Dreaming of spending Christmas in France, but can’t decide where to go? Consider the type of Christmas you want to experience.
While the various regions of France have several Christmas traditions in common, many regions have their own holiday customs that vary depending on the foods served, climate, and the local activities on offer. Here is a guide to the top 3 places to spend Christmas in France.
If you believe that Christmas just wouldn’t be Christmas without an abundance of beautiful decorations and frosty weather, Strasbourg is the holiday destination for you. Strasbourg is in the Alsace region of France, just on the border of Germany. Every year, Strasbourg transforms itself into a Christmas fantasy, full of twinkling fairy lights, garlands of pine, wooden trinkets, ornaments, and toys. This transformation primarily occurs courtesy of the Strasbourg Christmas markets, which are the biggest in France and have existed for over 400 years. Centered around the city’s enormous Gothic cathedral, the markets are composed of a few hundred wooden chalet-style stalls that sell a variety of items, from handcrafted Christmas ornaments to jewelry with semi-precious stones, to knit sweaters. There’s also ample opportunity to sample the regional cuisine, which is Franco-German, and a features items such as choucroute (sauerkraut), glüwein (warm spiced wine), and sausage. In addition to checking out the Christmas markets, you can visit the Alsace Museum, which offers storytelling (in French) for children about the spirit of Christmas, or go ice-skating at the Place du Chateau.
For a thoroughly urban Christmas, Paris is the natural choice. In Paris, you’ll never lack for interesting gift ideas, no matter whether in a fashionable department store such as Le Bon Marché or a folksy Christmas market (several of which exist throughout the city). You can also get your fill of traditional Christmas experiences by strolling down the fairy-lighted Champs-Elysees at night, attending midnight Mass at the Cathedral of Notre Dame, or admiring the cheerful, mechanical Christmas decorations in the window of the fashionable department store, Galeries Lafayette.
If you’re hoping for mild Christmastime weather and would like to engage in Christmas traditions very different from your own, head to Aix-en-Provence. Like most French towns and cities, Aix has a bustling Christmas market at Place Jeanne d’Arc that features all the handcrafted goods and local tidbits that one typically finds in Christmas markets. But during the month of December, Aix also hosts an olive oil and truffle fair (also at Place Jeanne d’Arc), where you can buy all you desire of these delicious, locally produced products. At the Place General du Gaulle, you’ll find a unique crèche (Nativity Scene) composed of small hand-painted terracotta figurines, called santons (“little saints”). The Provencal crèche stands apart from most nativity scenes in that not only does it have the usual biblical figures, such as Mary, Joseph and baby Jesus, but also includes figures from Provençal village life, such as a woman carrying an armful of lavender, or a man playing boules.
The most interesting aspect of Christmas in Aix, however, is the way the locals observe the holiday. On Christmas Eve, Provence natives traditionally eat a large dinner called Le Gros Souper (“the big supper”), which consists of seven meat-free courses – usually dishes like L’Aigo Boulido (garlic and herb soup), and Brandade de Morue (purée of salted cod with garlic, olive oil and cream). Afterwards, they attend midnight mass at their local church, only to return home to continue eating for another hour or two. This post-mass meal is known as Les Treize Desserts, which symbolizes Christ and his twelve apostles. The 13 desserts fall into three categories: dried fruits and nuts, fresh fruits, and sweets. If you want to observe this Provençal tradition, your best bet is to make the dinner yourself. Or better yet, just stick to eating the thirteen desserts. From mid-December through the end of the month, there is a Marché des Treize Desserts at the Place Jeanne d’Arc at which you can buy all the traditional goodies for this special meal.