French Christmas Traditions for Children

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A woman pointing at a Christmas window display in Paris, France.
A woman pointing at a Christmas window display in Paris, France. (Image: Thierry Chesnot/Getty Images Entertainment/Getty Images)

Decorations, lights and music make Christmas magical for children in France. Père Noël, or Santa, takes center stage in their Christmas celebration, which includes outings to Christmas markets and events, putting out the crèche (manger scene), and enjoying foods and sweets served only during this time of year. Their yuletide season begins in late November with the announcement that Père Noël opened his mail room and ends with the Feast of the Magi on January 6.

Father Christmas Letters

Since 1962, when the minister of the French postal system created a special office to be responsible for answering all letters to Père Noël, children throughout France look forward to getting a postcard after sending him their gift wish lists. Even when they write their letters at school as a class project, Père Noël replies to them individually. They don't need a stamp; they simply have to include their full names and home addresses on the envelope. Computer-savvy youngsters get an email from Père Noël if they send their messages electronically through the postal service's Père Noël website.

Visit From Père Noël

When Père Noël visits depends on where you live. Children in northern and eastern France wake on December 6 -- Saint Nicholas Day -- to find presents and treats he delivered the night before. Children in other regions of the country must wait until December 25. All French children, however, leave their shoes under the Christmas tree or by the fireplace instead of hanging stockings before going to bed the night Père Noël arrives. In the Alsace and Lorraine regions of the country, Père Noël has a helper dressed in black called Père Fouettard -- Father Spanker -- who identifies naughty children. A naughty child may get coal or a bunch of ribbon-tied twigs.

Special Activities

A visit to see the window displays of major department stores is an annual Christmas event for children in France, especially for those who live in Paris where the Printemps and Galeries Lafayette stores try to outdo each other with windows featuring animated dolls and animals. Attending puppet shows presented at Christmas markets and in front of churches has become a family ritual. Paris also provides free ice-skating at temporary ice-skating rinks throughout the city and free merry-go-round rides the children look forward to each year. Children in Lyon enjoy the annual festival of lights, or Fête de Lumières.

Family Time

In France, children decorate the family Christmas tree and place "santons" -- or figurines of the Holy Family, animals and people from their village -- around the crèche. If they live in Provence, they also gather branches, rocks and moss, and arrange to create a setting for the crèche. They add the baby Jesus to the crèche on Christmas Day, December 25, and add The Three Wise Men on January 5, the night before the Feast of the Magi. On that day, the family eats Three Kings Cake in which a charm has been baked. One child becomes the little king, or "le petit roi," hides under the table, then chooses who gets served until everyone has a piece of cake. Whoever finds the charm is the queen or king and gets a gold-colored paper crown to wear.

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