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CHRISTMAS

5 things to know about a traditional French Christmas

From florists to oysters, whips to religion, here are five things to know about celebrating a traditional Christmas in France.

5 things to know about a traditional French Christmas
French Christmas always involves seafood. Photo: Stephane du Sakatin/AFP

When

Both December 24th and 25th are important days in France, although only the 25th is a public holiday (and if it falls on a Saturday or Sunday then bad luck, there’s no extra day off work).

The big Christmas seafood feast (more on that below) is traditionally held on the 24th while most families also exchange presents on this day. The 25th usually involves visiting relatives for lunch.

December 26th, known as Boxing Day in the UK, is not a thing in France and if it falls on a weekday then most people will be back at work.

Virtually all shops and many offices are open on the 24th, while the 26th is a normal working day (unless it falls on a Sunday, as it does this year).

On the 25th most shops close – although boulangeries, patisseries and florists (so you can pick up flowers or a plant for your hostess at lunch) often open in the mornings. In cities, public transport usually runs at least some services, if not a full schedule.

Presents 

Presents are exchanged among friends and families, although the festival is slightly less of a consumerist nirvana than in anglophone countries. Within families present-giving often centres on children, with adults swapping smaller gifts.

Père Noël visits and leaves presents for the well-behaved children – and in certain parts of the country Père Fouettard (Father Flogger) visits naughty children with his whip, which may explain why French children tend to be quite well-behaved. 

Watch out, too, for the Santons de Provence in Christmas markets. These are small hand-painted clay figurines that depict the people of Provence, in traditional costumes and carrying humble offerings, on their way to the Nativity. Sometimes, humorous or topical additions are made – in 2019, one santon-maker added a Yellow Vest protester. They are used to decorate festive cribs at home, or watch over gifts at the foot of the Christmas tree.

Food

Obviously all good festivals centre on food and France has its own traditions.

The big feast in France centres on seafood and families devour huge platters of shellfish including prawns, lobsters, crabs, whelks and – the Christmas king – oysters.

READ ALSO Why do the French eat so much seafood at Christmas?

Christmas trees in Strasbourg. Photo by FREDERICK FLORIN / AFP

Traditionally this meal is eaten on the evening of December 24th or sometimes the early hours of the 25th, after everyone has returned from Midnight Mass.

On the 25th the lunch often involves a roast bird – duck and goose is popular, as is guinea fowl and turkey. This isn’t a strictly observed ritual though, and many families have their own food traditions for this day.

The usual Christmas desert is a Bûche du Noël (Christmas log) which is a chocolate or chestnut roulade with festive decorations. It’s often served with exotic fruits and you will see lots of pineapples and lychées in the shops at this time of year. 

Often served as a starter or canapé over the festive period is foie gras, and it’s usually included in the hampers that older people get from their local mayor.

If you’re in Provence, you will also get to experience the ’12 desserts of Christmas’. 

Religion 

France is famously a secular republic and Christmas is – obviously – a Christian festival, so how to these two things square?

There are some nods to laïcité during the Christmas period – Christmas cribs are not allowed in public buildings such as town halls, and if your kids are in a French school you won’t be forced to go and watch them put on a nativity play – but in general it’s just celebrated as a festival that everyone enjoys.

READ ALSO What exactly does laïcité (secularism) mean in France?

So mayors erect Christmas trees (apart from some refusenik Green officials), mairies sport non-religious decorations including festive lights and politicians wish all their constituents a very happy Christmas. 

Afterwards

Once Christmas itself is over there is still New Year to look forward to. Although this isn’t such a wild party/drinking session as in some countries it is still celebrated and usually most towns put on a spectacular firework display as the clock strikes midnight – although the city of Paris has cancelled its display this year due to Covid fears.

READ ALSO The health rules and official advice for Christmas and New Year in France 

And once that is over there’s still one thing to look forward to – Epiphany on January 6th which involves a special cake with a crown.

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POLITICS

Burkini: Why is the French interior minister getting involved in women’s swimwear?

Bikini, topless, swimsuit, wetsuit, burkini - what women wear to go swimming in France is apparently the business of the Interior Minister. Here's why.

Burkini: Why is the French interior minister getting involved in women's swimwear?

It’s a row that erupts regularly in France – the use of the ‘burkini’ swimsuit for women – but this year there is an added wrinkle thanks to the country’s new anti-separatism law.

What has happened?

Local authorities in Grenoble, eastern France, have updated the rules on swimwear in municipal pools.

French pools typically have strict rules on what you can wear, which are set by the local authority.

For women the rule is generally a one-piece swimsuit or bikini, but not a monokini – the term in France for wearing bikini bottoms only, or going topless. For men it’s Speedos and not baggy swim-shorts and many areas also stipulate a swimming cap for both sexes.

These rules typically apply only to local-authority run pools, if you’re in a privately-owned pool such as one attached to a hotel, spa or campsite then it’s up to the owners to decide the rules and if you’re lucky enough to have a private pool then obviously you can wear (or not wear) what you want.

READ ALSO Why are the French so obsessed with Speedos?

Now authorities in Grenoble have decided to relax their rules and allow baggy swim shorts for men while women can go topless (monokini) or wear the full-cover swimsuit known as the ‘burkini’. This is essentially a swimsuit that has arms and legs, similar in shape to a wetsuit but made of lighter fabric, while some types also have a head covering.

Is this a problem?

No-one seems to have had an issue with the swim shorts or the topless rule, but the addition of the ‘burkini’ to the list of accepted swimwear has caused a major stir, with many lining up to condemn the move.

Those against it insist that it’s not about comfy swimwear, it’s about laïcité – that is, the French secularism rules that also outlaw the wearing of religious clothing such as the Muslim headscarf and the Jewish kippah in State spaces such as schools and government offices.

READ ALSO Laïcité: How does France’s secularism law work?

The burkini is predominantly worn by Muslim women, although some non-Muslim women also prefer it because it’s more modest and – for outdoor pools – provides better sun protection. 

Grenoble’s mayor Eric Piolle, one of the country’s highest profile Green politicians who leads a broad left-wing coalition locally, has championed the city’s move as a victory.

“All we want is for women and men to be able to dress how they want,” Piolle told broadcaster RMC.

Is this France’s first burkini row?

Definitely not, the modest swimsuit has been causing a stir for some years now.

In 2016 several towns in the south of France attempted to ban the burkini on their beaches. This went all the way to the Constitutional Court, which ruled that such a ban was unconstitutional, and the State cannot dictate what people wear on the beach.

The situation in municipal pools is slightly different in that local authorities can make their own rules under local bylaws. Most pools don’t explicitly ban the burkini, but instead list what is acceptable – and that’s usually either a one-piece swimsuit or a bikini. These decisions are taken on hygiene, not religious, grounds.

The northwestern city of Rennes quietly updated its pool code in 2019 to allow burkinis and other types of swimwear, which seems to have passed unnoticed until the Grenoble row erupted.

Why is the Interior Minister getting involved?

What’s different about the latest row is the direct involvement of the Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin. He appears to have no objection to topless swimming in Grenoble, but he is very upset about women covering up when going for a dip.

No, he’s not some kind of creepy beauty pageant judge from the 1970s – he’s upset about laïcité.

Darmanin called the decision “an unacceptable provocation” that is “contrary to our values”.

He has ordered the local Préfet to open a review of the decision, and later announced that prosecutors had opened an inquiry into Alliance Citoyenne, a group that supports the wearing of burkinis in pools.

And the reason that he gets to intervene directly on the issue of local swimming pools rules is France’s ‘anti-separatism’ law that was passed in 2020.

This wide-ranging law covers all sorts of issues from radical preaching in mosques to home-schooling, but it also bans local councils from agreeing to ‘religious demands’ and among its provisions it allows the Interior Minister to intervene directly on certain issues.

So far this power has been used mostly to deal with extremism in mosques, several of which have been closed down for short periods while extremist preachers were removed.

Darmanin’s foray into women’s swimwear seems to represent an extension of the use of these powers. 

Is this all because there is an election coming up?

Parliamentary elections are coming up in June and the political temperature is rising. It’s certainly noticeable that in Darmanin’s initial tweet about the matter he referred to Grenoble mayor Eric Piolle as a “supporter of Mélenchon”, although Piolle is actually a member of the Green party.

Mélenchon and his alliance of leftist parties are currently the main rival for Macron’s LREM at the parliamentary elections. 

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