Have you ever been to France at Christmastime? There is something so incredibly magical about French Christmas Traditions. The French Riviera, in particular, does Christmas so well. The backdrop of the mediterranean sea, the convergence of cultures, (Provence! Italy! North Africa!) and the glitter of the Riviera makes for a stunning month of December.
That being said, when I moved to Nice at 23 years old, got engaged to Le Chef and started working in hotels on La Côte d'Azur, I was so homesick at Christmas. I didn't yet know the traditions that would become so dear to me. I missed my family, my friends, I even missed the Canadian snow storms! Over the years, however, I began to fall in love with my new home at Christmastime.
Now that we live in the US and we have 2 children of our own (Valentina, 5, and Pierre, 2) I am eager to teach French Christmas traditions to my kids so that their French culture remains a big part of their lives.
Here are 10 French Riviera Christmas Traditions that we practice at home in the USA, and you can too!
You can also read my round up of the 25 best French Holiday Recipes here.
The 13 desserts of Provence
This is one French Christmas tradition that is easier to create than it sounds. The 13 Desserts are a Provençal Christmas tradition that have much more to do with laying out a sweet spread for your family and guests to pick from then making thirteen intricate desserts. A sweet grazing board, if you will, that pairs wonderfully with mulled wine on Christmas Eve and lasts through to hot coffee on Christmas morning. The 13 desserts are a collection of nuts, dried fruit, fruit and some sweet treats such as Calisson d'Aix, Nougat and Pompe à l'huile brioche. There is no set rule about which 13 items need to be included, only that there must be at least 13 (to represent Jesus and his Apostles). I wrote a full blog post about the 13 desserts here.
La Pompe à l'huile
While La Pompe à l'huile (an olive oil brioche style bread) is traditionally part of The 13 desserts of Provence, it deserves its own category. I learned to make La Pompe à l'huile last year and look forward to making it all year round - the delicate orange blossom flavor is so festive and the kids love it! It is much easier than I thought to make this at home. The full recipe for La Pompe à l'huile is found here. Hot out of the oven, La Pompe à l'huile is absolutely irresistible.
La Bûche de Noël
Similar to a Yule Log, La Bûche de Noël is a rolled genoise cake with a mousse or buttercream filling, created in the shape of a log, that is the star attraction of an elegant Christmas dinner. What I loved in France is that every Pâtisserie makes their own version of La Bûche de Noël, and prides themselves in announcing this year's Bûche with great fanfare. The competition is stiff between Pastry Chefs as each one tries to come up with the most beautiful, and inventive Bûche that is going to be prized at Christmas. When living in Nice, we often bought our Bûche de Noël from Pâtisserie LAC or Le Nôtre. True works of pastry art that change every year.
Living in the Washington, DC area, we are fortunate to have several French pastry shops to chose from that make a beautiful Bûche de Noël such as Boulangerie Christophe, Fresh Baguette, or Un je ne sais quoi. If you would like to make your own Bûche de Noël, I highly suggest our recipe for a Dark Chocolate Ganache Bûche de Noël with a Grand Marnier Buttercream.
Francophile Gift Idea
If you are looking for a beautiful gift for the Francophile Foodie in your life, I highly recommend the French Cuisine Gift Box I created with my friend Cynthia of Best French Forever.
Each French Cuisine Box includes:
- Hand carved olive wood mortar and pestle by Provence Olivier
- Award-winning olive oil by Chateau d’Estoublon
- Blue & White Stripe Handmade Linen Apron
- Hand carved olive wood serving spoons
- Authentic Herbes de Provence blend by Le Chef’s Wife
- Ratatouille and Roasted Chicken recipes by Le Chef’s Wife
A thoughtful, memorable holiday gift for the Francophile, home cook or “hostess with the mostess” in your life.
The price of the box is $149 and includes shipping. It was important to us to offer exceptional value and uncompromising quality with each box. Truly a beautiful gift and only available for order until December 9th 2022.
Le Gros Souper or Christmas Eve Dinner
Called "the big supper" but actually Christmas Eve dinner is made up of a selection of lighter dishes. Traditionally, no meat is served at Le Gros Souper but Fish is as well as different vegetable dishes. Some examples of dishes:
- Soupe à l'ail - Garlic Soup with grilled bread
- Escargots à l'aïoli - We will be making this Christmas Eve! I have a recipe for Aïoli here
- Salade de pois chiches au thon - Chickpea salad with tuna
- Omelette aux petits artichauts - Omelette made with artichokes
- Bagna Cauda - a large selection of raw vegetables served with a warm anchovy sauce
The 13 desserts of Provence are served after Le Gros Souper (as dessert!) on Christmas Eve and are left out on the table for Christmas morning.
Le Repas de Noël - Christmas Lunch
This is the big, gastronomic meal that home cooks really pull out all the stops for. Lobster, scallops, foie gras, roast turkey with chestnuts, oh my! Christmas Lunch is to the French as Thanksgiving is to Americans. It is the meal everyone looks forward to for months. So much thought and attention goes into every dish. Weeks before Christmas you can catch snippets of conversation at the market between friends. "I ordered our seafood platter from François this year - his oysters are the best" or " Bertrand raises the most tender quails - I put my order in a month ago!".
It is worth noting that not all French can cook. There is a reason why Picard, a gourmet frozen food store, does so well in France. All of the above mentioned dishes can also be selected out of a freezer in the neighborhood Picard. The important thing is that it is special meal - shared with loved ones.
Some examples of dishes that are served at Le repas de Noël:
Vol-au-vent sauce financière - Puff pastry vol-au-vent stuffed with mushrooms
Plateau de coquillages de Méditeranée - Mediterranean Seafood platter (oysters, mussels, sea urchins and clams)
Dinde aux Marrons - Roasted Turkey stuffed with chestnuts
Queue de langoustes à la Provençale - Rock Lobster served in a tomato sauce.
The little clay figurines, called "Les Santons" are hand made in Provence and are one of my favorite French Christmas traditions. More elaborate than a nativity, les santons represent all of the characters of 19th century Provençal life. The baker, the cook, the cobbler, the chimney sweep and so forth. Each figurine with its own distinctive characteristics. Elaborate santon displays feature an entire village of figurines and are passed down from generation to generation.
Years ago, Le Chef and I began creating our own little collection, deciding to buy 2 santons each year. The only fault in our plan is that we didn't expect to not be able to travel to France for a few years! So our collection is smaller than I would like it to be, but I hope to remedy that quickly.
The word, les santons, comes from the Provençal word, "les santouns" which means "little saint".
Le Marché de Noël
Each village in France has its Christmas Market or Marché de Noël that features the work of local craftspeople and vendors. You can buy Santons, Christmas ornaments or gifts and sip hot chocolate or vin chaud while sampling les chous chous (candied almonds) or hot chestnuts.
In the DC area we are fortunate to have a few Christmas markets to chose from. Washingtonian Magazine's guide to holiday markets is a great resource.
Have you ever roasted chestnuts over an open fire? We do this every year at our house!
Bundled up in our winter jackets it is a fun outdoor activity to do with the kids or with friends. Over the past 2 years we have been finding more creative ways to entertain outdoors - I wrote a blog post on how to Après-Ski at home here.
All you need is metal basket with a long handle like this one and a pound of fresh chestnuts in their shell (available at most grocery stores during the holiday season - our local Giant carries them in the fresh produce section). Place the basket over an open fire (not in the fire - over the fire) and shake the basket every 5 minutes or so. After about 20-30 minutes the chestnuts will begin to pop open - that means they are ready to enjoy.
Let them cool slightly and then peel the shells off. The warm chestnut meat is absolutely delicious. A true holiday treat!
Le Vin Chaud
Mulled wine, or vin chaud, is a classic Holiday market drink that is also very easy to make a home. I share my family recipe for vin chaud au Grand Marnier here. Le Chef's tip is to wait until the wine has simmered well with the spices. Only once he turns off the heat does he add the Grand Marnier. Add it earlier and you burn off all the alcohol! Truly delicious and festive.
French Christmas Traditions - which ones will you adopt?
I hope you have enjoyed this article on French Christmas Traditions: French Riviera edition. Do you already observe some of these traditions in your own home? Is there anything new you think you will be trying this year? I would love to hear from you.
Wishing you and a your loved ones a very Merry Christmas and a happy and healthy New Year.
Thank you for being here.
Le Chef's Wife
About Le Chef's Wife
Bonjour! I am Anina Belle. I translate the fancy cooking of my Michelin-star trained French Chef Husband, Le Chef, into easy to make dishes that busy people with no culinary training (like me!) can make at home. We have two young kids (5 and 2) and I have a full time job in hospitality in addition to this blog. I strongly believe that even busy people deserve to eat well at home.
I share our home cooking on Instagram, pinterest and tiktok. Sign up for my newsletter to be the first to receive my new recipes and have advance access to cooking classes. I look forward to cooking with you!