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Ever wondered what the holiday season is like in France? A few Christmases ago, my husband and I went to Paris to check out the holiday season for ourselves. Here’s what we learned!

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Before Christmas

Like in the United States, the French celebrate Advent (L’Avent, derived from “avant” which means “before”). They have Advent calendars, which are great for teaching children patience during the countdown to Christmas, and Advent wreaths. If you’re not familiar with an Advent wreath, it is a wreath with four candles and you light one each Sunday for the four Sundays leading up to Christmas. The candles are usually purple with a pink candle for the third Sunday.

Advent Wreath
Advent Calendars aren’t just for children!

When French children write to Santa or Père Noël, they receive a response in the form of a postcard. (It’s been the law in France since 1962 that any letter to Santa must receive a response by postcard.)

Many French families have a nativity scene or a “crèche” as part of their Christmas décor. They take it a step further than your typical 3 Wise Men and often have some fun figures like the baker, as well. The nativity scenes are displayed until La Chandeleur, or February 2nd (40 days after Christmas).

Mistletoe is hung over the door for good luck.

Visiting a Christmas market or Marché de Noël, is quintessential to the experience of enjoying the holidays in France. Walking around with mulled wine, sampling some treats, and taking in the scenery and the festive spirit is one of my favorite memories. The oldest and arguably the most well known Christmas market is Christkindelsmärik in Strasbourg in the Alsace region.

Christmas Market in Paris

Ice skating is a fun activity whether you’re traveling solo or with your family. Two beautiful rinks are Le Grand Palais des Glaces or the rink at the Jardins du Trocadéro by the Eiffel Tower.

When you want to wish someone a happy holiday or Merry Christmas, you can say: Joyeux Noël or Bonnes Fêtes.

An old tradition of burning a Yule log of cherry wood on Christmas Eve is also followed by some French households.

Christmas Meal

Traditionally, the French ate their large festive meal on Christmas Eve, Le Réveillon de Noël, around midnight after mass to celebrate the beginning of Christmas. Although, I hear that more and more people are having their large celebratory dinner on Christmas Day these days.

At dinner, it is very important to the French to have an elegant table often with three candles to represent the Trinity. Papillotes (gold-foil wrapped sweets originally created in Lyon that have a message inside-kind of like a fortune cookie!) are often sprinkled on the table. Depending on region and budget, foods served at the Réveillon can vary from smoked salmon and oysters to a turkey. Foie gras is often served. Les Coquilles St. Jacques is a popular scallop dish (that I will be making this Christmas Eve myself!). This is a time when a family’s best wine is served and Champagne is flowing. And it’s not Christmas without finishing the meal with a traditional Bûche de Noël for dessert! In Provence, one tradition is Les Treize Desserts (the 13 desserts). Each dessert represents Jesus and The Twelve Apostles at the Last Supper. This is a tradition I’d personally like to try (and would probably regret later)!

Gifts

On Christmas Eve, some children put their shoes by the fireplace (much like we do with our stockings) and Père Noël will leave small gifts in the shoes. On Christmas morning, French children open their gifts from Père Noël that were left in their shoes or under the tree.

After Christmas

The French celebrate the arrival of the 3 Kings during La Fête des Rois on January 6th. The Galette des Rois, or King’s cake, is a treat served for the Epiphany.

Galette des Rois Slice

Bonnes fêtes à tous!!!

Christmas Market in Montparnasse
Eiffel at Christmastime

Photos: Living Frenchly

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