While most of us are pretty familiar with the major holidays and traditions in France (the French National Day and Bastille Day,), there are quite a few more you should know about.
Poisson d’Avril (April Fools' Day)
For French natives, April 1st has become a day of pranks and harmless jokes—mostly played on friends, family, and colleagues. The most common method is sticking a paper fish onto someone’s back and shouting “Poisson d’Avril”. (Poisson d’Avril literally means April Fish.) Don’t be surprised if your boss decides to prank you; they are probably just looking for an excuse to put a smile on your face!
Easter is celebrated in France as it is everywhere else. Religious beliefs aside, French people treat Easter much like Christmas, spending time with family and friends, exchanging gifts and enjoying themselves. The public holiday on Easter Monday gets people into a festive mood, but be aware that it falls during one of Paris’s busiest times. Accommodation bookings are high during these periods and advance planning is essential to avoid missing out on your dream hotel or apartment.
Pâques des Rameaux (Palm Sunday)
Palm Sunday, or "Fête des Rameaux", “Dimanche des Rameaux” in France, is the Sunday before Easter.
The preparation for Palm Sunday starts on Saturday morning with a large procession going through the city, reenacting Jesus' entry into Jerusalem. The story of Palm Sunday is when Jesus arrived in Jerusalem on a donkey to the singing and waving of palm branches.
On Palm Sunday, French believers go to the church to have their box trees or palm branches blessed. They then take these branches home to decorate the front door, because some believe this grants God's protection for the year.
Fête du Travail (Labour Day)
May 1st is a national holiday in France. It's basically just an excuse for everyone to take off work and celebrate. If you don't have any friends or family in France, you can still check out some of Paris' coolest festivals like Les Nuits de Fourvière or Fête de la Musique. The first one is a bit more popular with locals, so I'd check it out if you've never been before! Personally, I prefer Fête de la Musique because it showcases bands from all over Europe and sometimes even beyond. Seeing people play instruments on public transportation is also one of my favourite things about summertime in Paris.
La Pentecôte (Pentecost)
Pentecost may sound more like a Harry Potter spell than a religious holiday, but it's actually one of France's most important days. It was introduced to celebrate Christ's descent from heaven. It used to be an even bigger deal in France; one where people would dress up in their fanciest clothes and go to church to watch actors perform short plays, sing hymns, play classical music and pay tribute to God, fifty days after Easter.
La Fête de la Musique (World Music Day)
La Fête de la Musique takes place on June 21st every year, celebrating music and its ability to bring people together. Though it’s usually held in late June or early July, La Fête de la Musique falls on different dates in different countries. During La Fête de la Musique celebrations, bands, orchestras and singers perform around Paris; however, anyone can get involved by performing music wherever they are—on streets and train stations are common venues.
Saint Jean Fête (Nativity of Saint John the Baptist)
June 24th each year is one of France’s most important and most celebrated holidays. Although you may have heard about Bastille Day or La Fete de la Federation, Saint Jean Fête is a day dedicated to celebrating one of Jesus Christ’s biggest accomplishments—the Baptism of John. On June 24th, French people all over celebrate with family gatherings and fireworks. The holiday is also associated with bonfires that ward off evil spirits, bring luck to livestock, keep forests healthy and protect against fires in barns.
Fête Nationale du 14 juillet (Bastille Day)
Bastille Day (also La Fete de la Federation), is France's equivalent to America's Independence Day and it's celebrated on July 14th. Although a lot of people think of fireworks and big French feasts, Bastille Day isn't nearly as much about food as it is about music, parades, and parties. At night, thousands of people gather in Paris' many public spaces for massive parties that feature food stalls serving everything from hot dogs to ice cream. On July 13th—the day before Bastille Day—you'll find even more festivities as people all over France decorate their cars with colourful decorations, lights, and festive flags. It is also celebrated in Canada.
Toussaint (All Saints' Day)
La Toussaint is a day of remembrance for all saints, known and unknown. It’s celebrated on November 1st, which is All Saints' Day in France. It’s a time to reflect on those who have impacted our lives and pray for those who have died. There are no big parades or special events during La Toussaint; it’s more about remembering those who have gone before us and asking that they look over their loved ones now. In addition to honouring their ancestors, many celebrate their family members by visiting gravesites or holding memorial services.
Jour d'armistice (Armistice Day)
In France, every armistice day is celebrated as a public holiday. It is on November 11 of every year that France honours its war dead and commemorates the victory in 1918. Originally called Fête de la Résistance, Armistice Day became an official public holiday in 1920. Since 1919, it has been celebrated on November 11 every year - except between 1940 and 1947 during World War II when it was cancelled because of German occupation. On November 10th of every year, people hold a minute's silence at 11 am to remember those who lost their lives fighting for France (with exceptions in 2006 and 2015). A few days later, people gather around the memorials and cemeteries around France to pay homage to all fallen soldiers.
All Souls' Day
As many of you are aware, November 2nd is All Souls' Day in France. On that day, families and friends gather together to decorate graves with flowers and candles in order to remember their deceased loved ones.
La Saint-Valentin (Valentine's Day)
La Saint-Valentin, or Valentine's Day, is celebrated in France on February 14. The day has its origins in a Catholic Christian tradition but has evolved into a holiday where lovers exchange gifts and cards. In France, it's also customary to give your loved one a small token of appreciation that includes sweets.
Mardi Gras (Fat/Shrove Tuesday)
While Mardi Gras isn’t technically a holiday, it is still a cause for celebration. The pre-Lenten carnival was originally celebrated in ancient Rome and has evolved into a very popular tradition all over Europe, including France. While typically celebrated in February, Mardi Gras in France falls on different dates every year because of its flexibility to reflect seasonal holidays. For example, it may be celebrated on February 15 if that date happens to fall during Carnival season or on March 1 if Easter occurs after Epiphany (January 6). What’s more, the tradition is to eat pancakes.
Saint Joseph's Day
St. Joseph's Day, which takes place on March 19th, is a holiday celebrated in France and in parts of Italy. The patron saint of carpenters, craftsmen and workers was given his name because he worked as a carpenter before becoming a religious figure. Families hold parties to celebrate St. Joseph's Day; children receive presents and food such as pancakes with sugar or chocolate sprinkles, depending on how religious they are.
About the author
Stephanie has a knack for making language learning and teaching fun and engaging. She holds a Master of Arts and a Bachelor's Degree in French Studies and is fluent in three languages. The writer has lived in France, Ghana, and Canada, and enjoys reading, travelling, and writing about her adventures.