Merry Christmas in French: How To Celebrate Noël à la Française
Ah, spending the Christmas holidays in France, the dream! But are you sure you know how to celebrate Noël à la française?
As a country, France has really got it all. Whether you want some winter sun and mild weather in the far South, a chic but chilly city break in Paris, Lyon or Bordeaux for instance, or a frosty ski trip, the size and location of l’Hexagone mean that it offers something for everyone.
In the South they may get a smattering of snow, but on the whole, days are still dry, bright and pleasant and you can still get outdoors. Big cities may be grey and damp come wintertime, but that doesn’t mean they lose any of their charm. Paris is known for its dazzling window displays along Avenue des Champs Elysées and Boulevard Haussmann. You could enjoy a winter break in Marseille, Nice or Montpellier or a ski season in Val d’Isère, Courchevel or Méribel.
So, who celebrates Christmas in France?
Like most of Europe, lots of people celebrate Christmas, whether they are Christian or not.
In the UK and US, it is customary to see people decorating the outside of their homes with les guirlandes éléctriques – fairy lights. While these do exist in France, you are more likely to see them in the town squares and on public buildings than on individual homes.
Something which is more common in France than elsewhere is perhaps les marchés de Noël – Christmas markets. Small wooden stands in the style of French châlets selling artisan crafts and seasonal foods. Lots of things will be handmade, one of the great things about France is their support for regional produce, so there will be products and delicacies alike, all sourced locally.
French people love to have pain d’épice – gingerbread at Christmas time, and this can be found more widely across Europe too.
At the market, you might also see des décorations de Noël – Christmas decorations for sale.
How to say Merry Christmas in French
Noël simply means Christmas, it is a masculine noun. to wish someone a Merry Christmas in French, you just add on joyeux for merry, forming Joyeux Noël.
Noël is a popular first name in France for boys. There are also variations like Jean-Noël and Noelle for a girl.
In France, they have Christmas dinner as we know it on December 24th, instead of the 25th, and call this le réveillon de Noël – the Christmas meal.
You might also see des couronnes – wreaths, and des bougies – candles, and don’t forget about les calendriers de l’Avent – advent calendars, as they have those too!
Whether your sapin de Noël – Christmas tree is real or fake, you can set it up anytime from November through December, and it is usually taken down in janvier – January.
Something we don’t see as much in France is the Christmas stocking. The reason for this is that traditionally in France, Santa would leave the Christmas gifts in shoes placed by the fireplace. This tradition has fallen out of favour over time and now gifts are just placed under the tree. Maybe this is because not many homes in modern France have working fireplaces, particularly not in apartments, and they are no longer the central focus of the family home.
For more Christmas vocabulary, you could try looking up les chants de Noël – Christmas songs, such as Petit Papa Noël.
The nativity features la Vièrge Marie – the Virgin Mary, Joseph, le petit Jésus, un âne – a donkey, un boeuf – an ox, un ange – an angel, les Rois Mages – the three kings, l’étoile – the star, un berger – a shepherd and un mouton – a sheep.
At Christmas mass – la messe de Noël, you might hear about un miracle – a miracle, Dieu – God, prier – to pray and une prière – a prayer.
In some parts of France, particularly in the North-East, you might find Saint Nicholas instead of Santa, who brings his gifts to the children at the beginning of December, on the sixth.
Here is some vocabulary you’d need to describe Christmas night, when le Père Noël makes his journey across the night sky in son traineau – his sleigh, with les rennes – the reindeer, carrying les cadeaux – the gifts, made by les elfes – the elves, for all the children on la liste des enfants sages – the good list.
Il descend dans la cheminée – he comes down the chimney, for du lait and des biscuits – milk and biscuits or cookies.
There’s still time pour écrire une lettre au Père-Noël – to write a letter to Santa, before la veille de Noël – Christmas Eve.
Challenge yourself to practice saying Merry Christmas in French this festive season:
Je vous souhaite un joyeux Noël! – I wish you a Merry Christmas!
Passer Noël en famille – to spend Christmas as a family
Décorer la maison – to decorate the house
Faire des cadeaux – to give gifts/presents
Ouvrir des cadeaux – to open gifts/presents
Envoyer ses voeux de Noël – to send out Christmas cards
And if not, you can always make it your New Year’s resolution for 2020!
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Ella Louise Finn is a Freelance French & Spanish to Native English Translator, Proofreader, Copywriter and Transcriber, now based in Glasgow, Scotland, after spending time in Argentina and France honing her language skills.