French Christmas traditions

Winter barn

Like every country in Christendom, France has its Christmas traditions. Some of them are local or regional; others are celebrated countrywide. Here are a few I have found through my researches or experienced personally. 

Christmas crèche 

See my previous post, about the crèche at Loze. 

Christmas markets 

Christmas markets originated in 14th-century Alsace. Since then, the tradition has spread throughout France. I don’t remember there being any in this region when we first moved here in 1997, but nearly every village now holds one (a case of overkill, perhaps).

I went to one last Sunday in the small bastide village of Verfeil. As well as the usual Christmas decorations and gifts for sale, there was a book fair featuring local authors and publishers. There are several small presses in the region, which specialise in books about the area and local traditions and novels set around here. I had to keep my purse tightly shut (although I did buy something – but can’t reveal here what it was). 

Chants de Noël

The British have imported carol services to France. As far as I can work out, they were not a tradition here previously. We used to go to a couple of local ones, but one is no longer held because the organiser has died, while the organisers of the other one got fed up with doing it. They were mostly English carols with a sprinkling of French ones. We concluded that there aren’t many French ones (please correct me if I’m wrong).

However, it seems that chants de Noël in Occitan – the ancient language of much of southwest France – are more of a tradition. Last Saturday, the tiny Romanesque church at La Salvetat des Carts, near Najac, was host to a concert of Occitan carols. I’m ashamed to say we didn’t go: it was a freezing cold day, we know from previous experience that the church is icy, there’s nowhere to park and the pews are hard. I regret it, though, and will try harder next year. 

Le Réveillon

Christmas Eve marks the start of the celebrations. It was formerly a great tradition (if not virtually compulsory) for the French to go to Midnight Mass, although fewer do so today. French country novels (see my post here) are full of descriptions of families who trudged several kilometres through the snow to their local church.

In some places, Midnight Mass was preceded by a copious meal  and followed by a soupe à l’oignon; in others, the meal came afterwards (le gros souper). Today, French people normally eat their main Christmas meal on Christmas Day. The traditional menu is foie gras, turkey with chestnut stuffing and bûche de Noël (Christmas log), a rich confection of chocolate cake filled with chocolate cream. 

Les Treize Desserts

This is a Provençal tradition. The main Christmas meal is followed by 13 desserts, symbolising Christ and the 12 apostles at the Last Supper. There was an interesting piece about it on the TV news this week.

The desserts normally include a combination of fruit, nuts and sweets. Generally, four of the desserts, called mendiants (beggars), are dried figs, hazelnuts or walnuts, almonds and dried grapes. They symbolise four religious orders. Also included is a cake called Pompe à l’huile, made with orange flower water and olive oil. It is obligatory to taste each dessert in order to have good luck the year round.

The meal is eaten at a table with three candlesticks, representing the Trinity. On the news piece, a family was shown laying the table with three tablecloths, also signifying the Trinity. The ends of the tablecloth are knotted together so that the Devil can’t get under the table. 

Shoes by the fireplace

French children traditionally left their shoes by the fireplace on Christmas Eve so that Père Noël could fill them with presents. Again, French country novels describe how the children left their sabots (wooden clogs) by the fireside and awoke to find small gifts, such as homemade toys, sweets or an orange.

There is a lovely description in Jean Anglade’s La Soupe à la Fourchette of two children in the Auvergne finding in their sabots wooden toys lovingly crafted by the grandfather – a little wheelbarrow for the girl and a haycart pulled by two cows for the boy. 

Christmas Greetings

French people wish each other Joyeux Noël or, more commonly, Bonnes Fêtes.

They might also add, “…et une bonne fin d’année.” Never, never, never should you wish anyone “Bonne Année” (Happy New Year) before midnight has struck on 31st December. This brings bad luck – tempting providence, I suppose.

A couple of years ago, I started to wish a French friend Bonnes Fêtes etc and she became quite agitated as I approached the end of the phrase. She thought I was going to wish her a premature Happy New Year. Actually, I wasn’t, since I knew the rules, but she interrupted me before I could finish by saying, “Oui, oui, une bonne fin d’année.”  

A final tradition concerns La Galette des Rois (the cake of the Kings), but since this falls after Christmas, I’ll write about it in the New Year. 

I would love to hear of any other French Christmas traditions you know about – national or local. 

Copyright © 2010 A writer’s lot in France, all rights reserved


  1. hello Vanessa,
    joyeux Noel venir de Sedbergh!
    Like you, we have snow, but only a covering unlike the further South. However, it has been below freezing for weeks, very crisp with wonderful sunrises and sunsets and a huge full moon in a stary sky.
    Mike and Susy are coming up today so hope to see them over the next week.
    best wishes for a healthy 2011
    regards, Linda and Vic


    • Hi Linda, We had 20cm of snow overnight and the electricity went off at 3am – back on now, fortunately.
      Say hello from us to Mike and Susy.
      Merry Christmas to you and Vic and a happy and healthy New Year.


  2. I didn’t know about the 13 puddings – what a great tradition. Thanks for mentioning me!
    Wishing you a wonderful Christmas,


    • I had read about the 13 desserts before, but didn’t know the detail.
      Our electricity is just back on after 10 hours in the dark following a heavy snowfall. Fingers crossed it stays on.
      Hope you have a great Christmas ,


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