How Saint Nicholas Day is celebrated in France: French Christmas traditions

1 Dec 2023, 10:33 by Sam Taylor

Did you know that in many parts of northern and eastern France, Christmas celebrations begin a lot earlier than December 25th?

It's true that the majority of us enjoy getting into the Christmas spirit before the big day arrives, but the French certainly take the cake (or mince pie) when it comes to decking the halls. In north eastern France, revellers celebrate the arrival of Père Noël on December 6th for the jovial Saint Nicholas Day.

How is Saint Nicholas Day celebrated?

For the people of north eastern France, there was a time when Saint Nicholas Day was regarded as more important than Christmas Day. While that may not hold true today, it's still cause for celebration!

The grandest of all proceedings take place in Lorraine and Nancy, where the arrival of Saint-Nicolas is celebrated in les Fêtes de Saint-Nicolas which stretches from late November all the way through to January! People flock to see the illuminated night-time parade and processions featuring a marching band, stilt walkers, fire throwers, grouchy Père Fouettard and Saint-Nicolas in all his glory!

With a pop-up Christmas market, big wheel and firework display, it's a real winter wonderland.

Why do we celebrate Saint Nicholas Day?

The origin of Saint Nicholas Day is attributed to an old folktale.

As legend has it, three poor children got lost while picking wheat in the French countryside. Eventually, they happened upon the house of a butcher who offered them a place to stay. The butcher held the children captive, cut them into pieces and stored them in his salt cellar.

Seven years later, Saint-Nicolas, too, found himself at the butcher's house. It wasn't long before he made a grisly discovery and banished the butcher far away. Piece by piece, he reassembled the children, who miraculously came back to life thinking they'd just awoken from a peaceful nap. What a jolly tale!

The story is told in the traditional French folk song, La Légende de Saint Nicolas, which dates as far back as the 16th century—and is still sung today!

Saint Nicholas Day traditions

In a peculiar tradition, hopeful children leave their shoes out on the night of December 5th. The following morning, they may wake to find their shoes filled with treats! Well, those who Saint-Nicolas believes have behaved accordingly. Shoes empty? You've likely landed yourself on the naughty list. In which case, not dissimilar to the familiar UK tradition, you'll find yourself with a lump of coal or a twig.

In Alsace, locals enjoy baking and eating "Mannele", which are like a sweet brioche alternative to gingerbread men. The finishing touch is a smattering of chocolate chips or raisins to give the little men eyes & a button up coat. Elsewhere in Lorraine and Franche-Comté, the same festive treats are known as "Jean-Bonhomme". 

What's the difference between Saint Nicholas and Santa Claus?

Thanks to his extraordinary act of rescuing the children in the 16th century folktale, Saint-Nicolas came to be regarded as the protector of children. As the years passed, the less palpable parts of the tale were brushed aside, Saint-Nicolas received a wardrobe update in the form of a fuzzy red hat and coat and became the gift-bearing Santa Claus we all recognise today.

Christmas school trips to France

Your students can experience a cultural French Christmas on a seasonal school trip to France. Staying at our cosy centre on the Opal Coast, they'll enjoy a range of festive activities and excursions and uncover the regional traditions.

Get in touch today to get the (snow)ball rolling...

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