French Culture: Five Favorite Holidays


One of the joys of Parisian life is the festive calendar; you’re never really that far from a holiday. Some of these highlights of French culture (such as Bastille Day) are known round the world. Others may be less well known but they’re no less fun; here are my favorites.

Crêpes on la Chandeleur bring good luck for the year. Photo:
Voisins Solidaires/Franprix.

February 2: Fête de la Chandeleur
The Catholic feast of Candlemas is also la Fête de la Lumière (Feast of the Light). For Christians, it marks the presentation of Jesus. Across France, however, it’s also la Chandeleur or crêpe day. The last Christmas holiday, it looks ahead to spring and several French proverbs link it to changing weather. But the thing to do on la Chandeleur is eat your crêpes! In Paris, my favorite crêperies are City Crêpes in the 6th or, in the 12th, les Embruns.  

On May Day, Paris breathes the scent of les muguets (lilies of the valley)
all day. Photo: Cynthia Rose.

May 1: La Fête du Travail (Labor Day)
In France, the May Day holiday honors workers and work. It is symbolized by the brin de muguet (lily of the valley). On sale everywhere, sprigs of these bring luck to the recipients. Parisians will offer them to friends, colleagues and loved ones. On the day, anyone at all can sell muguets. The only requirement is: don’t interfere with a florist’s trade. It’s a lovely holiday, which makes the métro smell delightful. PS: I like a good Labor Day march; details are always on Démosphere.

August 1944: Crowds celebrate the German surrender of Paris as Free French
tanks and Leclerc’s Armored Division pass them. Photo: US Library of Congress.

August 25: The Liberation of Paris
Every year, August 25 marks the Liberation of Paris. (On the 25th, the German occupiers surrendered after the final fight that began on August 19, 1944.) It’s usually very hot and many Parisians are off on holiday. But it’s hard not to find this occasion moving. Official bouquets are placed where various men and women “fell for France.” Across the city, the day is filled with official commemorations—the biggest of which occurs in front of Paris’s City Hall. It features both stirring speeches and guests who actually lived the moment (details are on the website).

Astéracées (chrysanthemums), 2013, in Père Lachaise cemetery celebrate
Toussaint. Photo: Cynthia Rose.

November 1–2: La Fête de la Toussaint
La Fête de la Toussaint links two dates: All Saints’ Day on November 1 and All Souls’ Day on November 2. A Catholic day of obligation, All Saints’ Day is a French holiday. On both days, many Parisians—like others around the country—visit the city’s cemeteries. They decorate the spaces where their loved ones lie with astéracées (chrysanthemums), which are the flowers of memory. Montmartre, Montparnasse and Père Lachaise are always beautiful but, at Toussaint, they truly come alive.

Last year’s Catherinettes celebrated at Paris’s City Hall on November 25.
Photo: J. B. Gurliat/Mairie de Paris.

November 25: St. Catherine’s Day
St. Catherine’s Day celebrates the patron of unmarried girls under 25. In traditional French culture, these are les Catherinettes. Historically, they made hats in St. Catherine’s colors (yellow and green), and dressed her statues in them. But in Paris, St. Catherine’s Day has always been special to the couture. Employees of all maisons have the day off from work but each atelier makes hats for its Catherinettes. The same thing is done for les Nicolas (bachelors under 30, whose patron is St. Nicholas). Worn all day at parties, these creations are celebrated at Paris’s City Hall.  

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Related Links

City Crêpes
Les Embruns
May Day holiday
Paris’s City Hall
Cimetière de Montmartre
Cimetière du Montparnasse
Cimetière du Père Lachaise