French holidays for beginners

Family, presents and indigestion: this is the French holiday period in a nutshell. As the Christmas shenanigans kick off already on 1 December and continue until 2 February, a full-option, French Christmas ritual consists of multiple parties, thousands of calories and no less than two holy men.

TEXT: ARNE ADRIAENSSENS | PHOTO © UNSPLASH

When to start?

In general, the French start counting down to Christmas from 1 December. The tastiest way to do this is with an advent calendar from which you can steal a chocolate on every day that passes. If you want even more chocolate, you can write a letter, put it in your shoe alongside a carrot, and hope that Saint Nicholas fills it with sweets and toys. On the night of 6 December, this holy man roams the roofs of Northern France with his horse, to bring all children a little surprise. Or, at least the ones who have been good this year. If your shoe doesn’t get filled, you can try sending a nice letter to Pere Noël (Santa Claus) instead. He will be handing out his gifts on 24 December.

How to celebrate Christmas?

Most French households organise their big party on Christmas eve – 24 December – where they patiently wait until midnight. Not that this waiting is torturous; French Christmas tables are traditionally filled with the greatest delicacies from the sea. Oysters, lobster, caviar, shrimps, fine fish… and all of it accompanied by green beans, gratin dauphinoise and multiple glasses of bubbles. Carnivorous families can opt for the tastiest treats of the land, like turkey or foie gras. The soundtrack of this rich feast is atmospheric chit-chat, a ho-ho-ho from Pere Noël when he enters the living room and the sound of gift-wrap being shred to pieces. After the clock strikes 12, the kids are put to bed and the parents enjoy a digestif. The following day, many families repeat this entire ritual over lunch, when they visit their grandparents.

What about New Year’s Eve?
Where Christmas is a party for families, New Year’s is usually celebrated with friends. Families with kids invite befriended couples and their kids to end the year together. Teenagers celebrate the new year while partying with friends in the city. Yet, regardless of where you are celebrating, at midnight, everyone gazes up to see the colourful spectacle going on in the sky.

When does it end?

After the first of January, France is done celebrating its festival of lights. Yet, to keep the warm and fuzzy Christmas spirit inside living rooms, the illuminated tree does not have to go into the attic before 2 February, exactly 40 days after Christmas: after which you are more than welcome to start looking forward to the next 1 December.

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