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What do French people eat at Christmas? brace for a few surprises.

Or not. Some things will be ultra-familiar, while others may make you scratch your head in confusion.

Let's go! So really, what DO French people eat at Christmas?

It will come as no surprise that the French are super traditional when it comes to Christmas – in fact, a survey showed that given the choice, 9 out of 10 French would prefer a "traditional" French Christmas dinner to some thing more innovative. Why am I not surprised?

Whatever is served (and we'll get to that in a minute), what doesn't change is the purpose of the main Christmas meal: getting together with family, whether the nuclear family in the city or the extended family further afield. It's often a toss-up as to whose family will prepare the meal, and at whose home it will be eaten. 

Christmas tree in Strasbourg, one of the Christmas traditions in FranceChristmas tree in Strasbourg by Claude Truong-Ngoc / Wikimedia Commons CC BY-SA 3.0, Lien

French Christmas food traditions

As an aside, while Christmas is the family meal, New Year's is reserved for friends. (Of course all these are generalizations and you will find plenty of exceptions, but not that many.)

The main French Christmas meal will either take place at supper on December 24th or at lunch on Christmas Day. There's no set time for it, although if it's on the 24th, it will usually end by midnight so that families can attend Midnight Mass. Often, this is the only time they'll see the inside of a church all year... In times past, the main meal often came after Midnight Mass and I hear that some people maintain that tradition, eating from two in the morning until sunrise. I personally don't know anyone who eats their meal right after mass...

Most people will prepare a full menu for Christmas, and it will stick to tradition. If you're on the more innovative side, try a new wine or an unusual wine pairing because if you suggest something that's not usual, you may get pushback.

The classical traditional French Christmas meal

Of course there are plenty of factors that determine what a French family will eat for Christmas. One of those is budget, with expensive dishes unaffordable for many. Another is location, because there are plenty of regional specialties that may be radically different depending on where you are in France. And finally, there's your own origin. Christmas may be a Christian holiday, but it is celebrated widely, and beyond Christians. What you eat, however, may change depending on whether you are from the Mediterranean or the Middle East so here, we'll focus on the MAIN traditional Christmas meal and a few regional specialties, but we'll leave the wider variations for another time.

Again, according to surveys, the traditional French food list for Christmas includes:

  • Foie gras
  • Seafood and salmon
  • A fowl, often a turkey but not always
  • A bûche de Noël

Let's look at each in detail.

Buche de Noel - Christmas log cakeA bûche de Noël

Foie gras

While it is deeply ingrained in French culture, awareness of the controversies surrounding foie gras is growing, even in France, and people are taking note. Several cities have banned foie gras from their official menus, and more will undoubtedly do so. Foie gras producers are exploring humane methods of producing this delicacy, and everyday French are rethinking their consumption.

But the numbers continue to speak for themselves: 70% of the world's foie gras is produced in France, and 93% of French eat foie gras.

However, when you combine the ethical factors with price – good foie gras can be extremely expensive, people may think twice about how often they eat it. For many, it is reserved for the holidays, a delicacy to be savoured once or twice a year, but not regularly anymore.

Either way, foie gras remains the most beloved traditional French Christmas food, with producers sending out their order lists months in advance.

It is usually eaten on thinly sliced toasted bread, accompanied by fig jam and a glass of sweet Sauternes.

Foie gras from the Belooga Restaurant, in Villefranche-sur-Saône

A fowl

Another immutable French traditional Christmas food is the ever-present stuffed fowl.

In times past, the preferred bird was a goose, if you could afford it, or even a pig, if you could not (yes, I know it's not a fowl but in some quarters, it was the traditional Christmas meat dish). Confit of duck was also a possibility.

The "discovery" of America by Europeans created an exchange of products in both directions, and the turkey seems to have been part of that exchange. From its arrival in the boat holds of the Conquistadors during the 16th century to the Christmas tables of Europe appears to have been a relatively short leap.

These days, however, turkey rules, not only from tradition but under the influence of the United States. It's often stuffed with chestnuts, and accompanied by a strong white wine.

Poulet de Bresse (Bresse chicken)Bresse chicken, the only French chicken under protected designation of origin. This is exactly what I have for Christmas each year: it's from my own region, the Ain

Seafood and salmon

Highest on the list of Christmas seafoods are oysters, once only available along the coast because of cost. Today, you can eat them easily at other times of year, but Christmas is rush hour on oyster farms. They are eaten simply, with a squirt of lemon or a bit of shallot vinaigrette.

Those who can afford it will include lobster and other seafood, and a quick trip to your fishmonger's or to the supermarket will unveil piles of fresh seafood you'd never see any other time of the year.

If you've never seen the sight of a platter of seafood arrive at a Christmas table, you haven't experienced the French Christmas tradition at its fullest.

Smoked salmon, although consumed throughout the year, is popular at Christmas, either with the seafood or instead of it. Again, it wasn't always so – the custom dates back to the 1980s or so, when salmon farming became common and prices came down.

Seafoods you'll have for Christmas

La bûche de Noël

The quintessential French Christmas dessert is the bûche de Noël, or the Christmas or Yule Log, a rolled cake with filling and thick icing. In ancient times, legend has it that families would place a huge log in the chimney and let it burn until the end of the meal. With the arrival of Christianity, the log would be set to burn until until 6 January. Should it go out before, you could expect tragedy in the coming year. The log remains, along with other superstitions linked to fire, an important symbol of ushering in the new year. But the eventual disappearance of huge chimneys eroded this tradition.

Then, during the 19th century, pastry chefs created a patisserie log, a cake that looked like a log but tasted like... cake. Several chefs have laid claim to inventing the cake, but no one knows when exactly it was created, or whether it was invented in Paris, Lyon, or even Monaco.

The French Christmas cake come in all sizes, from a small individual pastry to massive constructions designed to feed the entire household. They can be standard cakes or ice cream cakes (try putting that in your freezer without squishing it!), and these days, you'll find them in a variety of flavours: chocolate, praline, coffee, vanilla, strawberry, and probably many more that my humble village patisserie doesn't stock. One thing is certain: few self-respecting citizens will see Christmas through without their bûche.

Chocolate!

Somehow this has made its way onto the French Christmas menu, either as small individual chocolates from the best chocolatiers, or as truffles – some families guard their truffle recipe jealously. This was a relative latecomer, however, and only began appearing around the 16th century – with good reason, since chocolate only arrived in France in 1615. Anne of Austria (who was in fact the daughter of the king of Spain) brought chocolate from her native country and gave it as a gift to her betrothed, Louis XIII. It would take until Louis XIV and Versailles for chocolate to begin gaining wider appeal...

The arrival of chocolate at court. La tasse de chocolat by Jean-Baptiste Charpentier (1768)

So what do French people eat at Christmas? Here's the menu

With plenty of adjustments and exceptions, of course, but you can expect a traditional French Christmas dinner to look something like this:

  • apéritif, usually champagne (and for children, a Champomy!) – and those who can afford it will add caviar to their tables
  • entrées (remember, in France an entrée is the starter, not the main dish): this is where you have the foie gras and the seafood and smoked salmon and the oysters and the...
  • a "trou normand", a Norman pause: this is a sherbet, of varying flavours, liberally dosed with alcohol; it is meant to clear the palate but is just an excuse for more drinking
  • the main dish, a fowl – often a turkey, but occasionally a capon, guinea fowl or even a top-flight chicken
  • a cheese platter, although this is optional and not everyone feels able to eat cheese on top of everything else
  • dessert: the bûche de Noël
  • coffee and chocolates or truffles
  • and this being France, there will be wine throughout!
Christmas menuTypical French Christmas menu served by restaurants

Regional Christmas foods in France

France is a hugely diverse country – this diversity is one of the main reasons it has been placed on UNESCO's intangible heritage list – so it will naturally have some regional dishes included at Christmas, although not as many as you may think.

Here are a few samples to give you an idea of what you might be offered as part of your Christmas meal.

  • Alsace: known for its foie gras and gingerbread cake, with honey and spices
  • Burgundy: escargots, of course, along with Comté cheese from Franche-Comté
  • Corsica: charcuterie, cheese and chestnuts (including chestnut polenta)
  • Orléans and Champagne-Ardennes: boudin blanc, a white pork sausage
  • the North: areas close to Belgium may well enjoy moules-frites (steamed mussels and french fries) for Christmas
  • Provence: a tradition of 13 desserts (the 12 apostles plus Jesus) would include all sorts of local sweets, from nougats to candied fruit
Candied fruitCandied fruit from Provence

A history of France's Christmas dinner

Today, when we sit down for our Christmas meal, we tend to eat many of the same things, our habits shaped by tradition, yes, but also by the food industry which has made certain luxury products more widely available.

As we unfold that napkin, we know we are about to seriously over-indulge. Some of us may not have eaten since the day before, while others are already planning the diet they'll soon be starting.

But this overindulgence hasn't always been the norm. Nor has the single Christmas meal. Let's go back a little in history...

This meal didn't start off being about Christmas, but about the winter solstice, which occurs on 21 December. Back in Roman times, the population celebrated Saturnalia during the third week of December or so. It was held in honour of the god Saturn. Social differences melted away for a few days, slaves were temporarily freed, and mistletoe, vines or holly were used to decorate houses. And people ate.

Slowly, and because they took place around the same time, the Christian celebration of the birth of Jesus slowly melded into the pagan celebrations and they became one. Christmas may be Christian but it is truly celebrated worldwide.

Traditionally, a "repas maigre" or lean meal, was eaten in the lead-up to Midnight Mass as an act of penance. By lean we mean meatless, although fish was permitted but it was a light meal, a soup with bread, perhaps. Our oysters and salmon may well be holdovers from those days.

The Midnight Mass traditionally being a lengthy event, the main celebration came after the mass, so in the small hours of 25 December a "repas gras" or fat meal, one involving meat, was eaten.

This second meal came to be known as the Réveillon (it still is today). In one theory, it comes from the word "réveil", or awakening, as in staying awake until the festivities ended in the morning. In another, the "veiller" means to stay up, and the second meal, since it meant staying up a second time, was a "ré-veillon".

The French Christmas meal became more sophisticated in the late 19th century, during the Belle Epoque, as bread prices fell, allowing more discretionary income to be spent on meat. Still, it would take the 20th century for Christmas recipes to begin appearing in cookbooks. In post-World War I rural cookbooks, pork is at the heart of the Christmas meal and while fowl is also highlighted, it's still a dish for the wealthy.

After World War II, however, Christmas recipes begin to flood the market, accelerating as the decades fly by and becoming increasingly complex – and luxurious. Under the influence of the USA, turkey displaces pork as the favourite Christmas meat.

Today's French Christmas eve dinner must, above all, be abundant: this isn't the time to skimp. It's expensive, it's indulgent, but it's that one time of year when efforts are made not only from the pocketbook, but from the heart, a time of generosity and sharing and reaching out to those less fortunate.

A few French Christmas facts and questions

What is the French word for Christmas?

Noël.

How do you say Merry Christmas in French?

Joyeux Noël – pronounced jwah-YEArn (as in yearn, but without the R and N)

What is Christmas eve in French?

Le Réveillon – pronounced ray-vay-YOH – de Noël; if you just use the word "Réveillon", you'll be referring to New Year's Eve, not Christmas Eve

Who celebrates Christmas in France?

Most people do, even non-Christians. More than a religious celebration, Christmas tends to be a time for families to gather, and they do so, whatever their background (of course, there are plenty of exceptions, both among Christians and non-Christians)

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