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Our life in France – holidays

January 17, 2010

(Please note that this post reflects our experience in the early 1990’s – I can’t speak for what anyone would experience today.)

When we moved to France, we discovered that the French celebrate some holidays differently than we do.

Valentine’s Day was for sweethearts only.  It was a fairly quiet holiday and Vance didn’t exchange valentines in school.  I don’t think his teacher even mentioned Valentine’s Day to the children.

Mardi Gras was a fun day!  Vance came home from school very excited because they were going to make “pancakes” at school for Mardi Gras.  When the day to make pancakes came, he was very disappointed because, “all we made was crepes.”  On Mardi Gras, the children went to school dressed in costume and they had a big Carnival party. (Vance went as a baseball player.  The teacher put the make-up on the children. Don’t Vance and his classmate look so serious in that picture?)

April Fool’s Day is Poisson d’Avril (April’s Fish) and the biggest joke of the day was to tape a paper fish to someone else’s back.  When they discovered the paper fish, you would say, “Poisson d’Avril.”   I’m not sure of the origin of that tradition.

Just before Easter, the church bells of France would fly to Rome to get sweets for the children.  The night before Easter, they flew back to leave the sweets.  At first, I thought this was kind of far-fetched, but after I thought about it, I realized it wasn’t any more far-fetched than a rabbit leaving a basket of goodies.  No one dyed Easter eggs, since all the eggs in France were brown.   Easter wasn’t very commercialized, but they sold chocolate crosses and bells at the confectionaire.

You could buy lily of the valley on every street corner on May Day, since it can be sold free of taxation that day.  Kind Charles IX received lily of the valley as a lucky charm so he gave it to the ladies of the court every year on May 1st.  When a lady receives a sprig of lily of the valley, she is supposed to give a kiss in return.  A friend of ours told us he made a lot of money as a child selling lily of the valley on May Day.

France’s Day of independence is Bastille Day and it’s celebrated on July 14 with parades and fireworks.  It commemorates the anniversary of the storming of the Bastille, a notorious prison.  The storming is recognized as the beginning of modern day France

Christmas was not very commercialized.  Beautiful white lights were displayed in centre-ville, and some people put up Christmas trees, but many families did not.  I wanted to buy a special Christmas ornament for our tree and had trouble finding one.  Pere Noël was not at every shopping center – we had to drive out of our way for Vance to visit him.  French children leave their shoes, not their stockings, for Pere Noël to fill.  They also leave treats for his donkey.  Christmas in France was very nice, because it’s more of a quiet, family celebration.


While we were in France, Halloween was not celebrated at all, but it is my understanding that some people there do celebrate it now.  Thanksgiving was not celebrated there, either, but we still observed it while we were there, even though Carl worked and Vance went to school.  I prepared chicken, instead of turkey, because turkeys were sold intact, and I couldn’t face cutting the head and feet off of the poor bird.

47 Comments leave one →
  1. January 17, 2010 7:38 am

    It sounds like none of the holidays were very commercialized, which is really nice. That probably explains why my husband rants and raves over the retail insanity of every holiday that comes around. He doesn’t so much mind Christmas, but it’s the Valentines and Easters that make him nuts.

  2. January 17, 2010 7:56 am

    I always find holidays in other countries fascinating. April Fish is funny, and I’d much rather worry about a fish taped to my back than spending the day in total distrust of everyone, especially my own children. One year, our local newspaper ran the headlines that a manatee had been spotting in an area lake, claiming that the bottomless lake ran all the way to Floriday. I BELIEVED IT. That was the most annoying April Fool’s prank I’ve experienced. The newspaper shouldn’t do that.

  3. January 17, 2010 8:54 am

    It is interesting to read how different countries do the holidays. The April Fools one is really funny and I may need to try that on someone to see if they can figure it out.

    Thanks Kathy for another insightful post on France!

  4. January 17, 2010 8:56 am

    I’m with you! I wouldn’t be so keen on the surgical aspects of the turkey bird either. 🙂

    It’s so interesting to hear how other cultures celebrate the holidays we’ve got so set in our own traditions. Vance is a lucky boy for having had the experience to compare with (though might not agree when it comes to Halloween).

  5. January 17, 2010 9:13 am

    I know I couldn’t deal with an intact turkey either!

  6. January 17, 2010 9:36 am

    April Fool’s Day sounds pretty, um, weird! But a lot more harmless than over here!

  7. January 17, 2010 9:57 am

    I love the idea of the fish on your back for April Fools Day.

    I am amazed that France celebrates Mardi Gras, I thought that was only celebrated in New Orleans.

  8. January 17, 2010 9:59 am

    Very interesting post. It is really odd to be celebrating U.S. holidays in a foreign country — work and school continue, no special foods in the stores. Fourth of July was decidedly not mentioned in the UK!

  9. January 17, 2010 10:40 am

    I loved reading about the holidays in France. I’d probably enjoy the fact that Christmas was not as commercialized as it is here. April’s Fool’s Day seemed odd but oh well?? Thanks Kathy

  10. January 17, 2010 10:46 am

    It’s interesting to see what holidays are celebrated in other countries. I don’t think I could deal with the turkey either! Much smarter to go with the chicken!

  11. January 17, 2010 10:47 am

    May Day sounds like fun. Giving flowers and kissing in return! Haha!

  12. stacybuckeye permalink
    January 17, 2010 11:14 am

    Our French friends, when they lived here, embraced Halloween and it was their favorite holiday. The American Club in Lyon has a huge Halloween blowout now.

  13. January 17, 2010 11:26 am

    I find these posts so interesting. Sounds like the French Christmas is right up my alley!

  14. January 17, 2010 12:05 pm

    I love the idea of a quieter, less commercialized Christmas holiday! I think that the emphasis can easily become the gifts, instead of the fact that we have extra time to spend with our loved ones. My 3-year-old this year just kept looking for more presents, LOL.

    April Fool’s Day gave me a good laugh- now THAT sounds fun. Thanks again for your insight- I really love these posts!

  15. January 17, 2010 12:38 pm

    Sounds like they know how to celebrate holidays there – quietly as families. I find things much to commercialized here now. I don’t blame you with that turkey – I would have been having chicken too!

  16. January 17, 2010 12:42 pm

    I was in France on Bastille Day years (many years!) ago and it was crazy! Like fun crazy 🙂 But then we went to Italy in 1982 and just happened to be there when Italy won the World Cup. Now THAT was crazy.

    I loved this post…very interesting 🙂

  17. January 17, 2010 1:01 pm

    Like all your Life in France posts, this was a joy to read! I’m with you on not chopping up the intact turkey – just be glad we are not pioneer women!

  18. January 17, 2010 1:08 pm

    Fantastic post! I love these because I always learn something. I hope you keep them up!

  19. January 17, 2010 1:12 pm

    How interesting! Like others have said, I find it so fascinating to learn how other countries celebrate their holidays. I think America has the crown for being the most commercial for many of them.

  20. January 17, 2010 1:56 pm

    I can see that I would not be cooking turkey in France. This was great fun, hearing about the traditions in other countries is very interesting. Thanks for sharing.

    Straight From Hel

  21. January 17, 2010 1:58 pm

    I don’t blame you for not wanting to decapitate your turkey (It makes me think of that scene with the duck at the Chinese restaurant in A Christmas Story). 🙂

    Thanks for sharing! I haven’t every heard of April Fish Day. I think I would prefer that to some of the April fool’s day jokes I’ve seen.

  22. January 17, 2010 2:56 pm

    I love these posts about France, Kathy. Thanks so much for sharing them. Vance looked great with his moustache – even though it didn’t look like he cared for it much. LOL!

  23. January 17, 2010 2:59 pm

    Lovely post! I enjoyed reading about how various holidays were celebrated in France–especially April Fool’s Day! It would be fun to tape a paper fish onto someone’s back here on 4/1 and see their reaction. 🙂

  24. January 17, 2010 3:26 pm

    I love the idea of flowers on May Day. When I was growing up, our little baskets or cups of goodies often included flowers. Now it seems like hardly anyone even celebrates May Day here.

  25. January 17, 2010 3:49 pm

    Living for a time in a country is such a wonderful way to truly understand the culture as your post shows. How we celebrate says so much about us as a people. I sure love these Life in France posts.

  26. January 17, 2010 4:14 pm

    Very interesting Kathy! I was unfamiliar with many of the French holidays. I can’t believe that the turkeys were sold intact…there’s no way I could off those parts either!

  27. January 17, 2010 4:14 pm

    That was such an educational and interesting post, Kathy. I never learned about how the French celebrated holidays in French classes, even though I took it for 3 years and you’d think it would come up at some point. Guess not. I laughed when poor Vance found out pancakes were crepes there! Poor little guy! I would have thought the same thing.

  28. January 17, 2010 4:58 pm

    Very interesting. All holidays should be about family so I tip my hat to the French.

  29. January 17, 2010 5:12 pm

    This was really fascinating to get a first hand glipse into another culture’s way of celebrating some traditions we share and others that we don’t. And yes, they look very serious! 😀

  30. January 17, 2010 6:09 pm

    Those are some great holiday memories.

  31. January 17, 2010 7:15 pm

    I liked the April Fools Day one, too! Very funny!

  32. January 17, 2010 10:07 pm

    Interesting! Thanks so much for sharing, Kathy!

  33. January 18, 2010 1:48 pm

    I think the idea of the bells at Easter is charming…more so than a rabbit. And while I would love a less commercial Christmas, I would NEED a tree.

  34. January 18, 2010 3:52 pm

    It sounds like holidays in France aren’t really the huge commercialized events that they are here in the States. I really like the taping of the fish to people’s backs, not sure what that means, but it sounds like a hoot!

  35. January 18, 2010 6:57 pm

    LOVE this post. I lived in London and some of the children in Europe are having trick or treating and adults having ‘fancy dress’ parties in costume attire. I love Bastille day!

  36. January 18, 2010 7:35 pm

    […] I couldn’t face cutting the head and feet off of the poor bird. got me chuckling. Once you eat the poor bird, the head and feet have got to be removed…

    Thanks for sharing the holiday celebrations in France. I think I should do something like that for Malaysia as well. Since Chinese New Year is coming soon in February, I should perhaps do a highlight post on that… Hehe…

  37. January 18, 2010 7:47 pm

    I love this! (Don’t I always say that?)

    This reminded me of the David Sedaris essay about the differences in holidays and stuff. Very cool!

  38. January 18, 2010 8:54 pm

    The part about the bells reminded me of that story in David Sedaris’s book “Me Talk Pretty One Day.” Did you read that? I remember laughing until I cried on that essay when he realizes that giant bells deliver candy. I guess it doesn’t sound so odd … well, yes it does!

    • January 20, 2010 1:58 pm

      That is my FAVORITE Sedaris essay of all time. It is called “Jesus Shaves.” Just thinking about it makes me laugh.

  39. January 18, 2010 9:32 pm

    LOL! I would have substituted a Thanksgiving chicken, too!

  40. January 18, 2010 10:06 pm

    Wow–church bells delivering candy! That’s a clever way to get folks to attend 😉 Loved the April Fish. Wonder how that tradition began…

  41. January 18, 2010 10:47 pm

    Christmas sounds lovely in France. I like the idea of it being less commercialized and more focused on being a family holiday.

  42. January 19, 2010 1:21 pm

    I like the idea that these holidays are not so commercialized.

  43. January 19, 2010 5:20 pm

    I don’t always comment because I’m so far behind but just want to say that I love your posts on what it was like to live in France. Husband and I have traveled to Europe a handful of times and loved it, but of course living there for awhile is so much different. It sounds so exciting and like a wonderful experience. Maybe one day I can experience it.
    on a side note..we were in Italy for Thanksgiving one year. I’m not a huge fan of traditional Thanksgiving food so I loved celebrating the holiday with some good wine and pasta. lol!

  44. January 21, 2010 10:28 am

    I would totally make a chicken for Thanksgiving over doing that to a turkey. I almost did this year but I’m pretty sure we went out instead, which seemed preferable over roasting for a couple of hours. Christmas is way commercialized here, but there really weren’t many Santas around in the malls either!

  45. May 24, 2010 2:37 pm

    Have been living in France now for two and a half years and all seems the same now as it was back in the 90’s when you were here. In fact here in Brittany where I am it’s so peaceful it’s more like the 50’s. A great place to be !

    Glad you enjoyed your time here.

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