In recent years, more stores and neighborhoods display menorahs in December to celebrate Hanukkah, with the largest menorah displayed in front of the Eiffel Tower. Paris has a vibrant Jewish community and Jewish food specialties can be found in the Marais district of Paris. I was told that French Jewish holidays differ little from American Jewish holidays as the traditions and practices within the Jewish faith do not significantly change from country to country.
Noël – December 25
Paris is beautiful in any season, but becomes truly magical at Christmas. The Champs-Éysées is lined in stunningly lit trees and streets are adorned with decorations, garland, wreaths and ornaments turning the city into a winter wonderland, just without the snow. Stores and shops play Christmas music, which primarily consists of American songs, and decorate their stores with festive decorations.
- Crêche (nativity scene)
Many families display a nativity scene in their home each year. In Provence, in the south of France, crèche figures called Santons are hand-painted terracotta figurines. Les crêches are typically pasted down through generations.
- School Activities
In public schools, there can be no visible signs of faith as France claims separation of church and state (unless it means a day off of work). Therefore, Christian, Jewish, and Islamic traditions are not incorporated into the holidays. Snow, Santa Clause and commercial characteristics associated with the holiday are the only visible displays one sees in schools.
- Marchés de Noël (Christmas markets)
Christmas markets are popular in France, especially in eastern and northern France. However, Paris has some lovely Christmas markets as well where you can find hot mulled wine, roasted chestnuts, sausage, cheese, artisanal crafts and more. Christmas markets can be found at the Champs-Élysées, the Tuileries Garden, Notre Dame Cathedral, Les Halles, Saint-Germain-des-Près, Place des Abbesses in Montmartre and La Défense.
- Christmas Trees
French families put up Christmas trees, but they are relatively small compared to the trees that Americans display in their homes.
- Christmas Cards
The annual holiday card exchange, with family photos or not, is somewhat popular in France, however, greetings are typically sent throughout the month of January. This is a relief because it’s one less thing to do prior to Christmas.
- Père Noël (Father Christmas)
Although, thanks to Coca Cola, Santa Clause is fairly visible in France, it is actually Père Noël who brings children their Christmas gifts. Père Noël wears a long, hooded red cloak trimmed in white fur and rides a donkey carrying a sack of presents that he delivers to the children on Christmas Eve. French children do not hang stockings, but leave their shoes out to be stuffed with goodies. Presents are also left under the Christmas tree.
- Le Père Fouettard (Father Whipper)
Legend claims that Le Père Fouettard follows Père Noël and whips children who have behaved badly throughout the year.
- Christmas Eve dinner
Traditionally, people attended midnight mass on December 24th, which was followed by a large Christmas feast. However, with lower church attendance, Christmas dinner or le réveillon as they call it, now starts around 9:00 or 10:00 pm. The time, effort and budget devoted to the Christmas dinner are impressive. Among the dishes you may see at dinner are: fresh oysters, foie gras, game meat, turkey or roast beef, consumed with a great deal of wine and champagne.
The quintessential French Christmas dessert is la Bûche de Noël (Yule log), sponge cake rolled to resemble a log. The cake has a layer of buttercream (chocolate, coffee or praline flavored) and the outer chocolate frosting is textured to look like bark. Meringue mushrooms make the cake look even more like a log. The Yule log is symbolic, as families historically selected the largest log possible to burn at midnight, while they attended mass so that the home would still be warm when they returned. In Provence, the French eat 13 desserts, representing Jesus and the 12 apostles, as part of their Christmas celebration.
Le réveillon de la Saint-Sylvestre – December 31
Le Jour de l’An – January 1
New Year’s Eve is a festive occasion when families and friends gather for long and elaborate meals and parties. The countdown to midnight is televised from the Eiffel Tower where at midnight there is a beautiful display of fireworks. New Year’s Day is a national holiday and is spent with family and friends.
La Fête des Rois – January 6th
This is one of my favorite holidays in France. Although January 6th may fall on a weekday, the French celebrate it on the Sunday closest to that date. In the afternoon, friends and families gather to drink champagne and eat a delicious cake called a Galette des Rois (Kings’ Cake). This cake contains a frangipane interior (eggs, sugar and crushed almonds) surrounded by puffed pastry. The cake is baked with a hidden porcelain figurine inside called a fève, meaning broad bean. Traditionally, a broad bean was hidden in the cake, which has been replaced by porcelain figures and shapes that many people collect. When serving the cake, the youngest member of the family goes under the table and as each slice is cut, the child says to whom the slice will be given. While eating the cake, the individual who finds the fève is crowned king or queen by the hostess with a gold paper crown. That individual in turn, crowns his respective king or queen.
The French love the Galette de Rois so much that it is available in patisseries in France throughout the entire month. Therefore, it is not uncommon to have eaten this cake four or five times in January. Fortunately, this does increase your odds of being crowned king or queen.
La fête de la Chandeleur – February 2
This holiday is celebrated 40 days after Christmas and has both Christian and pagan origins. However, to most people la Chandeleur means one thing: this is the day you eat crêpes. It is traditional to hold a gold coin piece in your left hand while flipping the first crêpe holding on to the pan only with your right hand. Legend claims that if the crêpe lands flat, you will have a financially successful year, but if the crêpe lands wrinkled, financial woes may be ahead.
La fête de Saint Valentin – February 14
This holiday is not widely celebrated, however the chocolate and florist industries promote their products. The holiday is not celebrated at school as it is in the U.S. and is primarily for sweethearts.
Le Carnival – 47 days before Easter
Mardi Gras is celebrated the Tuesday before Ash Wednesday, which is the start of Lent, a period of penance and fasting. Therefore, people want to be festive this day with lively parties and good food. The largest celebration is held in Nice in the south of France with a large parade that includes many colorful and flamboyant floats and figures.
In elementary schools this day, students either dress up in costumes or make masks or hats in art classes. At school, students parade in front of their parents to show off their attractive disguises and masks.
Good Friday, Easter and Easter Monday
- Good Friday or Vendredi Saint is only considered a holiday in some regions of France
- Easter Sunday or Pâcques
Easter is a fairly big celebration with a large family gathering and meal in which one feasts on a delicious Easter lamb. Children enjoy eating chocolate candy in the form of eggs, fish, bunnies and bells.
- Les Cloches de Pâcques (Easter bells)
Legend claims that on Good Friday, when the church bells become silent, it is because they leave their bell towers and fly to Rome for a Papal blessing. They return Sunday morning with the les Cloches de Pâcques (Easter bells) filled with special candy treats that fall during their return flight on the homes in France. Finally, the bells find their place in the towers and ring out for Easter.
- La Chasse aux Oeufs (Easter egg hunt)
A popular activity for children is to hunt for chocolate Easter eggs that are hidden outdoors in the garden. However, the French do not dye hard boiled eggs, as is custom in the U.S.
- Easter Monday or Lundi de Pâcques is a national holiday.
Fête de Travail – May 1
This national holiday has a nice tradition in which un brin de muget (a sprig of Lily of the Valley) is offered to friends and family. If you don’t have your own garden, you can easily purchase your Lily of the Valley from street vendors or at florist shops.
Fête de la Victoire 1945 – May 8
This national holiday commemorates the end of WWII.
L’Ascension – 40 days after Easter
This national holiday celebrates the ascension of Jesus into heaven.
Lundi de Pentecôte – 7th Mon. after Easter
This national holiday is the public observance of Pentecost that celebrates the descent of the Holy Spirit upon the apostles.
Le 14 juillet – July 14
Unlike the American Independence Day celebrated with local family-oriented parades, France’s national holiday is marked with a large military parade on les Champs-Elysées. In the evening, villages often have a dance party at the town square, and the evening ends with fireworks, the most spectacular display being at the Eiffel Tower.
Feast of the Assumption
L’Assomption – August 15
This national holiday celebrates the Virgin Mary’s assumption into heaven, and in some areas, there may be outdoor processions in which a statue of the mother of Jesus is carried on a platform with flowers and candles through the streets.
Halloween – October 31
Several years ago there was a marketing effort to boost the presence of Halloween activities in Paris. However, after gaining some momentum, it lost traction. Disneyland Paris has a Halloween festival, as do other amusement parks and a few museums. Some bars and restaurants put out spooky decorations, but that is the extent of it.
All Saints Day
La Toussaint – November 1
This national holiday celebrates all the saints in heaven.
Armistice 1918 – November 11
This national holiday commemorates the end of the WWI.