Joyeux Noel! Why You Should Celebrate a Traditional Christmas in France
In France, the main event of the holiday season is the Christmas ‘Réveillon’; a long and extravagant dinner enjoyed with family and friends. Réveillon is primarily held on Christmas Eve (le Réveillon de Noël) and is often enjoyed after a night of wandering local Christmas markets and festivities. The term derives from ‘réveil’ which means ‘waking’, since partaking in la Réveillon often means staying up past midnight.
A traditional Christmas in France is a time to celebrate with loved ones, with the French people inviting as many relatives as they can to come and eat delicious food and wine and celebrate the festive giving-time.
Christmas celebrations & traditions in France
The Christmas festivities begin a month before Christmas Day, during a time known as ‘Advent’. These four weeks leading up to Christmas are the time to prepare for the festivities to come and will consist of decorating, planning Christmas meals and functions, gift shopping, and buying a Christmas fir tree. Children are also allowed to open their first door on their Advent calendar.
2. The Christmas tree
Adorning the home with a grand Christmas tree has been a tradition in France for decades. The decorating of a Christmas tree has been popular in the historical region of Alsace as long ago as the sixteenth century. French people choose either a real or artificial tree for their homes, with the majority of households setting up their Christmas tree by December 15th. If you were to follow the traditional Catholic tradition, however, le sapin de Noël (the Xmas tree) should only be set up on Christmas Eve and taken down twelve nights after for the Epiphanie (the visit of the Kings). Traditionally, the French do not hang up stockings around the fireplace as often seen and practised in countries such as the USA.
In the city of Lyon, there is a Festival of Lights (la Fête des Lumières) over four days (5-8th December) and is a celebration to honour the Virgin Mary. During the festival, the people of Lyon places candles on their window sills.
In the French capital of Paris, ‘The Magic of Christmas’ market is held at the Tuileries Gardens in front of the Louvre, and features 120 stalls as well as a ferris wheel and ice skating rink.
4. Christmas Eve
On December 24, the long dinner of Réveillon starts at around 8pm and often last way past midnight. La Réveillon is the time to splurge on food items such as lobster and oysters, as well as canapes consisting of snails and foie gras. A church service is also held on Christmas Eve, and is an important tradition for many French people. Like most of Europe, French people celebrate Christmas on Christmas Eve and is when they will have their family gatherings and special Christmas meal. Christmas Day is generally a day of leisure and relaxation, with children opening their presents in the morning.
Traditional foods served at Christmas
The most traditional main to be served at Christmas time is turkey stuffed with chestnuts. But depending on the region, you may find other common Christmas delicacies such as smoked salmon, goose, or baked ham with spiced apples and pears.
La Réveillon is designed to be eaten slowly, and generally, you will have up to 6 courses throughout the night. Canapes will begin the night and consist of Burgundy snails, fresh oysters, caviar, and a selection of bread and cheeses. This is followed by bowls of delicious French Onion Soup, and later the main meals of roasted poultry or meat served with roasted vegetable dishes.
During the course, guests are often treated to a small ‘trou normand’, which is a sorbet, plunged into a glass of liquor (usually fermented or mulled wine), or champagne depending on the region's specialty. In Normandy, for example, they will sip calvados apple brandy in between meals to help aid digestion.
Dessert is a fine affair and every French gathering will almost always serve up traditional chocolate Bûche de Noël, a sponge cake filled with cream and assembled to look like a tree log. This medieval cake signals the end of winter, where people would gather to burn logs decorated with berries and holly. In regions such as Provence, the end of the meal will consist of 13 desserts to symbolize Christ and the 12 apostles at the Last Supper. In order to have good luck for the upcoming new year, guests must sample one of each of the 13 desserts.
Common French Christmas sayings & phrases
Celebrating Christmas in France wouldn’t be complete without learning how to spread the festive cheer in the country’s native language. Before experiencing a traditional French Christmas, brush up on a few of these festive French phrases and sayings:
Noël - Christmas
Joyeux Noël! - “Merry Christmas!”
Bonnes fêtes de fin d’année! - “Happy holidays!”
Bonne année et bonne santé - “Happy New Year and good health”
Tu fais quoi pour les fêtes? - “What are you doing for the holidays?”
Le Père Noël - Santa
Un sapin de Noël - Christmas tree
Une boule - ornament
Celebrate la Réveillon in France this Christmas
Albatross Tours have a number of tours that visit the wondrous and enchanting country of France during Christmas. Book a French Christmas escape today and say “Joyeux Noël!” in this romantic country.