Although many of the Christmas songs (‘Les chants de Noël’) that we know in English have been translated into French – some French children even think that Jingle Bells was originally a French song – France has many popular Christmas carols and songs of its own.
Here are eight of our favourites.
Best French Christmas songs
‘Petit Papa Noël’ (‘Little Father Christmas’)
This song was made famous by the French singer Tino Rossi, who performed it in Richard Pottier’s film Destins in 1946. The original words – by Xavier Lermercier – described a young boy’s prayer to Father Christmas asking for his father, who was a prisoner of war in Germany, to come home.
But the lyricist Raymond Vincy later rewrote them, moving all allusion to the war. Since then it has become possibly the most popular secular hymn in France, sung by children all over the country.
‘C’est Noël’ (‘It’s Christmas)
The composer Henri Batti allegedly wrote this touching and cosy song for the first Christmas he spent with his baby daughter in 1950. Switching between a modern celebration of Christmas and a retelling of the Nativity, it was meant to be one of four songs sung by the French actor and singer Fernandel in the 1956 film Honoré de Marseille. But it was cut in the editing, and in the end only appeared in a recording released the same year.
‘Entre le boeuf et l’âne gris’ (‘Between the Ox and Grey Donkey’)
Dating back at least as far as the 16th century, and possibly the 13th century, ‘Entre le boeuf et l’âne gris’ (‘between the ox and grey donkey’) is one of the oldest French carols that is still sung today. Simple but beautiful, the lyrics refer to the animals surrounding Jesus’s manger, whose breath, according to popular tales, would have warmed the newborn
‘La Noël de la Rue’ (‘Christmas in the Street’)
The legendary chanteuse Édith Piaf, whose life was marred by illness, injury, disappointed love and addiction, was not known for writing Christmas songs. And this rare example, recorded in 1951, does not exactly deliver festive cheer: ‘The light and the joy are behind the windows,’ go the lyrics, ‘Not for you, not for me. It is for your neighbour.’ But it is beautifully poignant.
5. ‘Noël à Paris’ (‘Christmas in Paris’)
Charles Aznavour, the famous French-Armenian singer descended from the cook of Tsar Nicholas II, sang this nostalgic Christmas song on his 1978 album ‘Un enfant est né (A Child is Born)’. His warm, gravelly voice – not for nothing was he often described as the French Frank Sinatra – was a perfect fit for it.
‘Il est né le divin enfant’ (‘The Divine Infant is Born’)
This popular Catholic carol is about the birth of Jesus and the 4000-year wait for the event as foretold by the prophets. It was first published in 1874 and has since been interpreted many times by artists including Édith Piaf, Annie Lennox and Placido Domingo.
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‘Noël au bout du monde’ (‘Christmas at the End of the World’)
This charming children’s song is one of many written by the late French singer-songwriter Anne Sylvestre, who appeared several times on the French television show Discorama in the ’60s. It tells of the people around the world who celebrate Christmas in their own way, with a special shout out to those who put tinsel on banana trees.
8. ‘Venez divin Messie’ (‘O Come, Divine Messiah’)
The melody to this French advent Christmas song was taken from ‘Laissez paître vos bestes’ (‘Let your animals graze’), a 16th century French Christmas hymn. In this version, however, the original lyrics were changed with all references to Heaven and Hell removed to conform to Progressivism.
Photo: Roman Eisele