While many French Christmas traditions are ones that are shared by cultures elsewhere in Europe or even globally, some are a bit more distinctive. From Christmas log cakes and other typical desserts à la française, to warming winter rituals designed to bring light and contemplation to the season, these customs are observed in different regions of France– and can be enjoyed at home with a bit of preparation. Here’s more on some of the traditions most beloved by the French around “Noël”– and how to take part in them, whether during a trip or at home.
1. The Fête des Lumières (Light Festival): A Tradition in Lyon
Little-known to anyone who hasn’t visited Lyon during the Christmas season, the Fête des Lumières (Festival of Lights) is an event that the old-Gallo Roman city celebrates with much fanfare every December 8th. Buildings and historic monuments are illuminated in warm and colored lights throughout the city, and residents place candles and candelabras in their windows to mark the occasion, creating a contagious sense of seasonal warmth and contemplation.
The tradition dates to the 17th century and has both religious and secular origins. After Lyon was struck by a plague in 1643, city officials pledged to pay tribute to the Virgin Mary if the city was mostly spared from destruction and death. From that year onward, a formal procession has climbed the Fourvière hill to the Basilica at its heights, lighting candles and making offerings to Mary.
Following periods of social and political revolt in the early part of the century, Lyon was in turmoil. In September 1852, city and religious officials settled on a gesture designed to promote healing and unity, planning to place a gilded statue of the Virgin Mary at the top of the Fourvière basilica. But severe flooding disrupted the plans, and the event was pushed back to take place on December 8, corresponding to a Catholic feast in the run-up to Christmas.
Lyonnais residents reportedly began placing candles in colored glasses in their windows to take part in the new festivities, and the ritual stuck. Today, the Fête des Lumières still has Catholic connotations, but it is also seen by many as a festive and unifiying event to kick off the winter holiday season.
Of course, most people won’t be able to make it to Lyon to take in all the seasonal fanfare. To celebrate at home, why not purchase a few votives in colored glass (or lumignons, as they’re called in Lyon) and place them in your own windowsills– or simply mark the occasion on December 8th and the surrounding days by filling your living room with soft candlelight? It’s an ideal way to “get hygge for the holidays”.
2. Christmas Markets (Marchés de Noël)
While this tradition de Noël is one that’s widely practiced throughout Europe and beyond, Christmas markets are too important to not mention as part of a wider discussion of French holiday traditions.
Especially popular in the northeastern region of Alsace, at the border of Germany, French marchés de Noël are also major annual events in Paris and around France, drawing millions of people every year to wander through the lanes lined with traditional wooden stalls.
Mulled wine, roasted chestnuts, pralines (candied nuts), crepes, gingerbread and waffles are among the warming and festive fare that’s ubiquitous at French Christmas markets. The softly illuminated stalls are also ideal for finding interesting seasonal gifts, from wooden toys to artisanal jams, cakes and handmade jewelry.
For more on Christmas markets in Paris, see my complete guide to celebrating Christmas in the capital. Meanwhile, this guide is useful for finding markets in Strasbourg and around France — this year and beyond.
While creating your own French-style Christmas market at home is less than realistic, you can bring a bit of the “marché de Noël spirit” to wherever you are by– for example– preparing a simmering pan of mulled wine, letting its scents of clove, allspice and citrus fill your house– or spending an evening on seasonal crafts such as clove oranges and handmade paper decorations for the tree.
3. The 13 (+) Desserts of Christmas
In Provence, the holiday season brings with it festive cornucopia of traditional sweets, referred to as “13 desserts of Provence (treize desserts de Provence). Dating to the middle ages, the tradition is observed following “le gros souper” (the large Christmas eve meal). A large table is generously bedecked with 13 distinctive treats, together representing Jesus and the 12 apostles.
The mix can vary, but the 13 desserts almost always consist in some combination of the following sweet treats (some of which are relatively healthy):
Dried nuts and fruit, from hazelnuts to almonds, alongside fresh fruit (citrus and apples are popular). Nuts are sometimes meant to represent “the four beggars”, or, in some places, different religious orders within Christianity.
Candied and jellied fruit or soft treats called pates de fruit; white and black nougats, marzipan; a sweet, olive oil and orange blossom-infused flatbread called pompe a l’huile; and various kind ofs biscuits and tartes also adorn the festive table. One particular regional specialty that often shows up in the 13 desserts are calissons: almond-shaped cookies from Aix-en-Provence that are flavored with melon and glazed with marzipan.
Chocolate and caramels sometimes make an appearance in the spread, but are less traditional.
Other French Desserts for Christmas
Of course, there are plenty of other traditional French Christmas desserts you can try at home or partake of while traveling (see our full guide here). Most popular among these are the bûche de Noël (Christmas logs), a centerpiece dessert served on Christmas Eve or day following a large meal, and with roots in the pagan tradition of lighting a log in the fire to mark the winter solstice. After most homes in France were deprived of their functioning chimneys, pastry makers in the 19th century devised the Christmas dessert log as a way of continuing the tradition.
Other desserts to try whipping up in your own kitchen (or buying from a shop or Christmas market if traveling to France this season) include the Kougelhopf, a yeasted bundt cake native to Alsace, gingerbread or “spiced bread” (pain d’épices, popular around France, but especially traditional to the Burgundy region), and French-style Christmas cookies called bredeles de Noël. Again, see more on these typical holiday desserts (and links to recipes) in my full guide.
4. Christmas Eve Traditions in France — “Le Réveillon de Noël“
Another important aspect of Christmas celebrations in France– but one that’s also observed in much of Europe and elsewhere– is the centrality of le réveillon de Noël (Christmas Eve). While this isn’t true for all families, many in France make the réveillon celebration the central one, preparing the largest and most important meal and even opening presents the night before Christmas. The night is long– most families stay up past midnight– and the feasting is serious business.
Although many (if not most) French people celebrate Christmas as a secular family holiday rather than a religious one, the traditional midnight mass is attended by many. And even those who aren’t religious might enjoy the musical programming at the masses, and partake in rituals with religious origins (such as the aforementioned 13 desserts).
Finally, even though each region and family has its own traditions for the Christmas eve dinner, some dishes are especially popular. Fresh oyster platters served with lemon wedges, bread and salted butter are a common first course for le réveillon, as are escargots or langoustines (lobster).
Roasted goose or lamb are as popular as turkey or game hens for the main course, and are typically accompanied by vegetables and seasonal products such as roasted chestnuts. As for dessert, see above for some of the most popular ones served for Christmas (both eve and day).
5. The Pre-Dinner Apéritif
Last but certainly not least, one Christmas tradition that’s common in many French families is the pre-dinner apéritif, consisting of drinks (usually alcoholic, but not obligatory) and small amuse-bouches (hors d’oeuvres/canapés) or snacks.
Champagne or sparkling wine (including good crémants from Burgundy, Alsace or the Loire Valley are popular choices for the festive apéritif, as are kirs royals (champagne or sparkling white wine topped with a concentrated fruit syrup). But any cocktail or before-dinner drink will do– use your imagination to craft something special for the occasion.
For ideas on creative French cocktails to try at home as part of a holiday party or before-dinner apéritif, I recommend David Lebovitz’s excellent book Drinking French. Also see my interview with David for more on the inspiration and painstaking research behind many of the drinks in the book.
As for nibbles, they can be as simple as savory snacks such as sesame-encrusted flutes, chips, and/or olives, to miniature quiches, sandwiches and soufflés, crunchy toasts topped with smoked salmon or other ingredients, canapés, and “verrines” (small, transparent glasses filled in layers with savory mousses, patés, smoked salmon, cream cheese and cucumber, etc.)
Note that cheese plates are generally enjoyed following the main courses in France, but no one says you can’t be a bit unorthodox on this point when at home.