Whether you are religious or not, Christmas, Noël (pronounced “no el”) is an important holiday in France. Since the French don't celebrate Thanksgiving, Noël is really the traditional family gathering.
Now, many things have been said about Christmas in France, and its particular traditions such as the thirteen desserts, but many of these traditions are regional, and unfortunately tend to disappear with time.
Right now, across France, here are seven traditions you could be expecting:
1. Le Sapin de Noël - The Christmas Tree
For Christmas, traditions asks that you go get a Christmas Tree “un sapin de Noël”, decorate it and set it in your house. Some people would plant theirs back in their yard. Most will just get a cut tree and throw it away when it is dry. Nowadays, many people prefer to have a synthetic tree you can fold and reuse every year. “Les décorations (f), les ornements (m)” are more or less precious but it is mostly in the US that I've heard the traditions of passing on ornements through generations. It is not a very common thing in France.
It's not really clear when to set up the "sapin de Noël". Some set it on Saint Nick's day (December 6th) and remove it on the 3 King Day (l'Epiphanie, January 6th).
- Le sapin de Noël - Christmas tree
- Les aiguilles de pin - pine needles
- Une branche - a branche
- Une décoration - a decoration
- Un ornement - an ornament
- Une boule - a ball / an ornament
- Une guirlande - a garland
- Une guirlande électrique - an electrical garland
- L'étoile - the star
2. La Couronne de Noël - Christmas Wreath
Another Christmas Tradition is to use wreaths on your doors, or sometimes as a table centrepiece. This wreath may be done of twigs, or of a fir branch, may have glitter, feature fir cones and if placed on a table, often surrounds a candle.
- Un centre de table - a centrepiece
- Une couronne - a wreath
- Une brindille - a twig
- Une branche de sapin - a fir branch
- Une pomme de pin - a fir cone
- Une bougie - a candle
- Une paillette - a glitter
- De la neige artificielle - artificial snow
3. Le Calendrier de l'Avent - Advent Calendar
This is a special calendar for kids, to help them count the days before Christmas. Behind each number is a door, which reveals a drawing, or a nook with a treat or a little toy. This calendar is usually hung in a communal room as to remind everybody of the countdown before Christmas (and keep an eye on the “door” openings so that the kids won't just eat all the chocolate before Christmas… )
- Un calendrier - a calendar
- L'Avent - Advent
- Une porte - a door
- Une cachette - a hiding spot
- Une surprise - a surprise
- Un bonbon - a candy
- Un chocolat - a chocolate
4. La Crèche de Noël - The Christmas Manger & Nativity
Another important Christmas tradition in France is the nativity: a little house with Mary and Joseph, an ox and a donkey, the star and an angel, and eventually baby Jesus. The nativity set can be larger, with the 3 kings, many shepherds and sheep and other animals and village people. Some are very old and in the South of France, the little figurines are called “santons” and can be worth quite a lot of money. Some family make a paper crèche as a project for Christmas, others have a tiny little one somewhere in their house, and some churches would have a live nativity scene during the Christmas mass.
Traditionally, baby Jesus is added on December 25th in the morning, often by the youngest child of the household.
- La crèche - the manger/ nativity
- Le petit Jésus - baby Jesus
- Marie - Mary
- Joseph - Joseph
- Un ange - an angel
- Un boeuf - an ox
- Un âne - a donkey
- Une mangeoire - a manger
- Les rois mages - the 3 kings, the 3 wise men
- L'étoile du berger - the star of Bethlehem
- Un mouton - a sheep
- Un berger - a shepherd
- Un santon - manger figurines made in the South of France
5. About Santa, Shoes, Stockings, Cookies and Milk
In the old days, children would place their shoes next to the fireplace and hope to get a little present from Santa, such as an orange, a wooden toy, a little doll. Stockings are used instead in the Anglo-saxon countries.
In France, most new houses do not have a fireplace, and the tradition of placing your shoes by it has totally disappeared. Although he does bring the presents on his sleigh, in France what Santa does is not that clear: some think he comes down the chimney himself, some believe he sends a helper or just magically places the gifts on the shoes (if he is an old-fashioned Santa) or under the Christmas tree. In any case, there is no clear tradition of leaving cookies and milk for him… Maybe a bottle of Bordeaux and a toast of foie gras? Just kidding…
- Le Père Noël - Santa (or Saint Nicolas in the North-East of France)
- Le traineau - the sleigh
- Les rennes - reindeers
- Les elfes - elves
- Le Pôle Nord - North Pole
6. Christmas Cards and Greetings
It's customary in France to send out Christmas/ Happy New Year cards to your friends and family, although this tradition is disappearing over time. If it's better to send them before Christmas, you have until January 31st to do it. Popular Christmas greetings are:
- Joyeux Noël - Merry Christmas
- Joyeuses fêtes de Noël - Merry Christmas
- Joyeuses fêtes - Happy Holidays (more Politically Correct since not Religious)
7. Les Marchés de Noël - Christmas Markets in France
Christmas Markets are little villages made up of wooden stalls (called "châlets") which pop up in the center of towns in December. They typically sell decorations, local products and "vin chaud" (mulled wine), cakes, biscuits and gingerbreads as well as many handcrafted items. Originally common in the North-East of France, they are now popular throughout France - there is a huge one on "les Champs Elysées" in Paris.