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11 Essential French Holidays and traditions you should experience

Some months, one would think France is on a perpetual holiday. Take May: depending on the calendar, you might have as many as three long weekends!

Yes, there are plenty of French holidays and traditions and no, we're not on vacation all the time.

We have 11 official holidays, which some countries call bank holidays or statutory holidays. These are when shops close, people stay home with their families, and if your gas bottle runs out you'll be stuck with the village pizza vending machine.

French holidays pin with Eiffel Tower on New Year's Eve

French holidays and how we celebrate them

Holidays in France are based on religion, changes in nature, or history.

France is a Catholic country so having a majority of holidays based on Catholicism should be no surprise.

A vast majority of French identify as Catholics, but when it comes to practising, it's a different story. Fewer than 5% of us go to church every week, with most people limiting church visits to Easter and Christmas − if that.

Even so, 6 of our 11 official holidays are Catholic.

These holidays, however, are rarely celebrated as religious feasts. They are opportunities to visit family, eat good food, or "faire le pont" − literally "make the bridge", say by taking Friday off when the holiday falls on a Thursday.

In France, any opportunity is good for a holiday.

The 11 official public holidays of France

OFFICIAL HOLIDAYS FOR FRANCE**

  • 1 January − Nouvel An (New Year's Day)
  • Lundi de Pâques (Easter Monday)
  • 1 May - La Fête du Travail (May Day)
  • 8 May - Fête de la Victoire de 1945 (VE Day)
  • L'ascension (40 days after Easter)
  • Pentecôte (50 days after Easter)
  • 14 July - La Fête Nationale (Bastille Day)
  • 15 August - L'assomption (Assumption Day)
  • 1 November - La Toussaint (All Saints' Day)
  • 11 November - L'armistice (Armistice Day)
  • 25 December - Noël (Christmas)

**NOTE: Some regions may have additional holidays. For example, Alsace and Moselle have an extra two holidays, Good Friday and Boxing Day (but without the sales).

January 1: Jour de l'an − new year's day

No surprise that the first day of the year is a public holiday, if only to recover from the Saint-Sylvestre, or New Year's Eve. When the clock strikes midnight, everyone will kiss everyone else − "faire la bise", and champagne may be involved.

On New Year's Day, the party mood will continue, but at home, usually with a massive meal almost as long as the meal at Christmas. Expect to spend a few days recovering.

LUNDI DE PÂQUES − Easter Monday

In the Catholic faith, Easter Monday represents the resurrection of Jesus Christ, and the end of Lent. It is this second celebration that tends to be uppermost in our minds, along with Easter eggs, the Easter bunny, and guilt-free eating of chocolate.

French holiday Easter eggs

Have you heard of the Easter bell tradition?

In a myth that dates back to the Middle Ages, the bells had to stay silent between Good Friday and Easter Monday. Children were told the bells were away, flying to Rome to be blessed by the Pope. On their way home, they would shower down sweets and presents.

Officially, the bells would fly home on the Saturday, so Sunday would be time for the big Easter egg hunt... real eggs painted bright colours, or better yet, chocolate eggs (or rabbits or owls or all sorts of interesting creations).

The traditional Easter meal, by the way, is roast lamb, although some people might substitute rabbit. Eggs in some shape or form are also served.

1 May: la fête du travail − May Day, or labor day

You'll be hard-pressed to find anything other than a baguette or a bouquet of flowers on May Day in France because pretty much everything is closed. Medical services are limited to emergencies and public transportation dwindles to a trickle.

This is International Workers' Day and is traditionally filled with marches and demonstrations across France for worker and other rights. If you're ever going to march in France, this may be the day to do it. 

French holiday traditions: May Day demonstrationsThis is what a typical May Day celebration looks like when people take to the streets Jeanne Menjoulet from Paris, France, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Failing that...

It's also known as the Fête du Muguet, or the Day of the Lily of the Valley, and the flowers are on sale everywhere. Buy a bunch and give it away to your loved ones - for love and luck.

It appears the tradition of giving this flower for good luck dates back to the 16th century, when Charles IX apparently received a bunch for good luck. He was so delighted that he decreed all women at court should receive the same flowers every first of May.

Rooted in Germanic, Celtic or Roman culture, the holiday originally celebrated the passage from the dark season to the season of light. In France we reconnect with these pagan traditions by offering each other some good luck in the form of lily of the valley.

As for the day itself, it was inspired by an 1886 gathering of 200,000 workers in Chicago who called for an eight-hour work day. In France, the first workers' May Day march took place four years later, in 1890.

In some cities, you might run into marchers wearing medieval costumes. They represent a far right political party that uses the date to celebrate the day Joan of Arc freed the city of Orleans from the English. The date was actually 8 May 1429 and the original French celebration took place on 8 May − but was switched for political reasons, to "compete" with the left-wing trade union and worker celebration.

8 May: VE Day - fête de la victoire de 1945

This day commemorates the unconditional surrender of German forces at the end of World War II and the end of the German occupation of France.

On this day, the French President reviews the troops at the Place de l'Etoile in Paris and revives the flame of the Unknown Soldier at the Arc de Triomphe, where he lays a wreath.

Traditions in France: lighting the flame at the Arc de Triomphe on VE DayOn VE Day in Paris, the flame is rekindled at the Arc de Triomphe in Paris Ecole polytechnique from Paris, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

But it hasn't always been a holiday in France.

The holiday was first decreed by law in 1946 − but only if it fell on a Sunday. Otherwise, it would be celebrated the first Sunday after 8 May. Then, 8 May was formalized, cancelled, changed, and reinstated by various governments.

In 1975, to celebrate Franco-German reconciliation, the commemoration of the Allied victory was renamed the Day of Europe until, finally, in 1981, it became an official holiday in memory of the end of World War II and its fighters.

40 days after easter: Ascension Day – l’Ascension 

Some may call it Holy Thursday, and this Christian holiday celebrates the last meeting of Jesus with his disciples before ascending to heaven after 40 days in the desert. The date may be variable, but it always falls on a Thursday.

Catholics go to church, everyone else takes the day off.

50 days after easter: whit monday – Pentecôte 

This Christian holiday commemorates the descent of the Holy Spirit. In the wake of the 2003 heat wave, when nearly 20,000 people − mostly elderly − died, a new law made this day a day of solidarity, during which workers would work an eight-hour day for free, the money going to support the less fortunate. 

Not all companies do this, however, and they can agree on another day, any day of the year except 1 May. It's all a bit confusing, and many people aren't sure whether a shop or office will be open on that day or  not. But it's not a religious holiday anymore.

14 July: Bastille Day – la fête nationale

Bastille Day Paris parade on horsebackThe Bastille Day parade in Paris along the Champs Elysées

July 14th in France is the national day of France and celebrates the storming of the Bastille, a fortress used as a prison, an event which launched the French Revolution. But the truth is a little more nuanced.

In fact, our Fête Nationale celebrates not one, but two 14 Julys, a year apart, one in 1789 and the other in 1790. Here's the full story.

There isn't a village without its festivities so wherever you are in France, this is a time to go out and mingle.

15 August: Assumption – L’Assomption

This day celebrates a variety of things. In its Catholic version, it celebrates Mary's rise to heaven. But there's a lot more to this story.

Back in 1637, King Louis XIII hoped for a sun and called on the country to pray to her to grant his wish. The king issued the decree on 15 August, placing the nation under Mary's protection and making it one of the major France national holidays.

But more than a century later, Emperor Napoleon (the ruler the French love to hate) was also born on 15 August, and he would forever resent having to share his birthday with Mary's special day, and because of a royal decree to boot.

So he issued his own decree in 1806, cancelling Assumption Day and replacing it with something glorifying him instead: Saint Napoleon. The Pope complained, of course, but Napoleon ignored him.

Once Napoleon abdicated in 1814, Assumption Day was restored. So much for grandiosity.

In any event, few French celebrate this holiday. It happens in the middle of summer, when many of us are on holiday anyway and it goes unnoticed.

1 November: All Saints’ Day − La Toussaint

This is a day to honour the dead, and cemeteries across France will be filled with relatives coming to pay their respects to their loved ones with chrysanthemums, which you'll find on sale everywhere.

11 november: ARMISTICE DAY − l'armistice

This day commemorates the signing in 1918 of the armistice ending World War I in Versailles. Then, two years later, the coffin of an unknown soldier was buried under the Arc de Triomphe in Paris. And in 1923, Minister of War André Maginot lit a flame of remembrance in honour of all the fallen. Since then, every Armistice Day, a solemn ceremony has rekindled the official flame, even during the years of German occupation.

Not everything is closed on 11 November and this is one of those French celebrations and holidays on which employers can ask you to work. Large shops and malls are open, but if you live in a small town or a village, as I do, chances are most things will be closed for the day.

25 december: Christmas − Noël

Christmas is a wonderful time to visit France and Paris in winter is especially lovely – a quick glance at the illuminations along the Champs-Elysées will confirm that. It's also the season when Christmas markets appear across the country, with all their local fare and hand-crafted goods.

Illuminations along the Champs-Elysées during Christmas holidays in Paris

Most places will decorate their church and a few of the main streets, and in recent years, more and more houses are putting up decorations. That said, energy shortages may soon make this less popular. Many of the more religious homes will have a nativity scene of sorts, and a Christmas tree is a must.

This is also time for a special Christmas meal, with the finest foods of the year. The meal might take place on the evening of 24 December or at lunch on the 25th − it depends on the family. I celebrate on Christmas Day.

Either way, the event is usually a lengthy one, with several courses of wonderful food – oysters, smoked salmon, foie gras, escargots and plenty more. Dessert will usually be a bûche, or a log. Head to the patisserie and order yours: just tell them how many people it's for, and they will provide the appropriate length. These days they come in a variety of flavours, vanilla of course but also chocolate, coffee, and strawberry, among others.

Santa Claus visits, of course, the evidence being found under the tree on Christmas morning. This day, however Christian in origin, is one of those celebrations around the world which go beyond faith and are enjoyed everywhere.

Other famous French traditional celebrations

6 January: EPIPHANY – Épiphanie or fête des rois

This was once officially on 6 January but the Vatican decreed during the 1960s that it would be celebrated the first Sunday of the year. This is when, in Christianity, the three wise men, or Magi, visited Jesus soon after his birth. That said, plenty of traditionalists celebrate it on the 6th, whatever day it falls on.

In France we have a tradition of the Galette des Rois, the kings' cake, which is made of flaky dough stuffed with almond cream. It has another peculiarity − a hard bean (a fève) or other small object will be hidden inside, and the person who ends up with the item will be king or queen for a day. This involves wearing a golden paper or cardboard crown, which is usually included with the galette.

There is a tradition whereby the youngest child will hide under the table and call the names of those receiving a slice of cake, just to keep things fair, of course.

France holiday of the Epiphany: a Galette des RoisThe Galette des Rois, made to measure Steph Gray le 15 janvier 2011 (CC BY-Sa 2.0), CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

It would seem as though the tradition of the galette dates back to Roman times, during the Saturnalia (the week-long Roman feast held in honour of Saturn). Owners and slaves would share a meal and the slave finding the fève − a gold coin − would be king for a day.

The tradition was revived by Christians during the Middle Ages to celebrate the Epiphany.

2 february: Candlemas - Chandeleur

One of the many French celebrations - Candlemans - crêpes are eaten on this dayCrêpes, the traditional Candlemas meal

This Christian holiday takes place 40 days after Christmas and celebrates the purification of Mary after childbirth and the presentation of Christ in the Temple.

For many people, though, it is better known as Pancake Day, or "Jour des Crêpes", and of course there are traditions (or superstitions) attached to it. Here's one: hold a coin in your writing hand and your crêpe pan in the other, and flip the crêpe; if it falls back into the pan, you'll have a great year.

Candles were traditionally blessed at this festival.

14 February: Valentine’s Day – Saint-Valentin

This is one of those holidays which is gaining ground although in France, Valentine's Day isn't celebrated in any specific way. We do give our loved ones flowers or chocolate, but we don't exchange cards with friends and acquaintances. 

There is some resistance to the holiday, however, which many French see as overly commercial and a bit of a marketing opportunity designed to part you from your money.

march-april: Mardi Gras

It may have started as a pagan tradition celebrating the end of winter, but like many of these French traditions it was absorbed into Christianity. It also happens to be the last chance to indulge yourself before the ritual fasting of Lent.

The celebration is known for its masked balls, which made their first appearance in the 13th century. This anonymity allowed guests to adopt a new persona for the night and leave their reality behind, whether social class or family ties. Over time, the disguises came to symbolize a certain level of freedom.

Head for one of the more colourful and famous French carnivals − Nice, Paris, Dunkirk, Annecy, Mulhouse...

Blue costume for Mardi Gras, one of the most famous festivals in FranceA costume typical of the Annecy Carnival by papafranco2012, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

1 april: April Fool’s day – Poisson d’Avril

In French it translates as "April's fish", a term that has many stories of origin. As children, in its simplest form, we April fools would cut out a fish from coloured paper and stick it surreptitiously on someone's back, laughing when they realized what was stuck on them as we shouted "Poisson d'Avril"!

In one version, the name comes from the start of the fishing season, but with such few fish this early in the season, this turned into a prank: if someone managed to convince you they had caught a fish, you were the fool. In another version, "poisson" is a corrupted version of the word "passion", which refers to the Easter season. And there are many more stories.

Additional French celebrations in France today

  • The Saturday closest to 18 May: Night of the Museums, during which they are open late into the night and stage a huge variety of events
  • Last Friday in May: Fête des Voisins, Neighbour's Day, celebrated in many parts of France to bring neighbours closer together − it often involves neighbourhood parties or bringing food for collective meals
  • Last Sunday in May: Mother's Day
  • 20 June: Father's Day
  • 21 June: Fête de la Musique for the summer solstice, with music happening all over France, from official venues to bar bands and dancing in the streets
  • 3rd Sunday in September: Journées du Patrimoine, or European Heritage Days, is one of the major French cultural events, when historic buildings you never enter otherwise are open, like the Elysée Palace, where France's President works
  • Sometime between the end of September and October: the désalpe, a local Alpine tradition that involves bringing the cows down from their mountain pastures (bells, flowers and lots of cows)
  • 31 October: Hallowe'en, a recent tradition in France that hasn't been taken up everywhere − Trick or Treat is not an established custom, and the holiday spirit is more one of supermarket alleys filled with disguises
  • 3rd Thursday of November at midnight: Beaujolais Nouveau is released
  • January and July: the official sales, which last about four weeks.

French holiday season and school holidays

Most French people − who usually have six weeks off a year − go on holidays at specific times. August is popular, which is why it's not the best time to visit France, since many places are closed (unless you're headed for the beach, that is).

France has several sets of school holidays and it's important to know when they are before you decide to come to France. There are three zones: A, B and C, with each taking holidays at a slightly different time. They change slightly every year and you can find them here

All in all, schools have five sets of holidays, and you should become aware of these before you book your France holidays:

  • Autumn holidays, or the "vacances de la Toussaint", which last two weeks in October-November
  • Christmas holidays, two weeks
  • Winter holidays, or "vacances d'hiver", two weeks in February-March
  • Spring holidays for two weeks in April-May
  • and finally, summer holidays, for 7-8 weeks

FAQ: French holidays and traditions

what is the most important holiday in france?

It's a toss-up between Christmas and Bastille Day: each speaks to a different part of us.

what are 3 major holidays in france?

Christmas, Bastille Day and Easter.

what are the 11 french holidays?

  • 1 January − Nouvel An (New Year's Day)
  • Lundi de Pâques (Easter Monday)
  • 1 May - La Fête du Travail (May Day)
  • 8 May - Fête de la Victoire de 1945 (VE Day)
  • L'ascension (40 days after Easter)
  • Pentecôte (50 days after Easter)
  • 14 July - La Fête Nationale (Bastille Day)
  • 15 August - L'assomption (Assumption Day)
  • 1 November - La Toussaint (All Saints' Day)
  • 11 November - L'armistice (Armistice Day)
  • 25 December - Noël (Christmas)

what traditions are celebrated in france?

Most traditions related to holidays are Christian traditions, although many of them have pagan elements.

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