Christmas in France

Discover what Christmas in France is like and how it differs from the UK

Joyeux Noël... and all that

As I write this, in the Languedoc-Roussillon department (Languedoc-Roussillon Property - an insider's guide, Languedoc-Roussillon Property Guide) of south-west France (South-west France Property), it is October. Autumn is beginning to take over from summer, the leaves are just starting to drop and I have brought my cardigans and woolly jumpers out of mothballs for the winter. The logs are not yet stocked up for the fires that hopefully, I won't have to light until November, but I am beginning to think about buying some. The swimming pool, undisturbed now for a couple of weeks, is just starting to take on its customary shade of winter green (Installing a swimming pool in France). The other day, it rained. When the clouds cleared away and the Pyrénées came back into view, their peaks were covered with snow. My son is polishing his skis, and my daughter is compiling a Christmas wish list. Aye, there's the rub. For not just autumn, but Christmas too is approaching fast.

Is Christmas different in France?

Christmas in France. This will be my fourth. How different is it from Christmases past, the Christmases left behind in the UK? What will you miss, at Christmas time, once you have upped sticks and moved to France? What will you gain, from the Christmas traditions of your new friends and neighbours? How different is it? From a personal viewpoint, I would say that Christmas is different in the small ways... but it remains, essentially, the same in all the ways that count. It is still, principally, about the birth of Jesus Christ, about being with your family and friends, and about happiness, giving and celebrating.

Oysters for Christmas in France

Before I moved to France I was told that the French always eat their Christmas meal and exchange their presents on Christmas Eve rather than on Christmas Day, but French friends here refute that belief, saying that the only time they would do this is if the family could not get together on Christmas Day for some unusual reason. Much is the same here as in Britain. There will still be the decorations in the shops and streets that you are used to seeing in the UK, there are carol concerts and Christmas trees, presents and parties, turkeys and ... er... oysters. Well, it has to be a bit different!

French traditions to celebrate

There are some Christmas traditions in France that may seem strange to us, such as the habit of keeping the decorations up until long after Twelfth night... until, in fact, the end of January, yet there are others that are really worth embracing. Many of these, unsurprisingly, involve food and drink (Buying and cooking French food)! This is France, after all.

Christmas treats for foodies....

If you are trying to watch your weight, then France at Christmas time is possibly not the best place to be! There are so many wonderful foods available, it's impossible to resist unless you have a will of iron. Chocolate lovers will be delighted by the fantastic displays of chocolate figures available in the Chocolateries and Patisseries at Christmas time... they are incredible as well as compulsively edible! The supermarkets too, bear witness to the French love of fine foods at Christmas. Every supermarket you go into will have displays packed to bursting with "galettes des rois"... the cake of kings. These vary in the different regions of France, being almost like a frangipane pie in the north and more of a sugared brioche here in the south (Property in the south of France), but they are all delicious and they all have the lovely tradition of having a small Christmas figurine hidden inside... to be found by the lucky one... so don't swallow without chewing well first!

Culinary traditions in France

Other culinary traditions include eating oysters on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day and indulging in the rich pleasures of Foie Gras and Roquefort cheese. Those of you who want to stick to the things you love from Christmas past will be relieved to know that turkey is commonly found as the main course on French tables at Christmas, and the gooey chocolate Yule Log is another perennial favourite in France as well as in Britain.

And the drink in France?

It's France, so there is plenty of excellent wine on offer. The French don't really do sherry, so you may have to put the Harvey's Bristol Cream on hold, but you could always substitute Muscat de Rivesaltes, a sweet drink similar to sherry and very suitable as an aperitif. Wine is popular and you can also expect to find port, whisky, Cognac and much more.

What to bring from Britain...

There are, however, certain things that you may wish to bring over from a visit to Britain, or to ask friends who are coming for a Christmas visit to bring with them. As far as I am aware, Christmas crackers, as we know them in Britain, are not available in France. There are some sweets, eaten at Christmas time, that contain snaps in much the same way as our crackers, but they don't have mottoes or party hats and gifts... in other words, not the same at all for traditionalists! Be aware, though, that these can only be brought from the UK by people who are driving, or travelling by ferry (Ferries to France)... they must not be taken on board an aircraft (French Connections). You may want to ask for mincemeat... or even Mr Kipling mince pies if you really want to treat yourself! You might also ask for cranberry sauce, sage and onion stuffing, Christmas pudding and Christmas cake, if you don't want to make your own, that is. Some of these things might be available from an "English" shop if you have one near your home, but they are usually somewhat cheaper in the UK.

Christmas markets

No one does a market as well as the French, and their Christmas markets are legendary. Whether these take place in daytime or at night, they are magical and an experience that you won't forget. Our nearby town, Carcassonne (Carcassonne Property Guide), in the Languedoc, sets up a fabulous Christmas Market in its main square. This consists of a village of decorated wooden chalets, selling all manner of arts and crafts, sweets and Christmas goodies. You can do your Christmas gift shopping here, buy spiced biscuits and warm your spirits with a mug of mulled wine. All this is set around an ice rink, which remains in place for the Christmas period. The atmosphere has to be experienced to be believed, it is Christmas personified. Most large towns seem to put on a similar market, so keep an eye on the local press for details.

Christmas cards in France

The French do give Christmas cards, but not on anything like the same scale as the Brits. It is difficult, if not impossible, to find the cheap and cheerful boxes of cards that we took for granted in the UK, so once more, if you want these, you will need to buy them mail order from the UK. It's not all bad news, though, as many charities sell cards by mail order to raise money, so you can do a good deed at the same time as getting ready for Christmas. Remember to allow enough time for delivery though, as France gets busy at Christmas too.

Christmas presents in France

Christmas presents are just as important in France as in the UK. Children look forward to a midnight visit from Père Noel, and everyone loves to exchange their gifts around the tree. Families get together, often in spectacular numbers, as French houses are filled to bursting point with brothers and sisters, aunts and uncles, cousins, in-laws, grandparents and even the modern phenomena of the extended family, the amicably divorced!

Christmas trees in France

That beloved symbol of Christmas, the Christmas tree, is another familiar tradition that is alive and well in France. A huge tent appears outside our local Géant supermarket in December, and this is dedicated exclusively to selling Christmas trees. You can buy them with or without roots, and it seems that real trees, as opposed to the man made ones that are common in the UK, are the norm here. Prices for trees are similar to those charges in the UK, perhaps even a little cheaper.

A personal experience

Lesley and Rob Davies, along with their teenage daughters Francesca and Natasha, own a holiday home in Castelnaudary (Castelnaudary Property Guide), in the Aude (Aude Property Guide) in the south of France. They love the area, and visit as often as they can. Last year they spent time there at Christmas, and Lesley has the following to report on the experience.

Lesley's experience of Christmas in France

"Our experience was that it was so different from the Christmas we spend at home. Some of the shops (mainly the bakers!) are open (even on Christmas morning) although I understand that it's for food and wine, which isn't a bad thing! It's not as commercialised as it is in England (again not such a bad thing)... Rob and I thought it was lovely but the girls missed their friends and found there was a lack of things to do, compared with at home in London. They did enjoy ice skating in Carcassonne though and the Christmas market at Toulouse (Toulouse Property Guide. The added bonus was the snow at Mont d'Olmes (in the Pyrénées) and the fact that we could ski (Ski Chalets for Sale in France). That made it all so much more quintessentially Christmassy! I also found it more traditional and I guess what Christmas would have been like 50 years ago in Britain."

And the real meaning of Christmas in France?

In all of this, the real meaning of Christmas, that is, the religious festival that celebrates the birth of Christianity, is not lost in France. The attending of midnight mass is almost obligatory for many families, and church services in general are well attended at this time of year. Christmas is less commercialised, and doesn't begin in November, which is a great relief after the UK, where it seems to start earlier every year! Communities that house a lot of British ex-pats often hold English style carol services, so it is possible that you can still access all that you hold dear about a British Christmas even if you live in France.

Best places in France to be at Christmas?

If you aren't tied to particular area, but fancy sampling a French Christmas, where is the best place to be? Once more, it is entirely subjective. France, as ever, offers immense choice, with its vastly different regions encompassing just about every type of Christmas you can ever imagine. If you love the Christmas card views and snow scenes of childhood dreams, then you can't go wrong with the Alps (Rhône-Alpes Property Guide) or the Pyrénées (Hautes-Pyrénées Property Guide, Ariège Property Guide, Pyrénées-Orientales Property Guide), where the mountain ski resorts can make your dreams come true, with endless snowy peaks and slopes, magical sleigh rides and roaring log fires. If you prefer to escape winter as far as possible, the Riviera (French Riviera Property - an insider's guide) is the place to go, where the sunshine rate is high and temperatures the mildest in France. If you are lucky with the weather, Christmas dinner in the Riviera (and even in the Languedoc) can often be eaten outside, quite comfortably! The Alsace (Alsace Property Guide), close to Germany, has some especially lovely Christmas traditions, and those who love Paris (Paris Property Guide, Paris Arrondissements Property Guide, Paris Butte-Montmartre (18th arrondissement) Property Guide) say there is nowhere else in the world to spend Christmas. The conclusion? Make up your own mind... wherever you choose, there will be something to enjoy.

Additional articles which may be of interest:

Life in France
Living in France
Sport in France
Weather in France

About the author

Joanna Simm moved to the Languedoc area of south-west France in October 2004 having found her property through French Property Links.

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