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


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).

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 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.


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’. 


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. 


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.

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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Why France’s Champagne lawyers are feared across the world

Ordering the destruction of 2,000 cans of American beer is just the latest example of the work of the feared French Champagne industry lawyers - who take the protection of France's most famous sparking wine extremely seriously.

Why France's Champagne lawyers are feared across the world

In late April, Belgian customs authorities, with the help of the French Comité interprofessionnel du vin de Champagne, ordered that 2,352 cans of Miller high life beer be destroyed when they entered the port of Antwerp. The reason? Miller high life beer cans all carry an inscription of their nickname “The champagne of beers”, and to the Comité Champagne, this qualifies as an infringement on their trademark.

Even though few would mistake Miller high life beer for the carefully crafted AOC (appellation origine controllée) wine, the Champagne industry’s legal team takes any misuse of the name seriously and they have a history of doing so. 

Listen to the team at The Local discuss the ‘Champagne wars’ in this week’s episode of the Talking France podcast. Download it here or listen on the link below

“It’s the price of glory,” Roxane de Varine-Bohan, one of five lawyers at the CIVC looking after brand protection told AFP in 2021.

READ MORE: Champagne: Four founding myths of a global icon

The CIVC has been in existence since 1941, but even before its creation, the Champagne industry still took maintaining their product’s good name very seriously.

In 1891, protection for the Champagne name and wine was first codified in the Madrid Agreement Concerning the International Registration of Marks (the Treaty of Madrid) which made it so trademarks would be recognised by other nations who signed and ratified the treaty.

In 1919, recognising the Champagne trademark was even written into the Treaty of Versailles – which also dealt with some weightier topics such as thrashing out the conditions to end World War I including war reparations. 

When France came up with its designation to protect special products with a label to denote its unique geographic and production heritage, the Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée (AOC), in 1935, Champagne was quickly recognised, just one year later. This meant that an AOC Champagne must meet certain standards, from the geographic location, type of grape used, cultivation techniques employed and more, to gain the label.

So when the CIVC came about, it carried on this legacy of ensuring that the Champagne name was only used to products that fit those requirements, particularly via lawsuits. 

Their work doesn’t just concern beverages, anyone using the name Champagne to market their product – maybe to signify that it’s a high-class item or even just something of similar colour – can become a target.

In 1993, the CIVC took Yves Saint Laurent to court over its perfume “Champagne de Yves Saint Laurent”, ultimately winning the lawsuit and forcing the company to halt its sales and pay compensation, and in 2014, the industry’s lawyers sued an Australian wine critic and educator, ‘Champagne Jane’, asking that she take down her social media accounts bearing the title.

Most recently, 35,000 bottles of a Haitian soda, ‘Courrone Fruit Champagne’, were destroyed by EU customs agents in Le Havre, France for violating the copyright.

And as of 2023, thanks to the efforts of the Comité Champagne, the appellation is recognised and protected in over 121 countries.

However, the United States is one of the few places where industry lawyers have a slightly shorter reach. The United States never signed the Treaty of Versailles, and instead, it recognises the word ‘champagne’ (small C), as a generic term not fit for trademark. 

For many decades, California wine producers had made their own sparkling wines with the title of ‘champagne’, and after these years of disagreement, in 2006, the EU and the US finally reached an agreement with the WTO regarding how that title should be treated moving forward. Essentially, the agreement stated that wines produced before 2006 could keep the title, but it could not be awarded to any post-2006.

According to Forbes, “nearly 80 million bottles of American sparkling wine are produced and labelled with the word champagne every year”.

A representative from the CIVC, Philippe Wibrotte, told the American news site in 2018 that they had been “forced to sign this agreement”.

READ MORE: ‘The price of glory’ – Meet the Champagne industry lawyers charged with protecting the brand name

“It’s better than it was because previously, there was no protection, but it’s still a problem”, Wibrotte told Forbes.

Still American-headquartered companies, like Apple who in 2013 according to Forbes considered naming their gold iPhone “champagne-coloured”, have abandoned such projects when threatened with legal action from the CIVC.

Using ‘champagne’ in the name also largely limits US products to a domestic market, as other countries will recognise the Champagne protection – as happened with that shipment of Miller beer. The company does not export ‘the champagne of beers’ to the EU, the cans destroyed in Belgium were a private shipment that was destined for a customer in Germany.

The reason the Champagne industry cares so much about its name is simple and laid out on the Appelation’s website: “The ongoing fight against all manner of imitation attempts not only protects the Champagne designation but also consumers by guaranteeing them transparency in terms of the wines they buy and drink”.

So what is Champagne?

To be legally classed as Champagne, the sparkling wine must have been produced in the Champagne wine region of France, while following the strict rules of the appellation, which include specific planting techniques for vines, grape varieties, pressing methods, and manners of fermentation.

As Champagne is a blended wine, several grape varieties can technically be used, but the most common are the white Chardonnay, and the dark-skinned grapes: Pinot Noir and Meunier. You can have either a white or a rosé Champagne, though most are white. Four other grape varieties are permitted with the AOC, but they are increasingly rare.

For rosé Champagne – which is allowed – the same grape varieties are used, but the different colour can be obtained through two methods: macerated or blended.

“Macerated rosé Champagnes are made by leaving the musts with the skin of the grapes to macerate and colour the juice, and so-called “blended” rosé Champagnes are made by adding a still red Champagne wine to base white wines (so before the second fermentation stage)”, as the Appellation explains on its website.