Christmas in France: French traditions, presents, money, and Santa

21.11.17
7 minute read
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French culture is built on great food, fun with the family, and maintaining proud traditions - so it’s no surprise that these factors are central to a French Christmas. With festivities stretching over a couple of weeks, you’re in for a great time if you’re planning on spending your Christmas season in France. Even better, while some of the traditions you’ll see in France might be familiar, there are some which are totally unique to France, and even to particular French regions.

Interested? Get comfy. Here’s everything you need to know about Christmas in France.

How do the French celebrate Christmas?

Each region in France has its own Christmas traditions, from when gifts are given, to what food is usually eaten. And naturally, there’s some difference between Christmas in the city and Christmas in a rural setting. But wherever in France you find yourself over the festive season, you’re going to have a fantastic time full of family, friends, food, and maybe just a little of that famous French wine.

French traditions

During December you’ll start to see crèches (nativity scenes) going up in family homes, or larger versions in public places. They can be quite complex and include lots of characters in addition to the holy family, like butchers, bakers and people selling vegetables. In fact, there are entire winter markets in some towns, selling the clay figures to use in these scenes.

Although everyone will start to get into the Christmas spirit from early December, the particular date on which the biggest celebration of Christmas falls can vary depending on the region in France, and personal preference. In days gone by, every single family would have gone along to la Messe de Minuit (midnight mass) on Christmas Eve. Either immediately before, or after, there would have been the big family feast to really kick off Christmas. However, nowadays many people choose to skip mass and might have a more simple meal on Christmas Eve. Because Christmas Day is a public holiday, it just makes more sense for many people to have the big feast on that day instead, when there's time for the preparation and everyone is off work. Or - of course - you could always go all in and have 2 Christmas feasts.

The other date which is very important in French tradition is Epiphany, on January 6th, when the kings are said to have come to visit Jesus with gifts. In some regions this is the main celebration, with Christmas Day a quieter affair.

French Christmas food

In a country which pretty much invented fine dining, food is a big deal at Christmas.

Most people will share Christmas with their family, eating at home. Le Reveillon, traditionally the big Christmas feast, would usually take place on Christmas Eve. If families attend midnight mass, it would be customary to eat this meal around that time. However, because it’s not the most convenient arrangement, some families now choose to have their biggest feast on Christmas Day itself. Exactly what’s eaten depends on the region, but with everything from oysters to foie gras, you can expect a pretty good meal wherever you are.

For dessert you might find that you have a Bûche de Noël or Yule Log - but don’t be put off by the name. In the old days the traditional Yule Log would have been quite literally a log which was sprinkled with red wine to make it smell good as it burned from Christmas Eve to New Year. However, urban living means that these days central heating has largely done away with this custom. Instead, you can eat your* Yule Log* in the form of a chocolate-based cake, in the shape of a log. Much tastier.

Another special dish of the season is Galette des Rois (cake of kings), eaten on Epiphany. Each cake is baked with a small charm in it, called a fève - find the fève in your portion of cake, and you win the right to be king or queen for the day. Crown included.

Christmas Eve and Santa Claus in France

Santa Claus didn’t arrive in France until the mid twentieth century, and caused quite a stir. While the rules of a secular society meant that schools were not allowed to display any religious imagery, Christmas trees and pictures of Santa were deemed not to be related to the church, and so they could be shown. Church leaders and certain segments of the community were horrified, going so far as to burn a sculpture of Santa in disgust.

However, Santa soon became a regular feature of a French Christmas. In fact, since 1962, there's been a law in France that states that any letter posted through the French mail service to Père Noël (Father Christmas) must receive a response. Yup. You read that right. Santa is legally obligated to reply to every single letter. Kids put their letters into specially designated post boxes which appear around town and a team of secretaries based at the French mail service help Santa with his responses. With over a million letters and emails a year, they're pretty busy.

Exactly when presents arrive for French children depends on the region and family preference. Some give gifts on Christmas Eve after mass, while others give their gifts on Christmas Day. And those with real patience wait until Epiphany.

If you’re in Northern or Eastern France on the night of December 5th - the eve of St Nicholas’ Day - you might also come across Père Fouettard, the whipping father. While St Nicholas is out leaving gifts for the children who have been well-behaved, Père Fouettard is on hand to give out coal, or even a bit of festive corporal punishment, to kids who haven't behaved. So make sure to be nice.

Presents in France

According to the ING International Christmas Survey, some 38% of people in France receive practical gifts at Christmas, with exactly the same proportion of people getting money or gift cards to spend themselves. Leisure gifts are the normal gift for 30% of people.

Christmas is becoming more commercial and some 70% of people questioned globally by ING said that they wished Christmas was less about spending money. France, however, came in slightly under this average, with 67% agreeing that Christmas spending should be dialled back a bit.

How much money do people spend on Christmas in France?

According to survey data, the French spend an average amount of €250 each during the Christmas holidays. This makes them 4th in terms of countries who spend the most and quite a lot less than the Brits, who are in the number 1 spot, with average spending topping €420.

In some companies in France, there’s an agreement that states that the employers have to pay an additional paycheck to their employees once a year, which might be given at Christmas time. That means a healthy bonus just in time for the festive season. And as a country which has traditionally valued equality among the masses, there’s also the Prime de Noel, a small annual bonus paid by the state to lesser privileged citizens to allow them to afford something extra at Christmas. This has been paid out every year since 1988, and goes to some 2.5 million people annually, usually to those who are unemployed or can’t work due to disabilities.

Whatever the circumstances, Christmas can be an expensive season. If you’re an expat living in France, you might find you need to send money home for gifts or to pay for the festive period. And the same goes if you’re French but living abroad.

If you need an international money transfer, you might think the natural place to turn is your bank. But banks don’t always give you the best deal - even if their service is advertised as free or cheap. The fact is that international transfers aren’t free - a lot of banks and transfer services add a markup to the exchange rate, to make sure that they can take a slice of the profit. And that means you could be paying more than you should.

If you need to move cash overseas, it pays to understand your options. You might find that your international transfer will be quicker and cheaper if you use a specialist service like TransferWise.

TransferWise is different because they use the real exchange rate, the same one you find on Google. There are no sneaky hidden charges, so you pay the lowest possible fee, which is shown upfront.

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When does the Christmas season start in France?

In many areas of France, Christmas really gets started on December 6th, with la fête de Saint Nicolas (St Nicholas’ Day). This is celebrated especially in the north of France, although elsewhere in the country, you’ll also find that on this date they celebrate the turning on of Christmas lights or other festivities.

Important festive dates for France include:

French Holidays Date
Réveillon de Noël (Christmas Eve) December 24th
Noël (Christmas) December 25th (Public Holiday)
Réveillon de Nouvel An (New Year’s Eve) December 31st
Jour de l'An (New Year’s Day) January 1st (Public Holiday)
Épiphanie (Epiphany) January 6th

If it’s your first French Christmas, you’re in for a fun ride. You’ll find lots of fascinating - and sometimes quirky - local customs to make sure your experience is memorable. And because so many traditions are regional, you can be sure your Christmas will be unique wherever you are. Get involved, and you’ll have a great time. Joyeux Noël!

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