12 French Christmas Traditions That Are Oh-So Charming

Shake up your holiday menu or incorporate some new decorations into your home with these sweet customs

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From homes and food to fashion and baby names, the French have a way of doing things that is undeniably cool. Even their holiday customs have a certain je ne sais quoi that we’re keen to emulate stateside.

While there are plenty of similarities between American and French Christmas celebrations, there are a few standout differences. If you’re looking to add some cosmopolitan flair to your yearly festivities, you might consider trying the following French Christmas traditions on for size, like tucking into a chocolate yule log, sipping on vin chaud and wandering around a holiday market. Sounds pretty dreamy to us. Joyeux Noël!

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1. Homes Are Adorned with a Crèche

Crèche is the French word for nativity scene, and you’ll find one in every French home where the holiday is celebrated. The displays tend to be elaborate, featuring village scenes and many figurines in addition to Mary, Joseph and the Baby Jesus. You may not be able to jet over to Paris to pick up your own set, but these displays from Etsy are très adorable, non?

2. Families Tuck Into a Bûche de Noël (aka Yule Log) 

This tradition has evolved quite a bit over the years: Once an actual log of wood that was added to the fireplace on Christmas for good luck in the coming year, the yule log, or bûche de Noël, is now more commonly found at the dinner table in the form of an artistically crafted and seriously decadent chocolate swiss roll cake that’s meant to be enjoyed after the holiday feast.

3. The Holiday Fun Continues Into January with la Fête des Rois

December 1 is the start of the Christmas season in France and Epiphany, which is observed on January 6 and known as Three Kings Day, marks its end. Although la Fête des Rois isn’t a national holiday, it is still widely celebrated in schools and workplaces with a namesake cake (galette des rois or king cake) made from flaky puff pastry and almond cream. Per the tradition, a tiny figurine is baked into every cake; the person who is served the slice with the hidden treasure is crowned King or Queen for a day.

4. Children Leave Shoes in Front of the Fireplace

You’re probably familiar with the stateside tradition of stockings hung by the fireplace with care, but in France it’s common practice for children to leave their shoes on the hearth in the hopes that Santa will fill them with gifts and goodies overnight.

5. The Big Meal Is Served on Christmas Eve

American families tend to feast on Christmas Day, but in France a traditional holiday spread, known as le réveillon de Noël, is served on Christmas Eve instead. The meal itself is also quite different, typically consisting of French favorites like oysters, foie gras and escargots, followed by roast turkey and the (previously mentioned) yule log for dessert. Needless to say, it’s also French tradition to wash down the meal with plenty of fine wine and Champagne.

6. Mistletoe Is Hung Up for Good Luck

Here’s a familiar one for you: The French, too, hang mistletoe in their homes during the Christmas season. The key difference is that the festive plant is considered to be a symbol of good luck, not an invitation for a kiss. (Though it’s standard practice to faire la bise no matter the season.)

7. The Week Before Christmas Features Thirteen (!) Desserts

This tradition hails from the Provençal region of France, where it’s customary to set out a lavish spread of thirteen different desserts (representing the thirteen apostles) during the week leading up to Christmas to satisfy the sweet tooth of family and friends who come to visit for the holidays. Some treats commonly on offer include candied nuts, fruits and the famously sweet and chewy nougat de Montelimar.

8. Christmas Carols Are Not a Thing

Whether you love ‘em or hate ‘em, there’s no escaping Christmas carols in the states—namely because every single store and public space has the festive music playing on a loop from late November until the New Year. In France, not so much. Music plays only a very small role in the country’s holiday celebration and, while you might hear an English language tune or two in stores, the French are decidedly not interested in binging on Christmas carols.

9. Everyone Attends Midnight Mass

Much like the Christmas feast, French church services are packed on Christmas Eve, not Christmas Day. It’s a tradition for families celebrating the holiday to attend a midnight mass after the big meal and before returning home to sleep and wait for Père Noël (aka Santa Claus) to work his overnight magic.

Christmas Shopping at a Marché de Noël
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10. Christmas Shopping at a Marché de Noël

The holiday season in France is in full swing as soon as a marche de noel comes to town. These pop-up holiday markets consist of multiple booths that sell artisanal foods, handmade goods and even Christmas trees. There are also concessions involved, so you can take a break from shopping to enjoy a glass of Champagne or vin chaud (more on that later) or munch on a pan bagnat while you browse. (Psst: Even if you don’t live in belle Paris, chances are that there’s a holiday market or two near you.) 

Vin Chaud Is the Holiday Drink of Choice French Christmas Traditions
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11. Vin Chaud Is the Holiday Drink of Choice

Eggnog doesn’t have a big following in France but vin chaud is a winter favorite throughout Europe. This festive adult drink, known as mulled wine in America, consists of red wine that is heated with aromatics like cinnamon sticks, cloves, nutmeg and orange peel. The end result is a hot, spiced wine drink that the French just love to warm up with during the holiday season.

Kids Receive Postcards from Père Noël
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12. Kids Receive Postcards from Père Noël

This relatively new holiday tradition in France began in 1962 when a very thoughtful French postal worker started opening and replying to letters children sent to Père Noël. The gesture caught on and now the postal service in the town of Libourne replies with a postcard to letters sent from anywhere in the country that are addressed to Père Noël. (Note: The actual address doesn’t matter so long as the envelope displays Père Noël as the intended recipient.)

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