In France, there are 11 official public holidays annually: five of them are civil holidays (New Year’s Day, May Day, WWII Victory Day, Bastille Day and Armistice Day) and six have a religious origin, having been based on the Catholic calendar (Easter Monday, Ascension Day, Whit Monday, Assumption Day, All Saints’ Day, and Christmas). Additionally, there are special celebration that are non-national holidays (Epiphany, Chandeleur, Carnaval, April Fools’ Day, Mother’s Day, Father’s Day and World Music Day).
On the first Sunday of January every year, the French celebrate Epiphanie (Epiphany). On this occasion, we share galette des rois (king cake), a special pastry with small charms baked inside. Galette des rois are filled with frangipane, a cream made from sweet almonds, butter, eggs and sugar. The tradition of eating galette des rois dates back to the 14th century, where it commemorated the arrival of the Three Wise Men in Bethlehem. However, the religious meaning has been lost over the years. You will now find galettes des rois in every bakery in France, with pastry chefs devising original creations to add their own twists to the tradition.
As for those charms, there’s a fun tradition tied to them. When cutting the cake, the youngest child present has to hide under the table and tell whoever is cutting the cake who should get which piece. Then whoever finds the charm, known as a fève, will become the king or queen and pick a partner. They get to wear the crown and boss the rest of the family around for the rest of the day.
If you would like to make your own galette des rois, check out Gaëlle’s favorite recipe here.
Aux Petits Soins hosts an annual King Cake Party, to start the New Year off with a little French flavor.
Chandeleur is a French holiday that falls on February 2 each year. It is celebrated by eating sweet and savory crêpes and drinking hard cider. This holiday, also known as Candlemas on the Catholic calendar, marks the end of the Christmas period, arriving 40 days after Christmas and commemorating the presentation of the infant Jesus at the temple.
There are many superstitions surrounding Chandeleur, nearly all of which have to do with weather. This dates back to when France was primarily an agricultural country and the weather played a vital part in everybody’s prosperity and welfare. (You may recognize the date as Groundhog Day, which has a similar weather-related tradition in the U.S.)
Researching this holiday, I came across numerous proverbs warning of the consequences of specific weather: “Soleil de la Chandeleur, annonce hiver et malheur.” (“If it’s sunny at Chandeleur, winter will continue bringing bad luck.”) Others warned of “40 days lost if snow was still on the ground” (“Chandeleur couverte, quarante jours de perte”), and even the exact opposite of the first one mentioned, fortuning good news if the day was fine. It is traditional to hold a coin in your writing hand and a crêpe pan in the other while you’re cooking. If you successfully flip the crêpe into the air and back into the pan, your family will be prosperous for the rest of the year.
As you can see, the religious meaning has been lost over the years. Really, these days Chandeleur is just an excuse to eat crêpes for dinner.
Aux Petits Soins hosts an annual Chandeleur Party every year.
Mardi Gras (“Fat Tuesday”) is perhaps the most well known French holiday in the U.S. Most Americans associate Mardi Gras with New Orleans, but it’s also wildly popular in many French cities and departments, including Nice and the French West Indies (more details here).
Mardi Gras refers to events of the Carnaval celebrations, beginning on or after the Christian feasts of Epiphanie and culminating on the day before Ash Wednesday. In 2017, Mardi Gras is on February 28. Traditionally, on Mardi Gras we eat rich, fatty foods before the ritual fasting of Lent.
Carnaval typically involves a public parade, during which people wear masks and costumes surrounding King Vaval, who is represented by a giant mannequin and serves as the king of Carnaval. He is introduced at the beginning of the festival and dies on Ash Wednesday, to be reborn like the phoenix the following year.
The food associated with this holiday is another French staple: the beignet, a fried pastry made with sugar, flour and eggs. What’s a French holiday without rich food?
Aux Petits Soins celebrate Carnaval every year.
APRIL FOOLS’ DAY
In France, we celebrate April Fools’ Day on April 1 by playing practical jokes. Once discovered, the person making the joke will shoot out “Poisson d’Avril! (April Fish!)” The most common joke is to put a paper fish on the back of someone and wait for the person to discover the joke.
Every year, we would love your help to play this joke, and we’re turning it into a contest. Here is downloadable origami fish that you can print, fold and discreetly attach to the back of your friends and family. Then take a picture and share on social media with the hashtag #APSAprilFool. At the end of the day, the best photo will receive a gift certificate from a Lansing-area French-themed business! The picture of the past years are available here. Learn more about this year’s event here.
May Day is a public holiday usually celebrated on May 1. On that day, we celebrate two things: Springtime and International Workers’ day.
Originally, the tradition of giving lily of valley dates from King Charles IX of France. In 1561, he received a lily of the valley as a lucky charm. He then decided to offer a lily of the valley each year to the ladies of the court. At the beginning of the 20th century, it became custom to give a sprig of lily of the valley, a symbol of springtime, on May 1st.
On the other hand, in the late 19th century, May Day was chosen as the date for International Workers’ Day by the Socialists and Communists of the Second International to commemorate the Haymarket affair in Chicago. During the 1890s, workers marching on the 1st of May started wearing a little red triangle in their buttonholes. This was replaced by an eglantine rose which became the symbol of the Left. During the Pétain years in the Vichy Government (1940-1944) the eglantine was officially replaced with the lily of the valley, bringing the muguet back the the forefront where it has stayed as the symbol of the 1st of May ever since.
WORLD MUSIC DAY
On June 21st, we celebrate the French holiday Fête de la Musique, or “World Music Day.” All over France, there will be free concerts performed by professional and amateur musicians alike who will take advantage of today being the longest day of the year to fill the air with music covering all genres. These planned and impromptu concerts are held in theaters, bars, parks and street corners.
Bastille Day is France’s National Day, analogous to Independence Day in the U.S. Its formal French name is la Fête Nationale, and is celebrated every year on July 14.
The holiday commemorates the turning point in the French Revolution. A political group called the Third Estate, which represented the common people — two other “estates” represented the clergy and the nobility — overtook the Bastille in 1789 after talks with King Louis XVI stalled. The Bastille was a fortress prison that held both munitions and political prisoners, and the Third Estate’s takeover led to a violent clash. However, this action led directly to the abolishment of national feudalism several weeks later, and the adoption of the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen.
On July 14 every year, France’s Bastille Day parade makes its way down the historic Champs-Elysee in front of the President. The parade is the oldest and largest military pageant in Europe.
Many of France’s national holidays are rooted in the Catholic Church’s calendar, and Assumption Day, celebrated annually on August 15, is one of them. Parades, fireworks, and bonfires are held throughout the country commemorating the end of summer. Those adhering to the religious aspect of the day often make pilgrimages to the French city of Lourdes, where special celebrations are held to commemorate the ascension of Mary into heaven.