to find) in la galette des rois(king cake).
- les Rois mages – the Three Kings/the Wise Men/the Magi.
- un ange – an angel
- une étoile – a star
However and wherever you’re celebrating Christmas this year, I hope it will be a merry one. And if you don’t celebrate Christmas, I hope you enjoy the holiday season.
Joyeux Noël et Meilleurs vœux (Merry Christmas and Season’s Greetings)!