Christmas Traditions in France

Joyeux Noël et Bonne Année

Sapin de Noël
In France, the
Sapin de Noël (Christmas tree) is the central decoration of homes, streets, shops, offices, and factories. While the Christmas tree is not specifically French, it is said that its origin is found in the province of Alsace. In the 14th century, one century before the Lutheran Reformation, at a time when Alsace belonged to the Roman-German Empire, Christmas trees were decorated with apples, paper flowers, and ribbons.

Büche de Noël
One thing that is specifically French is the Büche de Noël or Yule Log. This long log shaped creamy cake, with its pieces of chocolate and chestnuts is a widely known and much enjoyed pastry. But most of French people have forgotten that this pastry is a gastronomic adaptation of a pagan tradition of the ancient Gaulois (Gauls). The original tradition continues to be followed in the Périgord region in southwest France, some 100 kilometers east-north-east of Bordeaux.

By tradition, the people of the Périgord region take a log and put it in their fireplace the night before Christmas. Because this same log must burn until New Year day, it is a special type of hard wood from a fruit tree that allows it to burn slowly. This tradition of log burning comes from the pagan idea of sacrifice to assure the fertility of their fruit trees.

The superstitious believed that the magical powers of this log became real through the use of the log’s ashes and remaining cinders. This belief persisted well into the 19th century among farmers of the Périgord region who would spread the log’s ashes on their crops believing that it would aid in the harvesting of a better crop. Other uses that were believed to be beneficial included spreading the ashes in their wheat loft to keep away the rats and the weevils and spreading the ashes around their house to protect it. The remaining extinguished cinders were saved to be rekindled during terrible thunderstorms because it was believed that it could make the lightening go away.

La Créche
Since the first centuries, Christians had a great devotion to caves and La Créche de Noël or the Nativity Scene. Such scenes existed as early as the 11th century. It is said that Francis of Assisi was the first to make a Nativity scene. In Greccio, Italy, during Christmas 1223 he was said to have placed a real donkey and a real ox in his créche, which he located in a cave.

The tradition of having a nativity scene at Christmas time became a common practice in Italy and in France. Each region in France had its own traditional way to make the figures. Some examples of the different types include those made of wood, dough, clay or painted terra-cotta. Sizes for the figures ranged from very small to life size.