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The French do Christmas holidays better than the British

The fairytale Christmas illuminations in the old town of Colmar, Alsace
The fairytale Christmas illuminations in the old town of Colmar, Alsace - serts/iStockphoto

The British Christmas, and its attributes, are terrific. They need embracing with gusto: baubles, high-res knitwear, unexpected cousins, trees, children, carols, Baileys at 10am, turkey for ever after, mince pies and an essential rendezvous with the monarch. I won’t hear a word against it. That said, I have – after decades of living among them – also grown to appreciate the way the French approach Yuletide.

I enjoy it as much – maybe even more – than our own. For a start, they don’t do Christmas pudding, the only dessert in the world which has to be spiked with coinage to get people to eat it.

More generally, the French go at the festive season less hard. They’re not counting down shopping days from July, booking Christmas parties in August or falling out of bars wearing reindeer horns from early November. They have more public holidays than we do, so more opportunities for festivities, meaning that less is riding on December 24 and 25. These are special times, but not so special that they drive the populace red-faced and rabid. Normality is not quite so ecstatically elbowed aside. If, for instance, the 25th falls on a Saturday or Sunday, it’s lost as a public holiday. There’s no compensatory day off on Monday.

The country also hosts a broader spectrum of Christmas-related capers. It lacks a pub culture to bring the nation together wassailing, and also TV of a standard necessary to keep citizens at home when they’re not in the pub. I can think of no French television show of which you’d want to watch a Christmas special.

So, instead, they get up, go out and do stuff. When you’ve got their outdoors – mountains and what-have-you – it would be silly not to. Added to that, they’ve clung to sacred elements of the festival. I doubt they’re more devout, they simply see no problem with hanging onto those elements of religious tradition which tend to make experience richer and people happier. This is especially the case in Provence which, I’d say, is at its best over Christmas. These are a few of my favourite Yuletide-related spots – beloved by the French, often forgotten by the British, and marvellous in December.

Provence

Provençal people have never bothered distinguishing the sensual from the spiritual. The one nourishes the other, all overseen by the Virgin – “la Bonne Mère”, in Marseille – who gratifies Latins by blessing pretty much whatever they choose to do. That helps festivities swing along.

The Christmas market in Fréjus, Provence, overlooked by Saint-Léonce cathedral
The Christmas market in Fréjus, Provence, overlooked by Saint-Léonce cathedral - Alamy/Hemis

The proper Provençal Christmas starts on December 4, St Barbara’s Day, when one must plant wheat or lentil seeds in bowls, so they’ll be green shoots three weeks later. (Should they not take, the following year will be cursed.)  Meanwhile, from November 24 to December 17 this year, the Var département hosts a first-rate sacred music festival, 15 concerts mainly in Toulon and Fréjus – where, on December 14, the Gesualdo Six a-capella singers from Cambridge perform in the Saint-Léonce cathedral (sacreemusique.fr).

Stay at l’Eautel, Toulon (doubles from £86; leautel-toulon.com).

Allauch

One of my very favourite Provençal events consumes Allauch (pronounced “’Allo”, as in ’Allo ’Allo!) just outside Marseille on Christmas Eve. Actors and musicians, locals and professionals, stage the Nativity scene on the steep hill overlooking the village. Then they descend in costume and in dozens – shepherds, real sheep and lambs, women in biblical garb, pipers and drummers – to the village square and into the church for Mass. For the first time this year, it all happens at 6.15pm, rather than 11.30pm. The change is controversial locally, so I’d not mention it, but simply bowl along at around 5.30pm for a decent spot (tourisme.allauch.com).

A nativity scene in the 16th century San Sebastian Church in Allauch, Bouches du Rhone
A nativity scene in the 16th century San Sebastian Church in Allauch, Bouches du Rhone - Hemis/Alamy

Stay in nearby Marseille at the Hotel Résidence du Vieux Port (doubles from £129; hotel-residence-marseille.com).

Lucéram

Final call in Provence is to this village perched more than 2,100 feet up behind Nice. Lucéram is France’s HQ of Nativity scenes, or “crèches”. As you’ll know, Provençal people aren’t troubled by false modesty. They’ve been inserting themselves – or, rather, “santon” figurines, characters based upon Provençal types – into the Nativity scene for generations. So the manger and stable get flanked by Provençal tableaux, to generally desirable effect. Lucéram goes for broke, coating the village streets with some 450 different crèches – from larger than life-size to one contained within the shell of a hazel-nut. It’s a stunning show, and only 40 minutes north of Nice (maisondepaysdeluceram.fr).

One of the many nativity scenes, or “crèches”, you'll find around the Provençal village of Lucéram
One of the many nativity scenes, or “crèches”, you'll find around the Provençal village of Lucéram - Southmind/Alamy

Stay in Nice at Le Deck Hotel (doubles from £57; deck-hotel.com).

Metz

It’s no surprise that Metz, capital of Moselle in the Lorraine region of north-east France, does Christmas well. It does everything well: contemporary art at the Pompidou Centre, Gothic architecture in one of France’s finest cathedrals, food, Moselle wines, plum liqueur, river trips, living well with a tough past, everything. I can’t understand why you’ve never been. Correct this over Christmas, which, firstly and as across Lorraine, honours St Nicholas with processions and street shows on the weekend of December 3-4.

Part of Le Sentiers des Lanternes, a trail of more than 2,000 lanterns installed throughout Metz
Part of Le Sentiers des Lanternes, a trail of more than 2,000 lanterns installed throughout Metz - JEAN-CHRISTOPHE VERHAEGEN/AFP

The festive period continues with the epic Yule market expected of cities which combine a German and a French past. But Metz’s ace is the outburst of more than 2,000 lanterns which bestow the necessary magic on winter nights. They range from big to huge (some top 12 feet), themed from elves to sweets to lantern coverage of polar regions (tourisme-metz.com).

Stay at the Hotel Cathédrale (doubles from £86; hotelcathedrale-metz.fr).

Montauban

If tempted by lanterns but in southwest France rather than the north-east, head for Montauban. From December 15 to February 11, the old town – 50 minutes north of Toulouse – hosts the biggest lantern park in Europe. It’s prepared by 40 Chinese lantern masters from Zigong (which sounds like a folk tale in itself).

A Christmas merry-go-round in nearby Toulouse
A Christmas merry-go-round in nearby Toulouse - Alain Pitton/NurPhoto

This year, the festival has been completely revised to include “majestic creatures”, holograms, luminous tableaux, image projection and a great deal else to create an entire fantasy world. I’ve not seen it – no one has yet – but it sounds hellishly enticing (festivaldeslanternes-montauban.com).

Stay at the Hotel du Commerce (doubles from £76; hotel-comerce-montauban.fr). 

Lyon

Before leaving the subject of illumination, let us go to Lyon. Any excuse to visit France’s third city is a good one. That from December 7 to December 10 the entire centre assumes a suit of lights is a cracker. Rooted in events 170 years ago, the Fête des Lumières has light shows across churches and monumental public buildings. It floods public spaces with music, playfulness and luminous wizardry, apparently ushering Lyon into a more enchanted dimension. No space here to do it justice. Simply have a look at last year’s fête at fetedeslumieres.lyon.fr.

The Fête des Lumières light show in Lyon takes place between December 7-10
The Fête des Lumières light show in Lyon takes place between December 7-10 - Helene Roche/Alamy

Stay at the Hotel Carlton (doubles from £204; hotel-carlton-lyon.com).

Colmar

It’s obvious that, if Father Christmas ruled the world, he would banish Christmas markets on the grounds of taste. But he doesn’t, so the markets persist with their seasonal attacks of terrifying trinketry and mulled wine. As they exist, you’ll doubtless be going and, if to France, then usually to Strasbourg. It’s the oldest and biggest market and, thus, unbelievably heaving.

Gingerbread tree ornaments at the Christmas market in Colmar
Gingerbread tree ornaments at the Christmas market in Colmar - AmzPhoto/iStockphoto

Go instead to Colmar. It’s 50 minutes south, has all the historical panache of Alsace, six different markets across the town and, at the Unterlinden Museum, the Isenheim Altarpiece which – with its stomach-churning depiction of ergotism – is the finest antidote to Styrofoam festive excess anyone could possibly need.

Stay at the Hotel Le Marchal (doubles from £201; hotel-le-marechal.com).