Holidays (fetes and jours feries) and traditions are important to the French who love to celebrate. As if l’art de vivre on a daily basis was not enough, holidays and traditions are celebrated with enthusiasm, adding a festive rhythm to the year. On national holidays, bus and metro services are limited, and banks, post offices, most offices, stores, and museums are closed. If a holiday falls on a Tuesday or Thursday, the French often take a four day weekend (called faire le pont – making the bridge). Banks and post offices often close early on the day before a holiday or during a “bridge.”
In addition to national holidays, there are festivals, seasonal traditions and religious holidays throughout the year. Traditional French celebrations vary from region to region and many of these unique regional events are worth the trip. Visit http://www.parisinfo.com (there is a search tool under the Going Out in the English version to find Celebrations and Festivals).
Below are the most important French holidays and Parisian traditions.
Le Jour de l’An (New Year’s Day) – January 1: New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day are generally devoted to friends rather than family in France. During the entire month of January, it is customary to greet friends and colleagues with a “Bonne Annee” (Happy New Year) the first time you meet.
La Fete des Rois (Epiphany: Feast of the Kings) – First Sunday in January: This holiday commemorates the visit of the Magi, or Wise Men, to the Christ Child. French families buy or bake a special cake called une galette des rois on which a paper crown is placed. Inside the cake is a bean (une feve), coin, or other favor. Someone, usually the youngest, covers their eyes and directs who gets which piece of cake. Whoever finds the treasure in his or her portion is the king or queen for the day and is entitled to wear the crown. He or she directs the festivities of the day, as reigning monarch! The most traditional of galettes is la galette fourree, which is filled with frangipane (almond paste). These galette des rois are eaten throughout January and can be purchased at any boulangerie.
Cendres (Ash Wednesday): This first day of Lent, or Careme, is observed 40 days before Easter. Many Christians wear ashes in the form of a cross on their foreheads.
Les Fetes de Paques (Eastertime) Vendredi Saint (Good Friday): While Good Friday is not a national holiday, it is observed by many Parisians. Some people fast and do not eat meat, and dinner parties and other celebrations are generally considered in poor taste. There are solemn religious ceremonies such as The Way of the Cross (le Chemin de Croix), which is enacted at many churches and in the streets of many arrondissiments. Religious relics, such as the Crown of Thorns, are displayed at Notre Dame. French children are told that Easter eggs are brought by “the bells” (les cloches). Chocolate eggs are hidden by parents in gardens or on balconies for the children to hunt.
Poisson d’Avril (April Fish, April Fool’s Day) – April 1: Practical jokes mark the first day of April in France. Children draw pictures of fish and try to pin them on friends’ backs. When any joke is a success, someone cries, “Poisson d’Avril!” to the fooled person.
La Fete du Travail (Labor Day, May Day) – May 1, *National Holiday* First designated as International Labor Day in 1889, labor unions still parade through the city on May 1st. Also on May 1st, it is the tradition to give a sprig of lilies of the valley (un brin de muguet) to friends and loved ones to bring them happiness and good luck.
La Fete de la Victoire en Europe (Victory in Europe 1945) – May 8, *National Holiday* Holiday celebrating the end of World War II in Europe.
La Fete de l’Ascension (Ascension Thursday) *National Holiday* In memory of Christ’s ascension to heaven, the Church, and Paris, celebrates the feast of the Ascension 40 days after Easter.
La Fete des Meres (Mother’s Day) – Last Sunday in May: A special Sunday when the French honor their mothers.
La Fete de la Musique (Music Festival) – June 21: This tradition started in 1982 as a modern way to celebrate the longest day of the year. The fete begins around noon on June 21 and continues until near dawn on June 22. You definitely want to be on the streets of Paris as there are concerts absolutely everywhere!
La Fete Nationale (Bastille Day) – July 14: *National Holiday* This holiday marks the anniversary of the storming of the Bastille fortress in 1789. And, while the day it was attacked and fell is a national holiday, most French do not associate it with the Bastille. Celebrations begin on July 13 and continue through the 14th with street dances, bals des Pompiers (at fire houses), military parades, and fireworks throughout the city. Traditionally, admission is free to performances in all national theaters on July 14, and almost all businesses are closed.
L’Assomption (Feast of the Assumption) – August 15, *National Holiday* Originally established to honor the assumption of Mary into heaven, celebrations today revolve around harvest festivals and the blessing of the sea, which symbolize livelihood in many small towns.
La Toussaint (All Saints’ Day) – November 1, *National Holiday* This holiday was instituted to venerate all saints, especially those who did not have a special day of the year named in their honor. The schools have a 10-day break at this time.
Le Jour des Morts (All Souls’ Day) – November 2: This holiday is a day to remember the souls of the dead and the custom in France is to visit graves of relatives and place flowers, usually chrysanthemums.
L’Armistice 1918 (Armistice Day 1918) – November 11, *National Holiday* This holiday celebrates the day World War I ended.
Noel (Christmas) – December 25, *National Holiday* Festivities in Paris generally begin with a meal called le Reveillon, served after the Christmas Eve midnight church services. This meal traditionally includes oysters, lobster, foie gras, white sausage (boudin blanc), turkey or other fowl with chestnut stuffing, a Yule Log cake (La Buche de Noel) and champagne…try to get yourself invited to one! French children used to place wooden shoes near the fireplace to be filled by Father Christmas (Pere Noel), but in recent years, the Christmas tree (le sapin de Noel) has taken their place. The trees are available, potted or cut, two- to three-weeks before Christmas.
Christmas cards: The French custom is to send New Year’s cards rather than Christmas cards to friends and famiy. Businesses are expected to send greetings to their clients, colleagues and anyone with whom they have a working relationship. These cards should be sent between December 15 and January 31. It is also customary for the boss to toast his or her employees with champagne sometime during January. It is also appropriate, during this season, to give a tip to the guardien(ne) and other staff.
La Nuit de la Saint Sylvestre (New Year’s Eve) – December 31: New Year’s Eve is a festive occasion spent with friends at home or in a favorite restaurant. The traditional fare for the New Year’s Eve meal is similar to that of Christmas.
La Fete de Saint(e) (Name day): Most French people are named after a patron saint and those saints are listed on French calendars. This tradition is in decline and it is common to see modern American names on the calendar. You can still check to see which days are the name days of your friends and wish them “bonne fete” as the French do!