Christmas in France, what’s it all about, is it any different to elsewhere and is there anything special to enjoy? I’ve written about it previously describing how the build up is slow and calm even under normal circumstances, but this year we’ve had to contend with tragic terrorist attacks in Paris, the resulting state of emergency nationwide and potentially worrying regional election results as well, meaning it hasn’t been the most festive of times recently. Add to this a sense amongst many expats that Christmas is “better” at “home” surrounded by familiar traditions, sights and sounds and rather than feel happy and excited many find themselves feeling low and missing home.
Christmas decorations at the Opera House in Nice
In a bid to spread some Christmas cheer I decided to ask my blogging friends what they like most about Christmas in France.
I asked foreign expats in France and French expats abroad to share their favourite things about Noël en France and was delighted with the huge response. I was inundated with heart-warming positive words, far more than I expected and I’ve done my best to edit them to a reasonable length but be warned, this is a long post. So, without further introduction, I’ll pass you over to 23 other bloggers and their reasons for loving Christmas in France (plus me = 24!)
gingerbread hearts in the Christmas market
“I love it how every year we kick off the Christmas season in early December by setting up our family’s Provençale crèche, a nativity that uses clay figurines to depict the Provencal village scene. Then there’s of course always a good bottle of wine or two to get us motivated and scrumptious food to help us keep up our stamina – it’s hard work after all!” Girl Gone Gallic, a French-American living in Provence [find out more about the figurines called Santons here].
photo of her family crèche provided by Girl Gone Gallic
“One thing France gets right about this time of year is the focus on delicious food. There are wonderful Christmas markets where you can sample seasonal fare as well as salons de gastronomie (food shows) where you can stock up on products from all over including a great selection of holiday items. A favorite that isn’t mainstream back in the US is the bûche (Yule log) that you cut in slices and eat for dessert. You can get ones made of ice cream or cake/frosting ones at the bakery and they come in all kinds of flavor combos.” Diane from Oui in France, an American expat in the Loire.
photo of chocolate snowmen provided by Diane
“One of my favourite festive things to do in France is to sip a warm, sweet vin chaud while taking an after dark stroll around the wooden chalets that spring up in many town centres to house the Christmas market. There are lights, music, food to eat, lots of laughter and it is a lovely thing to be part of.” Jacqui from French Village Diaries, a British expat in Poitou-Charentes.
photo of Santa’s chalet provided by Jacqui
“Christmas is a wonderful time of year here in the Creuse. There are no hectic shopping malls and rushing round the shops on Christmas Eve. It’s about the simple pleasures and appreciating what we have with our loved ones.” Ema from De Tout Coeur Limousin, British expat in rural France.
Dommartemont church near Nancy
“One of the things I like best about Christmas in France is the food! It’s traditional to eat foie gras and oysters as a starter. France is the leading oyster producer in Europe (90% of production) and half the oysters produced are eaten at Christmas and New Year. We now make our own foie gras, often with friends. It has to be made at least 10 days before it is eaten. It’s usually eaten with toasted pain de mie (sandwich loaf) and sometimes pain d’épices (ginger bread) together with fig or grape jam, jelly or compote. It can be made from goose or duck liver and also contain fine shavings of truffles. Just like oysters, you like it or you don’t! I do.” Rosemary from Aussie in France, an Aussie in France! Formerly in Paris now in Blois.
photo of foie gras provided by Rosemary
“My favourite thing about Christmas in France is visiting the Christmas markets with my family. I grew up in the Southern Hemisphere so my childhood Christmases were spent al fresco at the beach, or enjoying a Christmas barbecue! So, the thrill of wrapping up warmly and browsing stalls selling gingerbread, roasted chestnuts and chocolates is lovely and I always make sure to stop for a glass of vin chaud! I also enjoy admiring the effort the French put into Christmas decorations in shop windows, on the street or hotel lobbies. The displays often look classic and sophisticated, I spied this Christmas tree [below] in the lobby of a hotel in Cannes, gorgeous don’t you think?” Becks from Access Riviera, a New Zealander on the Côte d’Azur.
photo of hotel Christmas tree provided by Becks
“What do I miss about Christmas in France when I’m in the UK? That’s an easy one! I really miss the fact that in France, it is a longer celebration altogether, starting with family on Christmas Eve with a big dinner. In the morning, we all open our presents in our pyjamas and the whole family gets together for lunch. ‘Lunch’ should be used loosely, really, as we spend the whole day sat around the dining room table, eating, chatting and playing board games before we eat some more. I love that. We really spend quality time all together.” Mel from Le Coin de Mel, a French expat in London.
photo of family Christmas tree provided by Mel
“I love the calmness of Christmas in France (compared to the mad rush that it always was back in London!) Here we retreat into our cosy home by the log fire with the family, visit local villages for the Christmas markets, get together with friends for mulled wine and (lots of imported!) mince pies! I sing French and English Christmas carols in village churches with my choirs. The kids look forward to decorating the village tree and their 4 course Christmas lunch at school complete with a cheese course and fizzy juice.” Becky from Wild Oak Wood, a British expat in rural France.
photo of Santa in Toulouse provided by Becky
“My favourite thing about Christmas in France is vin chaud. Mulled wine certainly isn’t exclusive to France but our small local Christmas market, when we lived in the Pas de Calais, made an excellent vin chaud that they served from a large black cauldron rigged over a real log fire, which all helps with the appreciation of it. We would get a cup to finish the day and warm us up while we waited, amongst a sea of children, for the Père Noël to abseil down the church tower showering everyone with sweets.” Back to Burgundy, British expat in Burgundy.
photo of vin chaud provided by Becks of Access Riviera
“Our first December in Paris, we went to La Défense to go to the movies. Instead, we stumbled upon our first magical Christmas market and have been obsessed ever since! We love all the markets for the sweet smell of cinnamon churros contrasted with the savory scent of the sausage platters. We love it for the Christmas music jingling through the loudspeakers and to watch everyone happily ice skating under the City of Light. We love it because Christmas in Paris gave us an entirely new tradition of our own. It didn’t matter anymore what we might be missing back “home”; we could look at each other in amazement and say, “we live here.” The warm Christmas spirit in France had so much to do with our settling into our expat ways and it’s now our favorite time of the year.” Christy from What Up Swags, American expat formerly in Paris recently moved to Bavaria.
photo of Christmas market stall provided by Christy
“What I love about Christmas in France is the FOOD! Having a LOOOONNNNGGG family dinner on the 24th December in the evening, eating the most amazing foods over several hours – Christmas dinner in the UK is not just the same somehow.” Sophie from Franglaise Mummy, British expat formerly on the Côte d’Azur now in Mauritius.
oysters on the Christmas table
“My favorite thing about Noël en France is when I go to the last market before Christmas. There is happiness in the air (probably due to the amount of wine flowing), everyone is smiling and everyone wishes you “bonne fetes”. The best is that almost every stall holder has cookies, cake or wine that they make sure you partake in – it’s truly a time, no matter where you come from, when you feel welcome and part of the community.” Di from The Sommelier Chef, British expat in the Pyrenees.
Roquefort les Pins Christmas market
“I have had many Christmases away from France now but I still miss the dark nights with all decorations out. I always associate Christmas with winter (cold, dark nights) so it feels weird to be wearing t-shirts and flip-flops. I noticed something in last couple of years: as much as spending Christmas in summer is different but ok, going through winter with nothing to celebrate is hard! My husband misses foie gras!” Carole from Bons Baisers d’Australie, French expat in Australia.
Christmas in Place Stanislas Nancy
“Christmas in the south of France… What’s not to like? Christmas markets pop up and ice skating rinks appear in town squares. Elaborate Nativity scenes display every Provencal character imaginable, and of course there is the bûche de Noël (yule log) cake. Cities drape themselves in lights, and the weather is mild enough to get out and enjoy it all. What could be better?” Margo from The Curious Rambler, American expat in Nice.
photo of Santa in Nice provided by Margo
“I love the Christmas markets in France, the smell of vin chaud in the air, carols playing and the joyful mood of the approaching holiday. There is a magical atmosphere in December. My first French Christmas market was that of Colmar, I felt like a child again in a winter wonderland!” Holly from Franstralie, an Australian expat in Paris.
photo of Colmar provided by Holly
“Highest on my list of things to love about Christmas in France is the gastronomy. If I thought that the French were gastronomic all year round, I had seen nothing until I had experienced my first French Christmas, when the Gallic love of good food is taken to a whole new level. Supermarkets become gourmet palaces, with entire aisles dedicated to seemingly unending supplies of oysters, foie gras, coquilles St Jacques, and champagne. In Lyon the best place to experience this is in Les Halles de Lyon, where you will be assailed by tempting sights and smells from all directions. Here you can shop for your poulet de Bresse or your traditional bûche, and taste morsels of cheese, smoked salmon or delicious artisanal terrines.” Emily from Lost in Lyon, British expat in Lyon.
photos of food in Lyon provided by Emily
“What I miss the most here in Germany is “la bûche de Noël”. I always had a bûche for Christmas, even if I was sick and bedridden. I wish I could serve a bûche to my kids this year, but it’s going to be hard to find one. Of course I could bake one… but, let’s just say I’m not that good with baking. So for me, THE Christmas dessert will always be a bûche.” Eolia from La Cité des Vents, a French expat in Germany.
avantgarde bûche de Noël
“What I love about Christmas in France is the fact that the whole thing is much less strung out than in the UK. Although a handful of shops may stock some Christmas lines before December, few will have any decorations up before then. Then, come December all the towns and villages will put up wonderful light displays, the most elaborate nearby being at Beauchêne, a few kms away from us. Shop windows will also be beautifully decorated and there will be Christmas markets everywhere, all selling wonderful hand-made gifts and locally produced foods. It all seems so much more special for being over a shorter period of time!” Rosie from Eco-Gîtes of Lénault, a Brit in Normandy.
photo of decorations in Beauchêne provided by Rosie
“My husband and I started a tradition in Paris to usher in the holiday season. Each year, we head over to the grand magasins on Boulevard Haussmann for a little date night. We start at Galeries Lafayette, where we head inside to warm up and admire the huge Christmas tree in the center of the floor. We usually swing by one of the two Pierre Hermé stands inside to buy a few seasonal macarons to eat later on (like chocolate with foie gras – it’s better than it sounds!). Afterwards, we head back outside to see the playful window displays of Galeries Lafayette, and then move down the street to the chic, designer-crafted windows of Printemps. It’s one of our favorite ways to kick off the Christmas season and get in the spirit come December! “ Sara from Simply Sara Travel, an American recently moved back to the US from Paris.
photo of Christmas decorations at Galeries Lafayette Paris provided by Sara
“Christmas in France – I’m converted. Cosy nights, mulled wine and glittering Christmas lights versus beach days, prawns (on the bbq) and the sound of cicadas filling the humid air. The festive season works better in winter. Although I do miss sipping champagne in the swimming pool! “ Chrissie from The Riviera Grapevine, Australian expat in Nice.
Christmas decorations in Nancy
“Throughout December the villages and towns of France bustle with Christmas markets, their streets lined with tinsel and bow decked Christmas trees, their street lamps adorned with fairy lights, everywhere looks beautiful, everywhere is full of life. Christmas for me is a time to enjoy walks in the frost or snow, sneakily pick a few sprigs of mistletoe from the trees, drink a bière de Noël or a vin chaud in the local bar or at home in front of the wood burning fire, and laugh at parties as French and English friends try to communicate as best they can. In essence Christmas in France is no different than back in the UK, I just think it’s more pure, more focused on family and friends rather than razzle-dazzle, over the top celebrations, and I think that’s just perfect!” Katherine from Le Jardin Perdu, British expat in Corrèze.
frozen berries in Lorraine
“What I love most about Christmas in France is the spirit of family and unity that I witness year after year in my belle-famille [family in law]. Everyone goes to great lengths to be together at Christmas and we spend the 24th and 25th together. Now that the family is expanding, it has become more of a challenge, but whenever it is possible, the entire family still comes together. This photo [below] is from Christmas 2013.” Maria from Trilingual Mama, an American living in Normandy.
family photo provided by Maria
“In France I do love that Christmas is not too commercial. There is excitement, and the lights in the towns and villages are so pretty, the shops and restaurants are decorated, but it is not over the top. The excitement is allowed to build slowly, there is still a strong emphasis on family. I absolutely love the open air patinoire, the ice skating rink, surrounded by little wooden chalets selling local specialities and I also love that the bakery is open on Christmas morning. Where else in the world would a baker be open on Christmas morning, but here in France! We wander down the road and collect our bûche, it’s actually become quite a tradition and is very much part of a French Christmas.” Susan from Our French Oasis, British expat in SW France.
photo of skating in Rochefort provided by Susan
And what about me? Just like nearly everyone here I love the focus on food. Food is important at Christmas all around the world, but in France it really is “taken to a whole new level” (to quote Emily). As Susan points out, where else in the world is your local village baker open on Christmas day just so you can have croissants for breakfast and the freshest bread possible for Christmas dinner? Foie gras has become an integral part of my Christmas meal (though I don’t actually make my own like Rosemary) and it’s no secret, I too love vin chaud. I enjoy the Christmas markets, especially the small one day local affairs and skating under the blue skies of the Riviera is one of our favourite things to do en famille in December. I’ve rarely seen municipal decorations I don’t like, they are nearly always understated and elegant and when we lived in Paris we made sure we visited the window displays of the grands magasins every year just like Sara. But above all I love that Christmas just isn’t crazily commercial here, it doesn’t start in October and the consumerism is limited to choosing the best possible food and not the biggest bargains on electrical goods. It’s simple, France is a very special place to celebrate les fêtes de fin d’année.
photo of Christmas gingerbread provided by Christy of What Up Swags
I hope you’ve enjoyed reading about Christmas in France and if you’re a homesick expat I hope you’ve found some reasons to enjoy Christmas where you are. Please share your experiences in the comments. Thank you so much to all the lovely French and Francophile bloggers who took the time to send me their thoughts and pictures at this busy time of year, I adored all the positive, wonderful reasons to love Christmas in France. Wishing you all a very happy Christmas where ever you are – joyeux Noël!
All photos credited to the appropriate bloggers, photo for PIN by Sara from Simply Sara Travel and where no source is provided they’re mine.
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