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Noël en France


'Merry Christmas' in French is 'Joyeux Noël.'   Father Christmas is le Père Noël.   If you are going to send him a letter then it should begin:-   Cher Père Noël, ....

pere noel.gif

In the North East of France, Christmas celebrations begin on the 6 December - also known as Saint Nicholas' Day.  

The celebrations take place because, once upon a time, there were three children who got lost in the countryside.  A wicked butcher kidnapped them.  

Luckily, Saint Nicolas rescued the children and returned them to their parents.  This is why Saint Nicholas is known as the protector of children.  Another name for him is Santa Claus!


On the night of 5 December (the eve of Saint Nicholas) children place their shoes at the entrance to their house.  They also leave a carrot and a sugar lump for Saint Nicholas' donkey.  During the night, the saint arrives bringing treats for the children to find in their shoes in the morning.


There is also a scary (but fun) character called le Père Fouettard.  He represents the wicked butcher who kidnapped the children.  Le Père Fouettard follows Saint Nicholas, carries a whip and is dressed in black.  The name le Père Fouettard comes from the word for 'the whip.'      
le fouet = the whip.

Below is a traditional song for la Saint-Nicolas.

The words to the song are:-

Il était trois petits enfants
There were three little children
Qui s'en allaient glaner aux champs.
Who would go to gather grain in the fields.
S'en vinrent un soir chez un boucher.
They came across a butcher's house one evening.
"Boucher, voudrais-tu nous coucher?"
"Butcher, can we sleep at your house?"
"Entrez, entrez, petits enfants.
"Come in, come in, little children.
Il y a de la place assurément!"
Of course there is room!"


One of the most important places for les festivités de la Saint-Nicolas is a town named after the saint. 
It is called Saint-Nicolas-de-Port because the saint's relics are kept in the town's basilica.

Below is a photo of Saint Nicolas with Père Fouettard.   Also, an image of the traditional gingerbread - le pain d'épices - that is made in the shape of Saint Nicholas.



In the city of Lyon there is a wonderful Festival of Lights.  It is called la Fête des Lumières.  It is a four-day festival taking place around the 8 December.  

Why does it take place at this time?  
In France, the 8 December is a celebration in honour of the Virgin Mary - la Vierge Marie.   In Lyon, during this festival, there are amazing, artistic light shows illuminating the buildings.  Below is an image of the city's cathedral, dressed in coloured light.

Saint-jean cathedral, old Lyon, France.j

An important French tradition is to display une crèche somewhere in your home.   This tradition is most popular in the region of Provence.  

La crèche is a pretty arrangement of little buildings and figurines surrounding the Christmas crib.  The figurines are called santons and they include:-

the Baby Jesus - l'Enfant Jésus
Mary and Joseph - Marie et Joseph
the shepherds - les bergers
the angels - les anges
the Three Kings - les Rois Mages
the animals - les animaux
the village people - les habitants d'un village


In la crèche, the figurines of the village people represent lots of different professions, for example:- 

le boulanger - the baker 
le fermier - the farmer  
le chasseur - the hunter 
 la lavandière - the laundry maid


There is also a figurine called le ravi, meaning 'the delighted one', and he always has his arms raised to express his delight.  Everybody is welcoming the Baby Jesus!


Some figurines are placed in la crèche later than the others:- The figurine of the Baby Jesus is placed in His manger on Christmas Day, to represent the day of His birth.  The figurines of the Three Kings appear on the night of 5 January, to represent the time they arrived at the stable.

You can read a Christmas poem about village people here.

La veille de Noël is Christmas Eve.  The night of Christmas Eve is also called la nuit de Noël. 

On the night of Christmas Eve, there is a special meal to celebrate the very beginning of Christmas Day.  This traditional Christmas Eve dinner is called le réveillon de Noël. 


Joyeux Noël et bon appétit!

In the region of Provence, it is the tradition to serve thirteen desserts at the end of the Christmas Eve dinner.  They are known as les treize desserts or les calenos.  The number 13 represents Jesus and His twelve disciples.   The desserts are set out on the table where they remain for three days. 

Two of the thirteen traditional desserts are called le gibassier and la pompe à l'huile d'olive.  They are a type of flat brioche containing olive oil and flavoured with aniseed, orange or lemon.  Another traditional item is le nougat which is served in two colours:  le nougat blanc (white nougat) and le nougat noir (black nougat).   
You can read more about this tradition here.


French children leave their shoes out in front of the fireplace - la cheminée, or around the Christmas tree - le sapin de Noël.  When they awake on Christmas Day, they hope to find that le Père Noël has visited and that the shoes (les souliers) are filled and surrounded by gifts - des cadeaux.  

Le soulier de Noël - the traditional French version of the Christmas stocking  (The French words actually say 'the Christmas shoe.')

Nowadays, you will also find: la chaussette de Noël - the Christmas sock/stocking  and  la botte de Noël - the Christmas boot

souliers de Noel.jpg

Voici du vocabulaire de Noël:
Here is some Christmas vocabulary:

le jour de Noël - Christmas Day
la Nativité - the Nativity
l'Avent - Advent
le calendrier de l'Avent - the Advent calendar
la crèche - the crib, the manger, or the Nativity scene
Marie et Joseph - Mary and Joseph
l'Enfant Jésus - the Baby Jesus 
l'ange - the angel
l'étoile - the star
Bethléem - Bethlehem
l'âne - the donkey
le berger - the shepherd
les Rois Mages - the Three Kings
le chant de Noël - the Christmas carol
la guirlande de Noël - the Christmas tinsel
la guirlande électrique - the fairy lights
la bougie or la chandelle - the candle
le bonhomme de neige - the snowman
le renne - the reindeer
le traîneau - the sleigh

Christmas dinners often include:-
seafood - les fruits de mer
 oysters - les huîtres
lobster - le homard
snails - les escargots
smoked salmon - le saumon fumé
caviar - le caviar
duck - le canard
goose - l'oie
goose liver pâté - le foie gras
turkey - la dinde 
green beans - les haricots
cheese -  le fromage
Champagne - le champagne / le vin de Champagne
foil-wrapped chocolates -
les papillotes
For dessert there is usually a sponge and buttercream Christmas log called la bûche de Noël.  


Here are some French Christmas proverbs:

Décembre trop beau, été dans l'eau.
If the weather in December is too nice, the summer will be wet.

Noël neigeux, été merveilleux.
Snowy Christmas, wonderful summer.

Boxing Day is referred to as le lendemain de Noël or la Saint-Étienne - St. Stephen's Day.

New Year's Eve is called la Saint-Sylvestre (Saint Sylvester's Day).  There is a special dinner in the evening called le réveillon de la Saint-Sylvestre also known as le réveillon du jour de l'An.  There are parties and presents too.   New Year gifts are called les étrennes.  

To say 'Happy New Year' you say Bonne Année!  This actually means 'Good Year.'


Les Plantes de Noël
In France, some plants that are associated with the festive period are:  holly -
le houx and the red poinsettia plant which is known as une étoile de Noël - a Christmas star.

Mistletoe (le gui) is considered a plant that brings good luck for the next year.  It is a 'lucky plant' - une plante porte-bonheur.  There is an old French saying:- Au gui l'an neuf.  This means:- 'Mistletoe for the New Year.' 

Red Poinsettia

l'étoile de Noël

Christmas Holly

le houx

Image by Annie Spratt

le gui -  C'est une plante porte-bonheur!

New Year's Day is called le jour de l'An or le Nouvel An.   Many people make a New Year Resolution.  This is called une bonne résolution de Nouvel An.

During the first days of January, a special cake is prepared called la galette des Rois (the Kings' cake). 

The cake is officially eaten on 6 January in celebration of the journey of the Three Kings - les Rois Mages -  who followed the star of Bethlehem, found the Baby Jesus - l'Enfant Jésus - and gave Him their gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.   

In French, those gifts are called l'or, l'encens et la myrrhe.  

three kings..jpg
galette des rois.JPG

The date of 6 January is called l' Épiphanie.  It is also known as la Fête des Rois.  

The Kings' cake, la galette des Rois, is round and made of puff pastry.  Inside the cake, a special trinket is hidden.  This trinket is called une fève - meaning 'a bean.'  

It used to be the tradition to find a 'dried bean' inside the cake but nowadays the trinkets are little, porcelain figurines.

You must be careful when eating the cake - just in case you bite into the hidden trinket and damage your teeth!

On 6 January, parties take place and the Kings' cake is served by playing a traditional game!
A child hides under the table and shouts out the name of the next person to be served a slice of the cake.  It is then discovered who has won the trinket - la fève.  That person  becomes the 'king' or 'queen' of the party and wears a paper crown.   Everyone shouts, 'Vive le roi!' (Long live the king!) or 'Vive la reine!' (Long live the queen!).

A rule of the game is that the king - le roi - or the queen - la reine - should buy or make the cake for the next party.



The name of the Three Kings - les Rois Mages - is a way to say 'the magic kings'.  They used their magic powers of observing the stars and planets to look for special meanings and warnings.  It was the star of Bethlehem - l'étoile de Bethléem - that indicated the birth and location of a new King for which they set out on their journey. 

Some Interesting Facts: 


1.  During the French Revolution the Kings' cake was not allowed to be called by that name.  The word 'king' or roi was not very popular at that time in France, so the cake was re-named le gâteau de l'égalité,   meaning:- 'the equality cake.'

2.  The English word 'tinsel' comes from the French verb étinceler, meaning - to sparkle.

Joyeux Noël et Bonne Année!

French Christmas Activities Pack

Christmas card templates.

Christmas bookmark templates.


Christmas signs.


Suitable for primary schools.

French Christmas Resources. Euroclub Sch

Christmas in France

A PDF collection of worksheets providing information on French Christmas traditions and vocabulary. 

Designed for use with our website. 

All answers are provided in the teachers' section.

Suitable for KS2 & Y7

Christmas in France eBook
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