Have a Joyeux Noël this year by spending your Christmas in France. From traditional markets to midnight feasts, experience the magic of French Christmas celebrations this festive season.
Christmas in France is all about family, friends, fun and food. It’s also about deep-rooted traditions. And while, for many, the idea of spending Christmas at home is what the holidays are all about, for others it’s the perfect time to travel and experience the sparkle of a different culture. Leave driving home for Christmas to Chris Rea and take a train holiday to France this festive season instead.
Lyon truly comes alive over the Christmas season, beginning with the magical Fête des Lumières. This annual Festival of Lights, held since 1852, is a chance to see the city lit up in all its glory, with artists creating stunning light displays and installations across Lyon’s buildings, streets and parks. For those with a sweet tooth, don’t miss sampling some of the city’s traditional papillotes, a French Christmas food favourite. These fortune-filled chocolates originated in Lyon, where legend has it a love-sick candymaker’s assistant slipped love notes inside the bonbons’ wrappers as a way to woo the woman he loved.
Strasbourg’s Christkindelsmärik has been around since 1570, making it the oldest Christmas market in France. December is the month to enjoy hundreds of stalls spread out across the city’s Cathedral Square and Place Broglie, where toys, Alsatian ornaments and traditional French Christmas foods await. Strasbourg also boasts one of the country’s largest and most impressive Christmas trees, so don’t miss the giant pine decorated from top to toe in Strasbourg’s Place Kleber.
Dive into a more adventurous French Christmas tradition by heading to Valras-Plage, a one hour cycling journey from Béziers along the Canal du Midi and into the area's surrounding country roads, for a festive dip with Father Christmas. Valras-Plage hosts an annual Bain de Noël in the Mediterranean Sea for those brave enough to take the plunge. If icy waters aren’t quite your bag, chill on the side and take in the view with a glass of vin chaud.
For festive foodies, Provence is all about delicious treats at Christmas. And lots of them. While Brits may look forward to a Christmas pudding or fruit cake at the end of their Christmas meal, Provençales go all out with their tradition of les treize desserts. This French Christmas Eve tradition dates back to 1683 and sees families coming together at the end of dinner to enjoy 13 desserts, symbolising Jesus and his twelve apostles. Travellers heading to Aix-en-Provence should look out for the city’s Treize Desserts market selling these traditional treats, including dried plums, quince jams, candied melons and Aix-en-Provence’s famous almond sweets, calissons.
In Provence, Christmas just wouldn’t be the same without the region’s traditional santons (little saints). These handmade clay figurines that feature in home and church nativity scenes have been central to Provence’s yuletide celebrations since the French Revolution. Visit Marseille’s annual Santons Fair to see masters of the craft sell their wares.
Countrywide French Christmas traditions
There are many Christmas customs that pop up all over France and which you are sure to meet no matter where your French travels take you.
Bûche de Noël
While each region in France might have its traditional Christmas dessert, the Bûche de Noël is a nationwide staple. This yule log-shaped chocolate sponge cake harks back to medieval times when a log would be burnt in the family hearth and sprinkled with either wine or holy water. The families believed this would ensure a successful harvest the following year.
In France, as in many other European countries, Christmas Eve is just as important as Christmas Day. Across the country, people indulge in a midnight feast called le Réveillon, meaning “awakening,” traditionally enjoyed after attending Midnight Mass on 24 December. In Paris, families often treat themselves to oysters, caviar and foie gras for their celebratory meal, while in Brittany, in cities such as Rennes, Brest and Nantes, it’s customary to celebrate le Réveillon by eating buckwheat pancakes with sour cream.
Feast of St. Nicholas
Father Christmas might steal the limelight in the UK but, in France, St. Nicholas is equally as important. The 6 December marks the feast of St. Nicholas and for many the start of the Christmas season. In the north and east of France in cities such as Lorraine, Calais and Nancy, children put their shoes out in front of the fireplace on the night of 5 December before going to bed, hoping that St. Nick will leave them sweet treats. Naughty or nice lists checked, naturally.
Photo credits top to bottom: Different decorations iStock ©romrodinka Place Bellecour iStock ©vwalakte, Crowds at Strasbourg Christmas Market iStock ©AMzPhoto, Traditional French Provence sweets iStock ©AnnaPustynnikova, Chocolate Log Cake iStock ©marilyna
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