French Christmas Tradition Assignments

A traditional Corsican Christmas blaze. Photo: AFP

From abseiling Santas to floating choirs and 13 desserts, the French do have some unusual customs and events during the festive season that need explaining.

You may know all about the Christmas markets, or even that there's something of an oyster frenzy at this time of year - but have you heard about the couture Christmas trees in Paris or the thirteen different Christmas desserts in Provence? 

Here's a closer look at 12 unusual French Christmas traditions.

Floating carol singers in Colmar

In the Little Venice of Colmar in northeastern France, children decked out in red Santa hats sing Christmas carols on boats along the canal. They make four stops throughout the city centre, performing four or five songs each time to the audience gathered on the quays. 

“Many of them only join the choir for this event,” director Evelyne Fleck told Source d'Initiatives Magazine. “What they really love is singing all huddled together on the boats, in the cold at night in front of large crowds."

Photo: Alsace Tourism Office

Santa's Descent

In 1966, the northern city of Douai became the first to feature the spectacle of Santa Claus rappelling down the belfry tower with his elves as the town looks on.  About a dozen climbers rappel down the tower for the event each year.

Last year a young man fell to his death during a rehearsal for the event. This year (and last year), Santa descended from the Hotel du Dauphin instead, much to the chagrin of some locals. 

Photo: AFP

Zoo de la Fleche

Even animals deserve Christmas presents. In recent years at the Zoo de la Flèche in Le Mans, the animals were given gifts to open, which they did with much enthusiasm. 

Photo: AFP

Photo: AFP

Alsacien Folklore

The city of Wissembourg in Alsace puts on a nocturnal parade including a torchlight procession and light show. The principal character of the parade is Hans Trapp, known in regional folklore as "a wild man dressed all in black, with chains and large boots, who carries a baton and a large sack," according to the Wissembourg tourism website.

He strikes fear in the hearts of all children. He's accompanied by the baby Jesus, who tosses out sweets to the children. 

Photo: Mairie de Wissembourg

13 desserts in Provence

One dessert is not nearly enough if you're celebrating Christmas in Provence. It's tradition to have thirteen dessert options after the Christmas meal, to be shared by everyone, symbolizing the sharing of Christ. These desserts traditionally include pastries, candied fruit, dried fruit, and nougat. 

Photo: AFP

Noel aux Nefs

On the site of the former shipyards in Nantes is a unique artistic project called Les Machines de l'Ile, described on its website as a "crossroads of Jules Verne's 'invented worlds', the mechanical universe of Leonardi da Vinci, and of Nantes' industrial history..."

A highlight of the project is a 12-metre mechanical elephant that can take 50 passengers at a time for a ride around the shipyards. Every Christmas, the Machines de l'Ile puts on a Christmas show called "Noel aux Nefs", featuring ice sculptures, circus performers, ballet dancers, and other festive activities.

Photo: Jean-Dominique Billaud

Les Santons of the South

Nativity scenes are popular throughout France, but the people of Provence put their own unique spin on them with small, clay figurines called santons, or "little saints".  

These figures, traditionally handmade at home as a family, can be vegetable sellers, bakers, men selling chestnuts, local dignitaries, or other personalities from daily village life. These nativity scenes are supposed to be representative of the ideal Provencal village. Marseille holds an annual Santon Fair at the end of November to kick off the holiday season.

Designer Christmas Trees

In Paris, an annual exhibition of reimagined Christmas trees created by big names in fashion, design, and architecture, takes place this year at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées. The avant-garde trees have been designed in the past by artists such as Alexander McQueen, Chanel, Karl Lagerfeld, Jean Paul Gaultier, Dior, Louis Vuitton, and more. After the show, the trees are auctioned off and all proceeds go to charity. 

Photo: Les Sapins de Noel des Créateurs

Santa Claus Race

The Parisian suburb of Issy-les-Moulineaux brings a sportive atmosphere to the holidays with their annual Santa Claus race. Called the "Corrida de Noel" after its Brazilian counterpart, the race is accompanied by orchestras and shows. See the results and pictures from this year's event here. 

Photo: Corrida de Noel Issy-les-Moulineaux

Coquilles de Noel

Since the 16th century, people of the Nord Pas-de-Calais region have been testing their arteries with a type of brioche, or sweet bun, filled with butter, sugar, and raisins.  

Bakers in the north churn out these pastries, made in the shape of coquilles or shells, every December.  According to France 3, a document from 1579 states that the sweets were thrown to the people from the top of the belfry tower.

Photo: Niriel/Flickr

Corsican Christmas Fire

In Corsica, the yule log takes the form of a bonfire lit in front of the village church after the midnight mass on December 24th.

Traditionally, it's up to the children of the village to gather the logs and branches, all of which must come from the fields and the yards of the village.  Once the fire has died out the next day, the villagers each take some of the still-warm cinders to put in their own fireplaces.

Photo: Stéphane Lagarde/Flickr

Holiday Acrobatics in Rennes

The city of Rennes puts a unique spin on their holiday festivities with an acrobatics show in the main square, Place de la Mairie. Recent years have seen aerial dancers and tightrope walkers performing in front of the courthouse, typically on the evening of December 31st. 

Photo: tangi bertin/Flickr

Santa Claus is called Père Noël in French or Father Christmas. Small children may also call him Papa Noël or Daddy Christmas. He looks more or less like the Santa Claus from the American Coca-Cola ads, but  there are a few subtle differences in his costume and practices that make him French.

1.  Rather than the red Santa hat, Père Noël wears a red cloak with a hood trimmed in white fur. He often wears the hood up and so it’s a small difference that you can easily not be noticed.

2.. Children do not wake-up to presents under the tree on Christmas morning. Traditionally, le Père Noël brings toys to good little boys and girls after evening Mass on Christmas Eve.

3.  Children do not leave Santa Claus milk and cookies. French adults rarely drink milk and will usually laugh at the idea of a leaving a glass of milk for a grown man, even if he is Santa. At the very least, they’ll joke leave the guy a glass of Calvados or a wine.

4. Children do not hang stockings, but rather leave their shoes and slippers by the fireplace. If they have been good, Père Noël will leave treats in their shoes or slippers. Nowadays, he often also leaves piles of presents under the tree.

5.  The Père Noël does not leave coal for naughty children. Instead children behave around the holidays out of fear of Le Père Fouettard, who follows Father Christmas, and as his name implies whips and beats badly behaved children. Getting nothing but coal doesn’t sound so bad now, does it?

To help you prepare for the holiday, here are a few other useful words in French:

Christmas = Noël

Christmas carol = un chant de Noël

Christmas Day = le jour de Noël

Christmas Eve = la veille de Noël;

Christmas present = un cadeau de Noël;

Christmas tree = le sapin de Noël, l’arbre de Noël

Merry Christmas! = Joyeux Noël !

Bonnes fêtes de fin d’année from French As You Like It, your French language school in Paris!

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