Oh, the French, always on vacation… Or are they? Although it may seem like it at certain times of the year, they actually have ten official public holidays. Compared to the United States, which boasts eight, there is no drastic difference. However, they have at least 30 days of paid vacation time a year, and, compared to their American colleagues, they are not shy about taking advantage of them. Some of these days off can smartly be used to link together official holidays (jours feriés), allowing the French to take extra vacations while only using a couple of paid leave days here and there. For example, if a holiday falls on a Thursday, workers will take the Friday and Monday off. It is particularly true in May when holidays are often close together, and les ponts are a national sport.
It is great news for the French, but maybe not so much for the traveler caught unaware. Instead of a peaceful midweek getaway, you could find yourself battling with thousands of Frenchmen and women, competing for the same hotels, restaurants, and plane tickets and get caught in unexpected traffic jams. School children also have more vacation time than their American counterparts. The country is divided into three “zones,” each one starting and finishing some of the school breaks on a different day. Although it helps to avoid (some) overcrowding on the roads and main sights, be aware that it could affect your travel plans for a long time.
On the plus side, the French holidays often come with their own traditions and special foods which are a lot of fun to experience. Just book anything ahead of time if you are planning on visiting France during those dates and reconsider travel time accordingly if you will be on the road. Bison Futé is a great website that will give you an estimate of how much travel time you should expect, depending on when you will be leaving.
Here is everything you should know about French holidays.
January Holidays and Celebrations in France
New Year’s Day – January 1
January starts quietly after the festivities of New Year’s Eve (more on that later). Everything is closed, including stores and museums, and most people spend the day visiting family or recuperating from a painful champagne hangover. Also, be prepared for some kissing. The French actually kiss under the mistletoe (gui) on New Year’s Eve instead of Christmas.
Epiphany – January 6
The holidays don’t end in France until January 6th for the feast of the Epiphany, which marks the day the Wise Men visited the infant Jesus bearing gifts. Unlike Spain, France does not celebrate with gifts – they are exchanged on Christmas Eve – but you are still in for a treat. French bakeries are taken over by the Galette des Rois, a puffed pastry cake stuffed with almond cream (frangipane). If you are in the South of France, you will also encounter the Couronne des Rois, which is more akin to brioche with candied fruits and shaped in a crown. In it is hidden a small ceramic figurine or sometimes a fava bean (la fève): whoever finds it is Queen or King for the day. Each family has its tradition to assign which piece of cake: for example, the youngest one often goes under the table and decides who gets what so that no one can cheat! It is not a day off, so don’t expect any significant disruptions.
School children are usually on vacation the first week of January, so plan ahead of time if you are traveling since plane tickets and hotels (especially in ski resorts) book up quickly.
February Holidays and Celebrations in France
Chandeleur – February 2
Chandeleur/Candlemas is celebrated on February 2nd and is a religious holiday celebrating the presentation of Jesus to the Temple. In France, it is marked by eating a lot of crêpes (yum!). It is not an official holiday, so business goes on as usual.
Valentine’s Day – February 14
France is the country of love, and more than one happy couple will find their way to Paris on February 14th. However, although Valentine’s Day is somewhat celebrated, it has not gained the dramatic commercial aspect you may encounter in the United States. You can expect heart-shaped displays and pink and red decorations, but not to the same scale than you will find at home. Nevertheless, beware that restaurant reservations may require a little planning and that you will most likely be offered a prix fixe menu fancier – and pricier – than usual.
Mardi Gras (also known as Carnaval):
Fat Tuesday is a moveable feast and is usually celebrated at the end of February. It marks the last occasion to celebrate before the beginning of Lent, a time of fasting and atonement. As you could expect, the French do so with a bang. Children and adults dress up like Americans do for Halloween, and some towns organize parades, especially in the Southeast of the country (Nice is particularly renowned).
The day after Mardi Gras is the first day of Lent and is known as Mercredi des Cendres. It is a religious holiday, not an official one, so there are no schedule disruptions for stores, banks, etc. However, devout Catholics attend Mass, and you may notice some people with a gray ash cross on their forehead.
School children get a winter break at the end of February-beginning of March. Ski towns in the Alps and Pyrenees are often mob scene, so make sure to plan well in advance if you will be visiting these areas.
March Holidays and Celebrations in France
Macaron Day is a bit of a made-up holiday since it was created by renowned pastry chef Pierre Hermé about 15 years ago. On that day, macaron sales in some of the most famous macaron bakeries support a chosen charity, and many bakeries across the country offer exclusive deals on macarons.
April Holidays and Celebrations in France
April Fool’s Day – April 1
April 1st is a time of mischief across the globe. In France, expect your share of practical jokes, including in the media. If you are gullible enough to get caught, expect a cheerful “Poisson d’avril!” (April’s fish!). Children tape paper fishes to the back of their classmates and naïve adults.
In the northeast of France (Alsace and Moselle particularly), Good Friday – Friday before Easter, known in France as Vendredi Saint – is a holiday. It is not observed as a day off in the rest of the country.
As in many countries with a Christian tradition, Easter (Pȃques) is a major holiday in France. Although they also celebrate with chocolate eggs hidden in the gardens, there is a couple of differences in traditions. There is no mention of Easter bunnies: instead, the eggs are left behind by the church bells on their way to Rome. Bakeries and chocolateries have major Easter-themed displays, and families often get together to celebrate.
School children are on vacation for Spring Break between the beginning of April and early May, so make hotel and transportation reservations ahead of time.
May Holidays and Celebrations in France
Labor Day – May 1
May 1st (le premier Mai) is a national holiday. It marks the unofficial arrival of Spring, and the entire country takes the day off. The French also celebrate by exchanging Lily-of-the-Valley posies.
Victory in Europe Day – May 8
May 8th marks the end of World War II in Europe and is known simply as the huit-mai. It is observed as a national holiday and stores, official buildings, restaurants, etc. are usually closed except in some touristy areas. The celebrations are solemn. Officials bring wreaths to the War monuments, from the smallest village to the Arc de Triomphe in Paris, and military parades, including the Veterans, are sometimes organized.
Ascension is a religious holiday, but it is observed as a national holiday in France. It is a movable feast (forty days after Easter). French schoolchildren (as well as many adults) often get a day off for the Pont de l’Ascension.
June Holidays and Celebrations in France
Pentecost or Whit Sunday is a moveable feast fifty days after Easter, usually at the end of May or beginning of June. Again, although it is a religious holiday, it is also a national holiday in France, and official buildings, schools, etc. are closed on the following Monday (Lundi de la Pentecȏte).
July Holidays and Celebrations in France
July marks the beginning of summer vacation for the children, but also for the parents (remember those 30 days of paid vacation time?). The French often take two or three weeks off in July or August, with the beginning and the end of the month being notoriously tricky for traveling. Plan accordingly, and if you can, stay clear of the main highways between Paris and the South of France. It gets pretty hairy! As can be expected, prices for activities, transportation, and accommodations also go up dramatically. On the positive side, July and August also offer an abundance of activities, including festivals, concerts, and various celebrations across the country. It can sometimes be challenging to find a place to stay for some of the most famous festivals, so if you are contemplating visiting France in the summer, make sure to check what is happening in the area as soon as you can. It could dramatically influence your travel plans.
Bastille Day – July 14
On July 14th, France celebrates the storming of the Bastille, which was the symbol of the authoritarian monarchy until the French Revolution. La Fête Nationale is celebrated with pomp and decorum. Besides the major military parade along the Champs-Elysées, most towns and villages organize firework displays and public balls. They are often held by the firemen (Bal des Pompiers) in the casernes and can be a lot of fun. Everything is closed except in some of the most touristy areas.
August Holidays and Celebrations in France
Feast of Assumption – August 15
Once again, the Assumption on August 15th is primarily a religious holiday but is observed as a public holiday in France. Sacred sites dedicated to Mary – Lourdes, in particular – are the theater of major pilgrimages.
September Holidays and Celebrations in France
It’s la rentrée when everybody heads back from vacation, tanned and excited (or not) for a new year the first week of September. It is also a great time to visit France since the weather is still beautiful and prices for travel and accommodation are often a lot more affordable.
October Holidays and Celebrations in France
Fête des Vendanges
At the end of September and beginning of October, many villages in rural areas organize Harvest fests celebrating the end of the harvest. France is still very much an agricultural country, and small villages have a tightknit, although often an aging community. It is not always fancy, but you can expect a carnival ride or two, community dinners and live music.
In the wine regions (Bordeaux, Burgundy, etc.), the end of the grape picking season is also the occasion of many significant celebrations on the vineyards and surrounding villages. Even Paris has its own Fête des Vendanges in Montmartre!
School children are on break between mid-October and early November, so plan vacations in France accordingly.
November Holidays and Celebrations in France
All Saints’ Day – November 1
Halloween isn’t widely celebrated in France except as an exotic import. However, All Saint’s Day (la Toussaint) is observed on November 1st. Families gather in cemeteries to remember their loved ones and traditionally bring a potted mum (hence the association in France between mums and funerals).
Armistice Day – November 11
November 11th marks the end of World War I and is observed as a national holiday. Throughout the country, officials, veterans, and sometimes school children put a wreath on the Monuments aux Morts which commemorate those who died during both World Wars. The tone is darker than American celebrations.
Beaujolais Nouveau Day
Beaujolais Nouveau Day is marked in France on the third Thursday in November. It is the perfect occasion to try the famous “vin primeur.” Most bars and restaurants have some sort of event to pay tribute to what may not be the best French wine but is undoubtedly a bon-enfant marketing triumph.
December Holidays and Celebrations in France
Fête des Lumières
Paris for the holidays is beautiful, but you can kickstart the season with a trip to Lyon during the Fête des Lumières around December 8th. Artists from all over the world set up stunning visual art installations, and it is well worth the short TGV ride from Paris.
Christmas Eve – December 24
The “real” Christmas in France takes place on Christmas Eve rather than Christmas Day. The night of December 24th is the Réveillon when families get together and celebrate with a feast of champagne, oysters, and Buche de Noël (Yule Log). Many people attend the Midnight Mass even if they are not usually church-goers, and children typically open their presents on the 24th at night rather than to wait until Christmas Day.
Christmas – December 25
Christmas Day is usually very quiet in France. Most people are recuperating from their late night on Christmas Eve, and it is typically a day reserved for family and close friends. Don’t expect to find anything open except in the most touristy areas (and even then, better to check ahead of time).
New Year’s Eve – December 31
Also known as La Saint-Sylvestre, le Nouvel An is celebrated in France much like everywhere else: expect party galore, plenty of alcohol (especially champagne, this is France after all) and astronomical prices in bars and restaurants.
C’est fini! A full year of French holidays and celebrations that you may want to take into account when planning your next trip to France. I share this from experience, I can’t tell you how many times Mr. Misadventures and I have forgotten about a holiday only to find us in the middle of the crowds that we were trying our best to avoid!
How about you? Have you been traveled to France during a French holiday? In purpose or by “accident?” Got any stories to tell? Do share!
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