How the French celebrate Christmas

If you’re lucky enough to be in Paris over Christmas you may or may not be celebrating in true French style. As Christmas is a time when families come together we thought you should know about how it's done in France and Paris - in case you fancy a change of tradition! We looked into some of the most important and longstanding Christmas traditions that have been upheld over the years and those which you'll come across on your trip to Paris during the festive season. You never know, you might have a few already in common... Christmas Season Although many people celebrate Christmas on the 25th December, in France the festive season officially begins on the 6th December, St Nicholas Day. It used to be the custom that on this day gifts would be exchanged but now the tradition has been postponed to Christmas Eve when Père Noël (Father Christmas) visits the well behaved children around France. If you’re religious, however, which, as practicing Catholics many families in France are, the Christmas season will officially begin on the first Sunday of Advent and is celebrated with a large mass, with each Advent Sunday thereafter following suit. The season officially ends at The Epiphany celebration twelve days after Christmas which signals the end of the Christmas season. Père Noël The familiar white-bearded character of Father Christmas is ever-present in the French festive season, but his name is Père Noël. Not of French origins initially, Sinterklaas was a Dutch/German inspiration whose name gradually morphed into Saint Nicholas over time. If children are good, the tradition is that Saint Nicholas will reward them with gifts (or simply an orange up until the 1960s); if children are bad they will be visited by Le Père Fouettard instead (or as the American’s call him, the Bogeyman). This evil character, who was dressed in black and smeared with coal, was to be feared as he was believed to whip children who had misbehaved. Now this character has disappeared and all that’s left is Santa Claus, phew... Christmas Trees This familiar Christmas symbol first appeared in France in Alsace in 1521 and is called le sapin de noël or arbre de noël. Like in most Westernised countries, the French put their tree up at the beginning of the season – whenever they choose to celebrate – and they will lay the gifts donated by Père Noël under the tree. Christmas trees were originally covered in red apples and candles, but now they can be multi-coloured and decorated with a wide range of baubles and tinsel. Look out for the Christmas trees dotted around the centre of Paris. This year there’s one at Notre Dame, as well as huge ones in Galleries Lafayette and Printemps Haussmann. Christmas Meal The Réveillon is the big Christmas meal that French people sit down to enjoy on the 24th December. Some maintain the tradition of serving it after midnight mass, but others decide to have it earlier during the day. As the French are, needless to say, food lovers, the Réveillon is almost as sacred as the day itself. Lasting up to six hours on occasion, it’s a chance to sit down with your family and tuck into sumptuous food over many decadent courses, washing it down with wine and ending on sweets and cheese. The menus tend to vary dependent on the region in France, but in Paris seafood and oysters are common starters, with bread and butter, followed by caviar, foie gras and the traditional Christmas Yule Log, the Bûche de Noël. Christmas Carols Midnight mass is a religious tradition that many French families still uphold. Here, they gather to sing songs at midnight or a few hours before, in celebration of the religious season. Midnight mass and street Nativities were banned during the French Revolutions however they were reinstated with vigour. Nowadays, most French carols are still hymns, but over the years French Christmas music has become inflected with other translated popular songs such as Mon Beau Sapin (from German O Tannenbaum) or Vive le vent (from English Jingle Bells). Explore Paris with The Paris Pass and take the stress out of sightseeing, especially in the busy Christmas period. With free entry into over 60 top Paris attractions, including the Louvre, Notre Dame Cathedral and a River Boat Cruise, it’s a great companion to your sightseeing adventure. The Paris Pass makes a great present, even if it’s a last minute one, as you can purchase and collect from Paris on the same day! Make sure you check with each attraction before you visit as most are closed on Christmas Day.

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