Here’s a quick tour of French celebrations and French holidays in date order. You may find a few ideas here for your next celebration.
January 1st – Time to wish all friends and family good luck for the coming year. You can do this by saying meilleurs voeux, meaning best wishes, or add on a bonne santé to wish them good health. New Years greetings continue throughout the month of January, and most people send cards (les cartes de voeux) to those they are not able to see in person.
January 6th – This is Epiphany, or the Fete de Rois as it is commonly called. People gather to eat a special cake, known as a king cake or galette des rois. The galette contains a small figurine called the fève – watch out for your teeth! Whoever finds the fève in their piece of galette wears a paper crown and becomes the king or queen. Sometimes the newly crowned royalty are expected to host a galette party of their own, and in this way the celebration can go on for several days.
February 2nd – The Fête de Chandeleur falls on the same day you may celebrate Ground Hog Day. This is a very old holiday that at some point the Catholic church took under their wing and made into a day for blessing candles and participating in processions. Many people celebrate by making and eating crepes as well.
February 14th – French celebrations do include Valentine’s Day, but in no way to the excess that can be see in other parts of the world. Traditional gifts are chocolates, flowers, and sometimes a jewel or two for the lucky few.
Mardi Gras – This celebration falls 40 days before Easter. Many cities in France now have a Mardi Gras parade, most notably in Nice.
April 1st – Reserved for playing jokes on each other, called les poissons d’avril (April fish). Children color and cut out paper fish and try to tape them on the backs of unsuspecting parents, friends, and teachers. This is one of the French celebrations that is pure fun.
Easter – In France, rather than a rabbit, it is a winged bell who delivers baskets of goodies to the children. The baskets are filled with chocolate chickens, as well as eggs. While there is no traditional French meal served on Easter Sunday, most families will gather for a noontime feast that may include a leg of lamb or a rabbit. (Maybe you better not serve rabbit if you live where the Easter Bunny does the morning delivery – that seems a bit macabre!) The day after Easter is known as the Lundi de Paques and is an official holiday, which gives everyone a long weekend for Easter.
May 1st– As in many places in the world, May 1st is labor day. It is an official day off in France. (In fact, much of the month of May seems to be an official holiday in France.) People give their friends a small bouquet of lily of the valley for good luck and the labor unions organize parades.
May 8th – La Fete de la Victoire is a political holiday. The French celebrate victory over the Germans and the end of WWII with a ceremony around the monument aux morts. Every city, town and village in France has such a monument, where you will find listed the names of those citizens who lost their lives in the war. Speeches are made and bouquets of flower are placed around the monument.
The Ascension – This falls on a Thursday, 40 days after Easter and celebrates Jesus’ ascent to heaven. It is an official day off, but unlike May 1st and other French celebrations, whether one gets paid or not depends on where one works.
Mother’s Day – La fête des mères falls on the last Sunday of May.
Father’s Day – La fête des pères falls on the second Sunday of June.
July 14th – Perhaps the most famous of French celebrations, Bastille Day commemorates the storming of the Bastille by the people of France and the beginning of the French Revolution in 1789. The day is celebrated with military parades all over France and firework displays animate the evening.
August 15th – La Fête de L’Assomption. Another religious holiday that is also an official day off, this day marks the ascension of the Virgin Mary to heaven.
November 1st – Called Toussaint (all saint’s day), the French honor their dearly departed by leaving chrysanthemums at the cemetery. (By the way, never give these flowers to someone in France as they are symbolic of death for them.)
November 11th – Celebrated in a similar fashion as May 8th, this day commemorates the end of the First World War. Once again, people gather around the monument aux mortsto listen to speeches and leave flowers in memory of those who died in the war. These two French celebrations frequently end in a small party given by the mayor.
December 24th and 25th – In France, Christmas Eve is when most of the celebrating is done. This is when families will gather for feasting on traditional foods including foie gras, seafood, chestnut dressing, and a bûche de Noël . Many times Père Noël (Father Christmas) will make an appearance and distribute gifts to the children. Many people also attend midnight mass.
December 31 – The year ends in France with Saint Sylvestre day. People will have a huge feast similar to what they had on Christmas eve, or they might dine out in a restaurant as well. Party goers will stay up until well past midnight, drinking, dancing and having fun with their friends.
Now that’s a whole year of French celebrations, but there are many more which you will discover if you come to France. Each region has its own special celebrations and customs and festivals in France are legion.