It comes as no surprise that American Christmas traditions -- Christmas trees, holiday table linens, Christmas dinners, gift exchanges, Santa Claus, to even holiday decorations, are not so different from those in France. That said, there are a few notable differences.
The Christmas Tree - Le Sapin de Noël
Let’s start with the Christmas tree. Just about every American home has had the traditional Christmas tree, whether real or artificial, at one time or another. This familiar Christmas symbol is equally found in France, dating back to Alsace (due no doubt to their proximity to Germany) in the 1500s when the sapin de noël or arbre de noël first appeared. This fir tree, thought to originally symbolize eternal life and hope, was brought indoors in December, decorated, with gifts placed under it presumably by Père Noël. While Christmas trees in France were originally decorated with red apples and candles, symbolizing “the light that illuminates the world.” now, as in the US, the French Christmas tree can be multi-coloured and decorated with a wide range of baubles and tinsel.
Decorating Our Towns & Cities
In general, French holiday decorations tend to be more understated than the more extravagant style that’s popular elsewhere in the world, especially here in the US. And while most French people don’t go overboard when it comes to decorating their home (inside or out), tasteful window displays in towns and shops can be seen throughout the country.
Obviously, in Paris, being more of an international city, the decorations are much more flamboyant, as they are in New York City with the grands magasins (department stores) like Galerie LaFayette decorating their vitrines (shop window) much like we see at here Macy’s or Bloomingdales.
Traditional Marchés de Noel – Outdoor Christmas Markets
Somewhat unique to France and Western Europe are the Marchés de Noel - outdoor Christmas Markets. Here, holiday decorations, foods, gifts can be purchased where the “quality over quantity” strategy is usually favored. At these Christmas markets one can purchase everything from decorations, petits cadeaux (small gifts), local products and handcrafted items, “vin chaud” (mulled wine), Christmas cakes, biscuits, and gingerbread. These traditional shops lining the city or town streets create a true outdoor shopping experience, a “winter wonderland” of sorts. Does it come as any surprise that the largest Christmas market in the world is in France – in Alsace, in the city of Strasbourg?
Christmas Market, Paris
Christmas Market, Strasbourg
Popularity of Advent Calendars
We Americans have all received or given the traditional “advent calendar” at one time or another in our lives. The Advent Calendar is especially popular in France and is found in stores everywhere throughout the holiday season. While here in the US, we “open” a little paper window each day to reveal a Christmas image as we approach the magical date of December 25th, in France, the “windows” are generally associated with chocolate making it especially popular with children.
Yes Virginia, there is a Père Noël
For the most part, Santa Claus (or Père Noël as he is known in France) is portrayed similarly to the US or to his western European counterparts. There is one exception, however. In some parts of France, Le Père Noël – or rather, his real, saintly incarnation, Saint Nicholas, visits France twice in December. Held on December 6, this holiday is more focused on the traditional representation of St. Nicholas, rather than the red-and-white wearing Santa Claus with whom most of us in the US are familiar. This Saint Nicolas often distributes little gifts and sweets to the children. On the eve of these Saint Nicholas festivities, children place their shoes near to the fireplace at nighttime, to awaken in the morning to find their shoes filled with treats – if they’ve been good. Later in the month, as in the US, Le Père Noël –dressed in traditional red and white - brings gifts to the children late at night on December 24th, for them to discover on Christmas day.
Exchange of Gifts
Although it varies here in the US between Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, Christmas gifts are typically exchanged in France on Christmas Eve, rather than Christmas Day. This is largely due to the importance of le Réveillon de Noël meal—the traditional Christmas Eve dinner when French families gather together for a long meal (often lasting for hours).
As for the children receiving gifts from Père Noel, they usually “arrive” for the children on Christmas morning, as here in the US.
Gifts in France parallel typical gifts given here in the US.
Christmas, A True Family Holiday
While both Americans and French see Christmas as a religious holiday, both equally see it as a festive “season” to be shared with family and friends. It is a time of celebration of life, of family, of good friends, of good foods in general. And it all starts with food…
Christmas Eve – Le Réveillon de Noël
You could say that in France, food is what makes Christmas, Christmas.
One of the first traditions that comes to mind when thinking about Christmas in France is how they celebrate Christmas Eve. This is because Christmas Eve in France has more significance than in the US and is a time when French families gather together for a long meal (often lasting for hours) known in France as Le Réveillon de Noël.
A typical Réveillon de Noël meal involves multiple elaborate appetizers, usually including foie gras as one of the courses. The main course is generally some kind of fowl. This is then followed by a cheese course (an essential part of any French multi-course meal). At the end of the meal, traditionally La Buche de Noel, a sponge cake decorated like a yule log, traditionally made of chocolate and chestnuts is served.
Traditional Buche de Noel
Sweet Endings - January 6, La Fête des Rois
Lastly, the French have one last traditional holiday on January 6th marking the end of the holiday season that we don’t celebrate here in the US. This most charming of the culinary holiday customs happens on the Feast of the Epiphany, also known as La Fête des Rois when the traditional treat of une galette des rois (King’s Cake) is served to mark the feast of Epiphany.
Dating back to the 14th century, this is a delicious puff pastry cake with layers of pastry, butter, and ground almonds. Hidden inside is a “fève” or trinket. Whoever bites into a slice with the enclosed trinket is crowned king or queen for the day, bringing the custom of eating like royalty for almost two weeks to a very sweet end.
Notable Differences Between American and French Christmas Celebrations
While there are more similarities than differences in the way the Americans and the French celebrate Christmas, there are a few notable differences.
1. Holiday Colors
First, the French don’t naturally rely on the “Christmas red and Christmas green” colors, or even the traditional blue and silver for Hanukkah as we do here in the US. They tend to use more subtle and varied colors to celebrate the holidays. You’ll find this evidenced with many of their Christmas table linens. If you peruse the typical Garnier-Thiebaut or beauville tablecloth, you’ll be pleasantly surprised at how elegant and often understated their holiday linens are in terms of colors. Their use of more varied colors allows for more creativity and perhaps even versatility.
2. Christmas Greeting Cards & Carols
Next, the French don’t feel the necessity or need for the sending out holiday Christmas cards as we do here in the US. Furthermore, apart from the large stores, you won’t find Christmas music or carols being played constantly in homes or stores as they are here in the US starting around early November. Christmas carols just aren’t a major part of Christmas in France as they are here in the US. In fact, if a French store wishes to play Christmas carols, they will generally be the traditional American Christmas songs.
True Meaning of Christmas
Whether celebrated in France or in the US, Christmas for both countries means family traditions, giving and children. And these traditions remind us each year of what is truly important – a time of sharing and generosity. And most of all, it is a time of family, without which Christmas would be hollow and a pale shadow of itself.