Bustling Christmas markets, rich hot chocolate served from a silver ladle, and sugar-dusted doughnuts are just a few things that remind me of Christmas in France. As one of the most important holidays of the year, the Christmas season is home to a lot of unique traditions.
During my first Christmas in France, I was enamored by the beautiful markets, the well-decorated streets, and the delicious Christmas Eve meal. So, if you’re curious about what it’s like to be in France for Christmas, here are some of the best (and most unique!) things to do, eat, and see during the Christmas season.
French Christmas Markets
The Christmas markets might just be the best place to experience French Christmas traditions. Each year starting from the end of November until Christmas, towns around France open up their marché de noël.
At the marché, you’ll find little chalets (cabins) which sell a variety of Christmas-related goods. Some of the most common things you’ll find are handmade gifts, jewelry, local products, and Christmas decor.
Food-wise, you’ll find people selling croustillons, little sugar-covered doughnuts. You can only find these sweet treats at fairs and during the holidays, so they’re definitely a must-try!
And if you feel a little thirsty after your croustillons, there will always be stands with hot chocolate or vin chaud (mulled wine) nearby. Here in Normandy, you can also find vin chaud du viking (viking’s mulled wine), which has calvados in it.
For non-alcoholic drinks, there is hot apple cider. For a more unique option, you can try the hot orange juice. I must admit I haven’t tried the hot orange juice, but it could be worth a try! It’s made with holiday spices like cinnamon and cloves as well as honey.
Food You’ll Eat During Christmas in France
But the food doesn’t stop at the Christmas markets! Christmas Eve dinner is home to a slew of special French foods. The star of the show is la bûche de noël, which is a log-shaped cake similar to a swiss roll. Its fluffy frosting and light and airy cake is the only reason to not completely stuff yourself at dinner.
Interestingly enough the French love seafood for their Christmas Eve meal. If you’re visiting a French family for Christmas, you shouldn’t be surprised to find things like scallops, lobster, caviar, and oysters on the menu.
Fowl like turkey, guinea fowl, and goose are all popular main dish meats. Sometimes, you’ll even find them stuffed with chestnuts (les châtaignes). Another thing you’ll almost always find is foie gras. And while the French love it, it’s actually illegal in many countries and even in some French cities.
French Christmas Traditions
It’s no surprise a lot of French Christmas traditions revolve around eating and drinking. But, there are a few traditions that don’t revolve around a good meal.
Le Père Noël vs. Le Père Fouettard
Le Père Noël (Santa Claus) is definitely one of the most important pieces of Christmas. But, in France he comes with a rather odd sidekick. Not nearly as popularized as Santa Claus himself, but still well known in France, Le Père Fouettard is the evil version of santa.
Le Père Fouettard, which translates to Father Spanker, is the one who goes around giving all the coal–and sometimes spankings–to the boys and girls on the naughty list. Santa Claus on the other hand only gives out gifts. Definitely one of the most unique French Christmas traditions.
Le Réveillon de Noël
Depending on who you ask, Le Réveillon de Noël can mean two different things: Christmas Eve dinner or Christmas Eve evening. Either way, it’s a big deal in France and can last hours. During my first Christmas Eve dinner in France, we ate dinner (from hors d’oeuvres to appetizer to main dish to cheese to dessert to champagne) from 7:30pm until 1:30am.
Sapin de noël
Just like in many other European countries, the French celebrate Christmas with a sapin de noël, or Christmas tree. They decorate them with lights, ornaments, and tinsel and you’ll usually start finding them in grocery stores and at outdoor markets starting at the end of November.