Christmas in France is more than just one day, and while celebrations vary throughout the country, most things get into gear by Saint Nicholas Day on December 6. Whether it be oyster hour in Paris, mulled wine in Toulouse, or a circus performance in Provence, the French have perfected the words joyeux noël. Here are our top five picks:
The City of Lights certainly lives up to its name during the Christmas season. Bundle up and take a walk along the Champs-Elysées, where the trees lining the boulevard are tightly wrapped in lights, before heading to the Eiffel Tower (of course) to see it decked out in Christmas colors. But perhaps a very Parisian Christmas pop-up is the merry-go-around. Throughout the city, manèges de noël (Christmas carousels) are set up on street corners—perfect for letting your inner (or actual) child out. Then slurp up one of France’s traditional Christmas treats: the oyster. Nab a spot at the hip Le Mary Celeste for sauces beyond mignonette or go traditional at Huîtrerie Régis.
Sure, Provence comes alive in the summer with its glasses of chilled rosé and visiting glamour set, but it’s still worth a visit come wintertime. In Arles, a city rich with Roman history, Christmas is welcomed in a bit of an atypical way. For a week prior to Christmas, circus performers, artists, puppeteers and the like take to the streets to put on a show however they see fit. It’s known as Drôles de Noël (Funny Christmas) and you everything from trapeze performance to fireworks can be expected.
Tucked behind the Vosges mountains, Alsace is a region that has long been a blend of French and German culture. The region bustles with over 100 public markets dedicated solely to Christmas and demonstrates perfectly this meeting of cultures. For the grandest in size (and featuring Europe’s tallest tree), head to Strasbourg’s Christkindelsmärik, which dates back to 1570 and is France’s oldest Christmas market. And since the Christmas tree tradition itself got its start in the town of Sélestat, there’s all the more reason to pay this proud region a visit.
A Mediterranean island in December? Don’t question it. On Corsica, where Christmas is locally known as natale, you’ll find that sort of unadulterated charm that got lost somewhere in a frenzy of wish lists. Corsican Christmas festivals are a unique blend of Catholic ritual (like midnight mass at the Ajaccio Cathedral) and ancient pagan tradition (like reciting the l’orecchio on Christmas Eve to ward away the evil eye). But simply put, if you’re looking for a stretch of beach (as opposed to ubiquitous Christmas lights) Corsica’s the place to be.
The southwest of France is a region steeped in its own kind of grandeur, and the city of Toulouse doesn’t fail to deliver by time Christmas arrives. Yes, it lights up in anticipation for the season, but for those looking to avoid the bustle of Paris, herein lies the spot. The Christmas market, located in the Place du Capitole, puts regional foods right on your plate. Try garlicky aligot (a warm cheese and potato dish) or heartier cassoulet toulousain, before washing it all down with a cup of vin chaud (mulled wine).