Christmas Markets, Provence Desserts and More: 3 French Lesson Plans to Truly Experience Noël in France
Christmas is the perfect time for spreading holiday cheer in your classroom.
For some, it’s a moment to bring the family together over great food.
For others, it’s about the enchanting decorations, classic Christmas movies and cheerful Christmas songs.
Whatever feeds the Christmas spirit in your classroom, you’ll quickly realize that your students will delight in being a part of it. And if you can make the immersion experience so authentic that your students feel like they’re actually strolling the marchés de Noël (Christmas markets) in your French classroom, even better!
To help you make this holiday season memorable and useful for your French students, I’ve put together three French Christmas lessons that are as authentic as it gets.
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3 Magical French Christmas Lesson Plans to Spread the Holiday Cheer
1. Christmas in Alsace
Overview: Christmas in Alsace is a warm and magical experience. Known for its unique traditions, the smallest region of France is the epitome of Christmas during the winter holidays—and has 7 Christmas countries with their own unique features. Alsatian Christmas folklore is as rich as it is heartwarming—from Saint Nicholas, couronnes de l’Avent (Advent wreaths) and bredele cookies, to legendary characters Hans Trapp and Christkindel.
Lesson Focus: Les marchés de Noël (Christmas markets) are an Alsatian tradition and the epitome of Christmas. In Strasbourg, which boasts the oldest Christmas market in France and one of the oldest and largest in Europe, the custom dates back to 1570. Aside from showcasing local, artisanal Christmas products, foods and gifts, they drive tourism and make the city incredibly picturesque.
- Showcase the rich history, unique traditions and customs of Christmas in Alsace.
- Acquire the vocabulary to describe Christmas in Alsace accurately.
A good way to break the ice is to begin the lesson by asking your students what they think can be found at the various stands of the Strasbourg Christmas market. This is a engaging way to introduce and expand on other traditions, such as bredele cookies, mulled wine, Christmas decorations and Christmas songs.
Then, share with your students the story of the origins of Christmas markets in Alsace and tell them everything about the 7 pays de Noël (Christmas countries). Bring a map of Alsace and describe as best as you can the different areas and their specificities. This is also a great activity to practice a facet of French that is often overlooked: geography!
Activity: At the Christmas Market
You may not be able to gift your students an expensive plane ticket to Alsace this holiday season, but fear not! Technology can save the day, and turn your French lesson into a highly engaging, fun experience.
For this activity, simply use your favorite Christmas market videos. Videos are a great way to convey the subtleties of French Christmas cultures.
Here is a fantastic clip about French Christmas markets:
- “The Strasbourg Christmas Market” is a mini-documentary (2.5 minutes long) about the Christmas market in Strasbourg. It includes many interesting facts and figures, and is also a useful tool for teaching multiple uses of the preposition de.
YouTube also boasts a huge collection of authentic videos that will help you easily recreate the spirit of a genuine Alsatian Christmas market:
- I love this video about the Strasbourg Christmas market.
- This video is about the market in Colmar, and is mainly for beginners since it’s so image-based. The benefit of using videos that use little speech is that it forces students to pay more attention to the video while also requiring a greater focus to remember the Christmas vocabulary that they have studied in class.
- If you are looking for a resource that will test your students’ listening and understanding skills, this short video clip is perfect. It showcases the Christmas market in Mulhouse (in the Land of Songs and Fine Fabrics) and the people that wander the markets.
While you play the video, students should take notes on what they see in French, such as the different stands and products that are sold, what people say about the Christmas market experiences, or details about Alsatian folk traditions. Play the video at least twice so students can grasp everything fully, and then you can begin the discussions.
You might ask students to describe the video, to expand on a particular theme of the video, or to share their thoughts on the uniqueness of Christmas markets in Alsace—based on the video they’ve seen.
Alternatively, you may choose to ask your students specific questions based on the content discussed in whatever video you choose. This will let you test your students’ understanding of the clip, and to tailor your questions to their level or a current unit of study.
Activity: Our Alsacian Christmas Market
That’s right, you’re bringing the magic of Alsatian Christmas markets to the classroom!
In this highly engaging, cultural activity, students will be able to add their own touch to illuminate the classroom—and envision, create and play shop in a grand way. The activity is split into two parts: a brainstorming session and the actual Christmas market.
Start the first session by creating teams of three. Each team will be responsible for creating their own Christmas market stand, including decorations, products and promotional leaflets. Students will need to price their items, and will each “be given” 50 euros to spend at the Christmas market on market day.
Let teams brainstorm the theme of their stands for about 10 minutes. The idea is to get them excited and talking!
When the 10 minutes are up, ask the teams what theme they have chosen, and why it should be in the class’s Christmas market. This will give you a chance to make sure that not too many of your students will be selling the same items, and also lets you test your students’ ability to make the perfect pitch in French!
Some great stand ideas might include:
- a bredele stand (my favorite recipes can be found here)
- a Christmas gift shop (some great DYI tutorials here)
- a Christmas decoration stand (fantastic resources here)
- a Christmas card stall (your students will be inspired by reading this)
Then, give teams another 20 minutes to discuss their stand and product manufacturing. At the end of that time, one team member should summarize the team’s ideas to the class. This gives everyone a chance to hear ideas and share best practices.
Last, ask the teams to spend 10 minutes brainstorming marketing and sale strategies. From leaflets to boards, competitive prices or eccentric costumes, that’s the secret sauce that will make all the difference!
Outside of class, teams should meet up and create decorations, products and marketing collaterals. It’s a fun homework assignment that will help bring your students even closer. If your schedule allows for it, groups could also work on this project during class instead. That way all groups would have access to the same materials.
If it’s an outside project, though, make sure to give your students ample time to prepare—two weeks is plenty.
Part two of this activity is to host the Christmas market. In lieu of stands, simply push the desks together and let students place their decorations and manufactured goods on them. Give students 5 minutes to set up their stand.
Then ask each team to tell the class what the stand is about, what they sell and why students should come to their stand. You can easily turn this activity into a game or competition; the team who successfully sells all of their products or who earns the most is the winner.
When you’re ready to start the shopping, give each student 50 fake euros of bills and ample change. The goal is for students to have fun and actually buy their peers’ goods, so if they aren’t left with much cash at the end but have bought numerous products, that’s all right.
One to two team member should keep shop while the rest of the team strolls around the class to enjoy the markets. Every 5 minutes, one member should return to the stand to take over their team’s sales clerk duties. You can ring a bell or set a timer to make sure every team member gets a chance to both browse the market and man their stand.
2. The 13 Christmas Desserts
Overview: Christmas in Provence is a true feast, and it’s incomplete without the infamous 13 desserts that are found each year on the Christmas table.
Lesson focus: Christmas food. Le gros souper is a special Christmas Eve dinner, a Provence Christmas tradition that dates back to the 17th century. It is the light meal that was taken before the Midnight Christmas mass and the customs that surround it: the burning of a big fruit tree log, the three tablecloths that topped the Christmas table and the Christmas desserts.
- Discover the origins of a world-famous Christmas tradition in France.
- Identify the 13 Provence desserts and master Christmas folk vocabulary.
- Master the lexicon and expressions of food and cooking.
The region of Marcel Pagnol is sunny all year round, but Christmas is always celebrated in fanfare. In this lesson, you will open your students’ eyes to the wonders of Christmas in Provence, which kicks off on December 4 during the Sainte Barbe Day and ends on February 2 with the Chandeleur tradition, a period known as the Calendales.
What’s unique about Provence is the importance of symbolism during Christmas. Nothing is left to chance in this part of the country, from the santons—typical ornamental figurines in Provence that illuminate the nativity scenes—to pasturage, a shepherd celebration, to the 13 desserts de Noël (13 Christmas desserts).
Activity: Provence Christmas Recipes
Sometimes, a picture simply is not enough. There’s nothing like actual food to convey important parts of the French Christmas culture. In this activity, students will be presented with various folk recipes that make the Christmas feast in Provence unique.
Start by presenting your students with various pictures of Provence Christmas dishes. Let them identify the dish, and ask them questions about it. Have they ever tried it or eaten something similar? Do they know what it tastes like? How do people eat it? Is there a specific story behind it? Make sure to correct them if they answer wrongly. The goal is for students to have a thorough understanding of the dish in question, and hopeful raise their curiosity such that they would want to make or try the dish.
Then, ask students to explain how they’d make a dish. To do this, pick the picture of a dish that you like—preferably an easy dessert that you could buy ahead of time (nougat is great for this!)—and ask your class how they would make it. Let students give you some ideas, and then give them some guidance. Start by putting the ingredient list on the board, and then form some basic step-by-step instructions.
Encourage students to take notes and participate; you’re creating a recipe together! If cooking isn’t your forte, Cuisine et vins de France has some fantastic Provence recipes that will rock your world.
Make sure to introduce the proper terminology throughout the activity, and—if possible—reward your culinary masters-in-the-making with a taste of the dish they’ve just (virtually) cooked.
Activity: Our Nativity Scene
Let students express their creativity and artistic talent by bringing the Nativity to life through puppets. It doesn’t have to be daunting, and can actually be a lot of fun if you keep the class focused.
Start by discussing the Medieval origins of the Provence Nativity scenes, including santons (ornamental clay figures). Feel free to bring up the santonier, who manufactures the santons, and sprinkle your class with various anecdotes that will make your class lively.
For example, did you know that santons were popularized when churches were closed after the Revolution, and the people of Provence decided to have their own crèches (Nativity scenes) to honor Christmas?
Then, display a picture of a Provence Nativity scene and ask your class what it evokes for them. Alternatively, show them this short video of an authentic crèche. Students should take notes on the various decorative elements and santons that compose the Nativity scenes in Provence.
In addition to Baby Jesus, Mary and Joseph, some popular characters include:
- le vendeur de marrons (the chestnut seller)
- la boulangère (the baker)
- le berger (the shepherd)
- le maraîcher (the produce seller)
Then, ask each student to create their own Nativity scene and santons. Simply use white paper, a pair of scissors and colored pencils to give them life. Alternatively, use wood pieces and cover them in various scrap fabric clothes if you have the supplies.
This is best done as a homework with the idea that all students will showcase and describe their work before the class about two weeks after you have given them the assignment. Have fun with it!
3. Christmas Eve in France
Overview: Christmas Eve is one of the most exciting nights of the year in France! Throughout the winter in the Hexagon, families prepare for this joyful moment, punctuated with ancient rites, folk songs, traditional foods and stories. This lesson recreates how Christmas Eve unfolds in France, and focuses on history while comparing it to America’s Christmas Eve customs.
Lesson focus: Christmas rituals. Christmas is a Christian tradition that has successfully replaced the Gaul’s pagan festivities in France, bringing the country together for about a month. While Christmas differs across the country, French people are very aware of the various Christmas traditions and customs specific to each region.
- Describe Christmas Eve in France using adequate vocabulary.
- Compare Christmas traditions in France and between France and your native country.
- Express an opinion and convince an audience.
- Learn and master popular French Christmas songs while creating your own.
This is the time to introduce general aspects and details of French Christmas and what makes it unique. Break the ice by asking students how they celebrate Christmas in their own home. Let them speak and get as many details as possible. From Santa Claus and Christmas decorations to their favorite Christmas foods and songs, make sure that everybody tells you how they celebrate Christmas in their family.
Now, tell them about how it compares with France. Fortunately, France shares some similarities in the festivities with many other countries: similar legends, rituals and food (to some degree!)—so try to be as detailed as possible to allow your students to spot the differences.
A detour in history is always a great way to make this lesson a hit. This website provides insightful content to help you tell the legends of Noël accurately.
Activity: What Would Santa Think?
My students love this game, Qu’en penserait le Père Noël ?, and for so many reasons! Aside from making sure that your students have their moral compass working properly, it is always uplifting to hear your youngest students share their thoughts on what Santa likes and dislikes!
In the game, you will be discussing various behaviors, discourses, words and routines, and students will have to give you their most honest opinion: What would Santa think about that?
This game is also a great way to engage everyone—you’ll quickly see that they all want to speak and let you know what Santa really thinks.
Ahead of time, you’ll need to prepare the scenarios, behaviors, words, etc. appropriate for your age group. I’ve compiled a list of ideas to get you inspired:
Pierre ne fait pas son lit le matin. Sa maman le lui demande chaque jour. Qu’en penserait le Père Noël?
(Peter doesn’t make his bed in the morning. His mother asks him to do so every day. What would Santa think?)
Mathilde aime faire des gâteaux, mais elle ne fait jamais la vaisselle. Qu’en penserait le Père Noël?
(Mathilde likes to bake, but she never washes the dishes. What would Santa think?)
Paul préfère jouer au football plutôt que faire ses devoirs. Il n’a pas de bonnes notes en classe. Qu’en penserait le Père Noël?
(Paul prefers playing soccer rather than doing his homework. He doesn’t have good grades. What would Santa think?)
Poll the class and let your students share their opinions. Then, choose a student and ask them why they gave you their particular answer—en français ! Ask the rest of the class what they think ought to change, and what may happen if Santa isn’t happy with the child’s behavior. How about your students? How well are they behaving?
End it on a positive note and ask your class what’s on their Christmas list (la liste de Noël), and what’s so special about those presents. If they’re young ones, it’s important to get them motivated to change their own behavior in anticipation of Christmas Day.
Activity: Writer’s Corner — Christmas Singalongs for Christmas Eve
Writing Christmas songs is an excellent game to play together, and can easily become your students’ all-time favorite.
For this activity you’ll pick a familiar Christmas carol, and let your students come up with their best lyrics. This is a group activity, so everyone should participate. Engage your students and encourage participation; it’s their song they are creating, so let them express themselves.
Before starting the project, introduce your class to rhymes and poetry. That’s right, like every song, they’ll have to respect these rules and create a song that is phonologically beautiful as well!
Then, start by discussing the chosen song and what it makes them think about. Let them imagine a Christmas story—that will be the basis of their very own song. The whole class should work together to make that story progress, so break it into smaller pieces that students can work on in groups.
To do this, draw a basic outline of the structure on the board, using horizontal lines for lyrics or squares for verses and the refrain, and number each section. Discuss with students what might fit in each section. It will be up to them to fill it! For example, you may discuss the general idea that will come through in the chorus before assigning a group to write the chorus.
Before groups get going on their assigned part, give them one last rule to respect: Groups need to include certain Christmas words of your (the instructor’s) own choosing. Each section should have at least four mandatory words. That’s one per line on average, but students can place them wherever they want.
The words you choose will depend on your students’ level, but here are some ideas:
- le bonhomme de neige (the snowman)
- Père Noël (Santa Claus)
- le Père Fouettard (the Bogeyman)
- se coucher (to go to bed)
- s’emmitoufler (to wrap oneself up)
- gâteaux de Noël (Christmas cookies)
- la cheminée (chimney)
Students should be working together as much as possible, so don’t interfere too much, but make sure that you monitor their progress and help them when necessary.
Let groups write for the rest of the class. Especially if your students aren’t used to creative writing games, it may take some time for them to come up with the perfect lyrics, so be patient. Be mindful that writing is much more than a language exercise; it is a creative, artistic process, and your students probably want to show you their best, most inspired work!
At the end of class, collect the lyrics from each group. Compile them together and make copies for the next class. You may have to correct a few mistakes here and there, but try to leave it as authentic as possible. It doesn’t matter if the words aren’t elaborate; your students will be very excited and proud to find their own words printed on a piece of paper!
When your group meets next, you’ll sing the song in unison and discover the final draft together. Discuss the final version, read it together, discuss unknown words and then sing along. Each group could perform their own section first, and lastly have the entire class sing together. That’s the Christmas spirit alive and well!
I hope that your students will love these magical Christmas lessons, and that you’ll have as much fun teaching them as I do!
Download: This blog post is available as a convenient and portable PDF that you can take anywhere. Click here to get a copy. (Download)