What Are The Traditions of “Noël” French Christmas?

by Sylviane Nuccio on December 13, 2013

in Facts About France, Historical Facts

Christmas time “Noël” in French, is a wonderful time of the year in France.

Christmas season in France actually starts on December 6 with Saint Nicolas’ day (in the North) until January 6 “la fete des Rois” which I’ve written a post about a year ago.  So, Christmas season really last a whole month.

Besides summer vacations, this time used to be my next favorite time of the year.

Even though it’s the same holiday, celebrated on the same date as it is here in the US, there are few small differences between the way Christmas is celebrated here and Noël is celebrated France. In this post I wanted to tell you about little differences.

So, let take one Christmas item at the time and see what it’s all about in France.

December 6th

December 6th is what we call Saint Nicolas. For example, Belgium is more into celebrating December 6th when it comes to gift offering than there are on December 25th, and this tradition seems to have spread to North Eastern France which is also into giving gifts on December 6th on Saint Nicolas’s Day, even though they also do celebrate Christmas on December 25th, but more for family gathering than sharing gifts.

December 8th

Where I’m from, in the Rhone Alpes region, we do not give gift on December 6th, as this is more of a Northern region tradition, but we do illuminate streets, stores and houses on December 8th because this commemorates a very special occasion, which belongs only to the city of Lyon and it’s surrounding. This is called “La Fête de la lumière.”

Here is the story…

In 1643 when the plague that was invading the south of France was making its way to Lyon, the municipal councilors prayed to the Virgin Mary and promised to pay tribute to her each year if the city of Lyon was speared from the plague.  Lyon was spared from the plague and the celebration went on.

The tradition wants that every house puts a line of candles in a glasses on each window sill, at dark. And every store and whole cities, towns and villages illuminate.  I remember how my family used to put candles in glasses on the 10 front windows of the house. That was really beautiful.

Le Sapin de Noël – Christmas Tree

The Christmas tree called « le sapin de Noël » in French is as popular in France as it is here in the US, and people starts putting their tree up in their house at around the time they start celebrating, which as I mentioned above is about December 6-8.

For me and my brother, the decoration of the sapin de Noël was such a fun time.  My mother would let us do that on our own and helped when we needed it.  She always bought a huge fresh tree, and it was up in the house for about a month.

In the village I grew up in, the mayor also put a huge Christmas tree in the “downtown” area.  All cities and villages put on decorations and Christmas tree at this time of the year like they do here.

Le Père Noël – Santa Clause             

The literal translation in French for Père Noël is “Father Chritmas”, or “Papa Noël” “Daddy Christmas”.  Le Père Noël looks just the same in France as it does here; an overweight old man with a white beard and a red and suit, and hat.

I believed in Santa Clause the “Père Noël” until I was 7 years old when I started to question this thing.  However, my parents were so clever at this and made it so magic that I truly, truly totally believed that someone came over night and nicely deposited all those toys at the bottom of the tree. (Most of them not wrapped which made it look even more magic).

We kids were so sound asleep when my parents, uncle and aunts were carrying the toys from the attic to the tree downstairs that we never knew what was happening.  All we knew is that we’d wake up and the living room looked like a toy store. We were always at least 5 kids and a couple of years there were 8 of us with at least 5 to 6 toys each (some huge), so you can imagine how it looks.  Yes, just like a toy store.

More on the magic below…

La crèche

Something that is a bigger part of Christmas in France than it is here, is “la crèche” which is a representation of Jesus birth with Joseph, Marie and the Magi. We call those figurines “les santons.”  This side of Christmas is not so obvious in the US, but in France almost everybody has a crèche along the Christmas tree in the house.

Le Réveillon – Christmas Eve

Le réveillon is big in France, and it starts in the evening as far as the celebration goes, but the whole day is dedicated to preparing the delicious food that will be eaten later.

I remember my childhood years, helping my mother preparing the food and desserts for this wonderful time of the year.  A very old tradition of the réveillon dinner is to serve “les 13 desserts de Noël” (the 13 desserts of Christmas) especially in the south of France, which I wrote about last year at this time.

The réveillon in my household was out of this world, with all sorts of holiday foods, fruits, chocolates, marrons glacés, best wines and real champagne, of course.

We really stuffed ourselves up on that day. One year I ate so much chocolates that I got an indigestion.  Just for a short time the thought of those chocolates would make me so nauseous.

Le Jour de Noël – Christmas Day

Christmas day starts rather early as children are waken up at day break or before in the excitation and expectation of new toys and wonderful gifts.

To this day, that morning of Christmas day is the most magical moment I’ve ever lived. On Christmas morning me, my brother and cousins would walk to a sea of toys around the Christmas tree and just about all over the living room.

On top of that, my aunt would start her super 8 camera with the brightest flash one had ever seen, and that light reflecting on the toys made it look like magic. I tell you, when you’re a kid and you see this, it’s just magical.  That brightness and the discovery of many beautiful surprising toys would not only make a kid’s day, but you would remember it forever.  That’s why I do.

When gift opening time is over it’s time to get ready and all dressed up for Christmas dinner, which is more like Christmas lunch in France as it tends to last for hours in some household.

Christmas dinners in France tends to be very, very rich, with like 3 appetizers, and a huge main course, followed by the “plateau de fromages” (cheeses’dish), la bûche de Noël, chocolates, wine and champagne.

Typical menus of on Christmas day can include appetizers with oysters, escargots, and smoked salmon.  Main course includes turkey with cooked chestnuts, flageolets (Some type of lama beans) and other vegetables.  Dessert usually inlcudes a bûche de Noël in cake or ice cream form, chocolaltes, marrons glacés (candied chesnuts), orangettes, and more.

La bûche de Noël

La bûche de Noël is a cake that you’ll see in French patisseries only at Christmas time.  It’s a log-shaped cake made of a flat sponge cake that is rolled with chocolate cream (for the most part).  It’s then decorated to look like a log.

This Christmas cake called  bûche de Noël represents the wood log (Yule log) burned from Christmas Eve to New Year’s Day.

After Christmas day the festivities go on with Le Jour de L’an New Years Day which Eve we also celebrate big time and end in January 6 with La Fete Des Rois.

I hope this was a nice trip to Christmas in France. Please, leave your comments below.

Photo Credits: FreeDigitalPhotos.net; Wikimedia; ConstantContact.com; BlogOuvertsuractu.com; Villiage-du-Pere-Noel.fr

 

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About Sylviane

{ 9 comments… read them below or add one }

Donna Merrill December 13, 2013 at 2:55 pm

Hi Sylviane,

What a wonderful share! I just love the ways people celebrate holidays in different cultures. Yes, I too believed in Santa until I was about 7.

This looks like one month of happiness with all those amazing traditions. So you celebrated to the 6th of January. Italians celebrate “little Christmas” on that day too.

What fantastic memories you have shared! Thanks so much,

Donna

Reply

Sylviane Nuccio December 13, 2013 at 6:31 pm

Hi Donna,

You know Italy and France being so close to one another I’m not surprised that we have the same holidays and traditions.

I used to love this time of the year, I have so many great memories.

Thank you for coming here, Donna. So appreciate it!

Reply

Alysha December 13, 2013 at 4:03 pm

Very interesting topics. I always want to catch your every post so that I can enjoy myself.

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Sylviane Nuccio December 13, 2013 at 6:32 pm

Hi Alysha,

So nice to know that you’re enjoying this blog and thanks for coming, and Happy Holidays to you!

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Adrienne December 14, 2013 at 2:29 am

Hey Sylviane,

I love the lights in the window and boy I bet that is just beautiful. I think if I were trying to ward off the plague I’d keep doing it too.

I enjoy learning about some of the traditions you have there in France and how things compare to the U.S. I can just imagine how some of that is in some of the smaller villages too.

I bet this time of the year is just beautiful. Thank you for sharing this with us and I love the images, especially Santa! ;-)

Have a wonderful weekend Sylviane and thanks again.

~Adrienne

Reply

Sylviane Nuccio December 14, 2013 at 3:15 am

Hi Adrienne,

Well, thank God there hasn’t been the plague in France for centuries, but looks like that prayer worked. I remember how my mom used to tell me that’s story when I was only a little girl and today a Google search confirmed it. I think it’s so neat.

I miss the Christmas of my childhood. Between the gifts and food we enjoyed back then we were like kings. As I was saying yesterday, I don’t even know how my mom always managed all that, but we were never in want to be sure.

I’m glad you enjoyed this, and thanks for coming. Now I’ve got to find that button so my post won’t show all on the first page :)

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Debbie December 15, 2013 at 5:16 am

Thanks for sharing your French Christmas traditions with us, Sylviane. :) Christmas dinner sounds wonderful and I really enjoyed reading this. German traditions are somewhat different; we start celebrating on the First Advent and open our gifts the night of Christmas Eve. Dec. 6, the children receive candy and other goodies, far as I remember. The Tree of course, is the big thing, everywhere, along with Santa Claus, in all his various international identities. Best wishes to you and your family!
Joyeux Noël :D

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Debbie December 15, 2013 at 5:22 am

Hi Sylviane; Thanks for sharing your French Christmas traditions. It was a very enjoyable read and dinner sounds wonderful! German traditions have a few similarities but differ in that we start celebrating on the First Advent and open our gifts on the night of Christmas Eve. Dec. 6, the children receive candy and other edible treats. Best wishes to you and yours! Joyeux Noël :D

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Sylviane Nuccio December 18, 2013 at 2:39 am

Hi Debbie,

Sorry for the late reply here, but it’s been such a crazy week so far and I kind of crash during the week end.

It’s true that Christmas while the same in a way has it’s little differences from country to country.

It’s seems that there are two very similar comments or yours here while not identical, you may have had some trouble posting. I’m sorry if it was the case.

Thank you for coming

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