Calendar of French traditions, festivals, and holidays
le jour de l’an (New Year’s Day) is a public holiday and a day of
family celebration, with a large lunch, traditionally featuring
seafood of various kinds.
la Fête des Rois (Epiphany or Twelfth Night). Around this time, most
families have a galette des Rois, a rich pastry cake
ﬁlled with frangipane (almond paste). The cake
contains a fève, literally a bean, as this is what was
originally used. Nowadays the fève takes the form of a
tiny plastic or ceramic ﬁgure. The person who gets the
fève in their portion puts on the cardboard crown which
comes with the cake.
la Chandeleur (Candlemas) is celebrated in the church but is not a public
holiday. However, it is traditional to eat crêpes
(pancakes) on this day.
la Saint Valentin (St Valentine’s Day). As in many other
countries, people celebrate a romantic relationship with gifts of
ﬂowers or chocolates.
le premier avril (April Fool’s Day). The French also take advantage of
this occasion to play tricks on one another, calling out poisson
d’avril! (literally ‘April
La Fête du Travail (International Labour Day) is a public
le 8 mai or la Fête de la Victoire is a public holiday commemorating Victory in Europe on 8
la Saint-Jean (Midsummer’s Day). In many areas, bonﬁres
(les feux de la Saint-Jean) are lit on Midsummer’s
Night. People are supposed to jump over these, re-enacting a pagan
custom intended to ward off the cold of winter.
la Fête Nationale or le 14 juillet
is usually called Bastille Day in English and is a public
holiday in France. It commemorates the taking of the Bastille
prison in Paris and the liberation of its prisoners by the people
of Paris in 1789, one of the ﬁrst events of the Revolution.
All over France there are parades on the day of the 14th and
ﬁrework displays and bals (local dances) either on
the night of the 13th or of the 14th.
l’Assomption (Feast of the Assumption) is a public holiday.
Many people in France are either setting off on holiday around the
15th or else returning home, so this is traditionally a very busy
time on the roads.
la Toussaint (All Saints’ Day) is a public holiday and the day
when people remember their dead relatives and friends, although
properly speaking it is All Souls’ Day the following day that
is set aside for this in the church. People take ﬂowers to
the cemetery, particularly chrysanthemums, as these are in bloom at
this time. Because of this association, it is best to avoid taking
chrysanthemums as a gift for someone. Schoolchildren have a
two-week holiday around this time.
le 11 novembre is a public holiday to commemorate the Armistice of 1918
and a day of remembrance for those who died in the two world wars
and in subsequent conﬂicts. All towns and villages hold
parades in which war veterans accompany local ofﬁcials and a
brass band to lay wreaths on the war memorial. In Paris, the
President lays a wreath on the tomb of the unknown
soldier beneath the Arc de Triomphe on the
la fête de l’Immaculée
Conception (Feast of the Immaculate Conception). In the city of Lyons,
this is celebrated as la Fête de la Lumière (Festival of Light) said to commemorate the Virgin’s
intervention to prevent the plague reaching Lyons in the Middle
Ages. People put rows of candles in coloured glass jars on the
outsides of their windowsills, so that all the buildings in the
centre of the city are illuminated.
la veille de Noël (Christmas Eve) is the time when most people exchange
presents. Many people go to la messe de minuit (midnight
Noël (Christmas) is a public holiday and a day of eating and
drinking. Lunch will often start with a variety of seafood, oysters
being particularly popular. Turkey is often eaten as a main course,
sometimes with chestnut stufﬁng. A variety of cheeses will
be followed by la bûche de Noël, a rich chocolate
cake in the form of a snow-covered log. French people do not
usually send Christmas cards, the custom being to send wishes for
the coming year to more distant friends and relatives during the
month of January.
There is no particular name for the day after
Christmas Day and it is not a public holiday.
la Saint-Sylvestre (New Year’s Eve). Many people have parties to celebrate
le réveillon du Nouvel An (New Year’s Eve Party).
Once again, food plays a major part and, as at Christmas, this is a
time to splash out on luxury foods such as foie gras. There
will often be dancing and the New Year will be welcomed in with
Shrove Tuesday, the last day of carnival before the
beginning of Lent on Ash Wednesday. Traditionally,
crêpes (pancakes) are eaten for supper. In many areas
of France, sugared fritters called bugnes in and around
Lyons and oreillettes farther south, are eaten between la
fête des Rois and mardi gras.
le Vendredi saint
Good Friday is celebrated in the church, but is not a
Easter Sunday, le dimanche de Pâques, is for
many people the occasion for a big family lunch. Easter hunts are
organised for children, with chocolate eggs, rabbits, hens, or
ﬁsh traditionally hidden in the family garden. Le lundi
de Pâques (Easter Monday) is a public holiday.
l’Ascension the Thursday forty days after Easter is a public
holiday in France.
la Pentecôte (Whitsun) on the seventh Sunday after Easter
represents for many people the ﬁrst long weekend of the
summer, as le lundi de la Pentecôte (Whit Monday) is a
public holiday. Many families go to stay with friends or relatives
in the country.
la Fête des mères (Mother’s Day) is the Sunday after
Pentecôte. This is another occasion for a big family
meal, with presents for the mother. La fête des pères (Father’s Day) is celebrated in similar fashion two