All about French Santa Claus in France: Past & present traditions

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All about French Santa Claus in France: Past & present traditions

Here are a few French Santa Claus’ of past and present and their traditions. Some no longer exist, while others only exist in certain regions.

French Santa Claus Traditions In France

French Santa Hood

If you happen to be in France around Christmas time, take a walk through a department store or visit a French Christmas market and keep an eye out for Santa Claus.

He won’t look all that different from what you might be used to. And for the most part, French Santa Claus traditions are very similar to other countries.

However, there are a few differences that make French Santa Claus, well, French.

There are also different regional traditions and versions of French Santa Claus, which can vary from city to city, such as Saint Nicholas in Northern France and his sinister helper, who IS NOT a cute elf.  

What does French Santa Claus In France Look Like?

The jolly old Santa Claus, dressed in red who delivers presents to good children with his magical reindeer, has become the most recognized character around the world, even in places where Christmas isn’t a traditional custom.

But he hasn’t always looked like this. 

Before World War II, his appearance was in flux, and his signature red suit wasn’t yet universally adopted. 

Many regions in France (and other countries) had their own version of an old white-bearded man, protector of children, who visited homes passing out treats and gifts to good children. 

Sometimes his suit was green, white, tan, even brown. He used to be much thinner too. Sometimes he looked like a monk or a bishop. 

Though they may have traditionally been different people, most of them have disappeared and merged with the jolly red suit-wearing Santa who lives in the North Pole with his reindeer and cute elves. 

Here are a few French Santas of past and present and their traditions. Some no longer exist, while others only exist in certain regions.

Le Père Noël: Santa Claus in French

In France, all children are familiar with this version of Santa, who wears a red suit and travels by reindeer delivering gifts on Christmas Eve. 

His name is Father Christmas, Kris Kringle, Saint Nicholas or Santa Claus from Dutch Sinterklaas (Saint Nick). Klass is the diminutive name for Nicholas. 

In French, his name is le Père Noël (Father Christmas), but small children like to call him Papa noël.

French santa clause hooded cloak

There is one subtle difference, which you may not even notice.

He sometimes wears a red hooded cloak with a white fur trim, not a red hat.

No hanging stockings for Santa in France, just shoes

Christmas shoe tradition

Another tradition that’s different in France and some European countries is the shoe tradition.

Rather than hanging stockings, the French tradition is to leave a pair of clean shoes or slippers under the Christmas tree, by the fireplace, or the front door on Christmas Eve.

When children wake up on Christmas morning, they hope to find a little treat or gift from Santa Claus inside their shoes.

This tradition is forever immortalized in the lyrics of France’s most famous French Christmas song, “petit papa noël.

In this iconic song, a young boy reminds Santa not to forget to leave a small gift in his little shoe: “N’oublie pas mon petit soulier.”

No milk for French Santa Claus, but wine?

What to give santa to drink for Christmas in France
Each family and region has its traditions, but children don’t typically leave a glass of milk for Santa because children don’t drink milk in France.

So instead of milk, French Santa Claus might get anything from a glass of wine or alcoholic cider to coffee or juice.

He might also receive a mandarin, clementine, a cookie, pain d’ épice (spiced bread), or chocolate as a treat.

As for the reindeer, children often put carrots or apples in their shoes, which I mentioned above. The idea is Santa takes the treats and replaces them with a gift.

Regional or Forgotten Traditions and French Santa Claus Ancestors

French Santas Used To Deliver Gifts By Donkey

French Santa Clause circa 1914 France
French Santa Clause circa 1914 France

Santa Claus used to travel by donkey, not an open sleigh pulled by nine telekinetic reindeer. 

Reindeer were added to Santa’s team in the 1800s

The addition of reindeer to Santa’s team is a reasonably new one imported from America in the mid-1800s.

The first known mention of Santa delivering presents in a sleigh pulled by a magical reindeer was in an anonymous illustrated children’s poem published in New York in 1821 called:

Old Santeclaus With Much Delight.

SanteClaus-anonymous-poem-illustration

Here is the beginning of the poem mentioning a reindeer for the first time:

“Old Santeclaus with much delight
His reindeer drives this frosty night,
O’r chimney tops, and tracts of snow,
To bring his yearly gifts to you.”

In 1823, another poem was published in the Troy Sentinal newspaper from New York, possibly inspired by the first anonymous poem.

It was called: “A Visit from St. Nicholas,” more commonly known as “Twas the Night Before Christmas.

The poem describes many of Santa Claus’s characteristics for the first time.

A chubby and plump man with a round belly, rosy cheeks, twinkling eyes who visits children in a sleigh. 

But in this poem, there are eight reindeer with names (Dasher, Dancer, Prancer, Vixen, Comet, Cupid, Dunder and Blixem).

Reindeer, Donner and Blitzen were originally called Dunder and Blixem, the Dutch words for thunder and lightning. Many of our modern-day customs originated from the Netherlands, including his name Santa Claus.

The entire poem is here!

RUDOLPH was added in 1939

Rudolph, the red-nosed reindeer, was added to Santa’s team by Robert L. May in a 1939 children’s booklet for the Montgomery wards department store’s annual holiday promotion. The poem then became a song and blew up in 1949. 

Slowly, through the help of globalization and advertisements (thanks Coca Cola), the universal image of Santa Claus came to be accepted around the world, even in France.

While this new version became the standard universally recognized version of Santa Claus, other versions began to fade away, but some regional versions and their traditions have survived in France. 

Let’s take a look at them. 

Saint Nicholas

French Santa helper father whipper

Most people probably consider Saint Nicholas and Santa Claus to be the same person.

However, in certain parts of France and Europe, they are two different characters celebrated on two different days.

  • Santa Claus or le père noël wears his signature red Santa suit delivering gifts on December 24th in a sleigh pulled by reindeer. 
  • Saint Nicholas is also a white-bearded man, but he’s dressed like a bishop with a staff and pointy bishop hat who delivers gifts with his donkey and his super creepy helper on St. Nicholas Day. 

You can read more about this evil helper called father whipper or pere fouettard in French

How saint Nicholas is celebrated in France

To celebrate Saint Nicholas, children in France usually place their clean shoes by the front door or the fireplace on December 5th, the eve of Saint Nicholas Day.

When the children wake up the following morning on December 6th, they run to their shoes to see what gift and goodies saint Nick left them.

The gifts are usually small and fit in the shoes, such as chocolate, cookies or a small toy.

Some regions organize parades.

 Sometimes French preschools and elementary schools arrange for Saint Nicholas to visit students and pass out treats accompanied by his donkey and his evil helper, le père fouettard, who is not cute.

Père Chalande or Papa Chalande

pere Chalande: Ancestor of Santa Claus

Père Chalande (Father Chalande) was a predecessor to the modern-day Santa Claus, mainly in the Savoy regions of France and Geneva, Switzerland. (source)

Father Chalande means Father Christmas in Franco-Provençal or Arpitan as speakers of the language like to call it. 

Like our modern-day Santa Claus, Pere Chalande was also an old man with a white beard who brought treats and gifts to children on Christmas Eve. He didn’t look quite as jolly and usually wore a dark robe with a pointy hood. 

Père Janvier (Father January)

French Santa Claus Ancestor: Père Janvier or Bonhomme de noël
French Santa Claus Ancestor: Père Janvier or Bonhomme de noël

Also known as Bonhomme Janvier (January man), or Bonhomme de noel (Christmas man)

Well into the 1930s in Burgandy, Nivernais and Morvan regions of France, the père Janvier was a figure who distributed New years gifts to children between Christmas and the new year.

This practice of giving gifts for the New year (étrenne) was a holdover from the ancient Romans.

Unlike modern Santa, who is plump and jolly, Father January was a skinny old man, often dressed in an old brown robe.

He often looked frail and was hunched over from the weight of the gifts he carried in his wicker basket. The presents were usually candy or small gifts that he left in children’s shoes. 

Like Saint Nicholas, Père Janvier was often accompanied by father whipper (pere fouettard).

Father January slowly disappeared and or merged with the modern Santa who wears a red suit. 

Olentzaro

Olentzaro: Basque santa clause-france-spain
Basque Olentzaro

In Spanish and French Basque Country, a character named Olentzaro slides down chimneys on Christmas eve to bring children gifts.

Traditions surrounding him vary from village to village. 

He’s said to be the last of the jentillak, an ancient community of giants that lived in the Pyrenees.

Olentzaro is generally portrayed as a pot-bellied dirty coal miner covered in soot who lives in the mountains with his wife.

Instead of a red suit, he wears a Basque beret, farmer’s clothing and traditional arbaka shoes. Sometimes he’s holding an axe, sickle, or staff and is usually smoking a  pipe.

Abarka (Basque), abarca or albarca (Spanish) is the traditional Pyrenees sandal made in one piece of calf leather and tied by braided wool laces around the socks.

Tante Arie (Aunt Arie)

La tante Airie, fairy of Montbéliard
La tante Airie, fairy of Montbéliard © Denis Bretey – Ville de Montbéliard

Tante Arie is a fairy godmother that delivers fruits, nuts, pastries and treats to children with her donkey Marion in Montbéliard which is located in the Franche-Comté region of eastern France.

She doesn’t replace Santa Claus; instead, she appears alongside Santa Claus at Christmas festivals in the area.

But tante Arie doesn’t just check in on children; she also checks in on the parents to make sure everyone’s house is clean and orderly for the Christmas celebrations. 

She is usually portrayed as a white-haired woman wearing pheasant clothing: a dark cape and a type of scarf that almost looks Amish to me. She is said to live in a cave in the mountains and only comes out for Christmas. 

You can catch a glimpse of her at the Montbeliard Christmas market, where she has her own chalet. 

ChristKindel (Kris Kringle)

Christkindel: France Christmas tradition
Christkindel: saint Nicholas: Hans Trap

In parts of North-Eastern France, such as Alsace, Christkindel brings gifts to families on the eve of Christmas.

She is an angelic-like creature with blond hair, often accompanied by her dark and sinister counterpart Hans Trap and her trusty donkey, Peckeresel.

Sometimes she wears a crown of candles and has wings.

She can and often does co-exist with Saint Nicholas, and you can find her in other parts of Europe, including Germany, Austria and Switzerland. 

The best place to experience Christmas in France

If you would like to visit France during Christmas, be sure to visit Strasbourg and the Strasbourg Christmas market. Strasbourg is sometimes referred to as the Christmas capital of Europe.

OH OH OH Joyeux Noël

HO HO HO Merry Christmas

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