Easter traditions in France have been very important to French people over the centuries as Easter is the most important Christian celebration of the year. This special time commemorates the resurrection of Jesus Christ on the third day after his crucifixion on Good Friday. Easter Sunday also marks the end of the fasting period of Lent.
What is Easter in French?
Easter in French is known as “Pâques”.
But we do have a word that misses a ‘S’: “Pâque“. So what’s the difference between the two words?
The French word “Pâque” derives from the Latin “pascua”, meaning “food”, which itself comes from the Hebrew “Pessah” meaning “passing way” (hence the word “passage”) and is the Jewish name for the Passover celebration, which remembers the Exodus out of Egypt.
According to the Gospel, it was during this Jewish celebration that Jesus rose again.
In French, there is a spelling distinction between:
- “la Pâque juive” (the Passover celebrated by the Hebrews) and
- the “fête chrétienne de Pâques” (Christian celebration of Easter).
The Jewish Passover commemorates the Exodus from Egypt.
The Christian Easter celebrates the latter event; that is, the last Supper of Christ before His Passion, His crucifixion, and His resurrection.
Setting the date of Easter in France
In France, Easter is celebrated on a Sunday. The date is dependent on the seasons and the movement of the sun. (We are actually quite lucky to share the same Easter date with all Christians around the world – unlike Mothers’ Day or Fathers’ Day)
The French celebrate Easter Sunday on the 14th day of the first lunar month in spring. This corresponds to the first Sunday following the first full moon of spring. This date can change depending on the longitude of the city from which the observation is made. In France (and in Australia or America), this is set as Rome.
The date is based on the lunar calendar. In 2018, Easter was set for 1st April, in 2019 for 21st April, in 2020 for 12th April, then in 2021 it will be on 4th April, and in 2022, on 17th April.
Easter Sunday (Dimanche de Pâques) and Easter Monday (Lundi de Pâques) are public holidays in France and most shops and administrations will be closed (except your local bakery!).
Dates of Easter in France
Easter and the related holidays are moveable feasts, in that they do not fall on a fixed date. Easter is determined every year thanks to a complex calculation. Here are the dates for the years to come:
- 2020: April 12
- 2021: April 4
- 2022: April 17
- 2023: April 9
- 2024: March 31
- 2025: April 20
Easter traditions in France
French Easter traditions are followed in every cities, towns and regions. As for Christmas, Alsace is particularly rich with local celebrations… although the distributor of eggs differs from the rest of the country.
Easter decorations in Alsace
Décorations de Pâques en Alsace
In Alsace, people decorate their houses before Easter. Branches are set up with painted eggs, spring flowers and little figurines hanging beautifully in the windows or in the centre of a table. Children create nests with leaves, moss or grass which they place in the garden, hoping that during the night, the Bells (or the Easter Bunny) would fill them up with multi-coloured (and chocolate) eggs.
Find out more about the Easter traditions in Alsace.
L’œuf de Pâques
The tradition of giving decorated eggs lies in the fact that eggs symbolise life and renewal. Therefore, it was only natural that it would become a symbol for Easter which commemorates renewal through the resurrection of Christ.
Also, as tradition forbad eating eggs during Lent, it was not surprising either to find them in large quantities at Easter time. In medieval times, people used to offer each other decorated eggs at Easter. This tradition gave birth to numerous legends and customs.
In France, it was only in the 18th century that people emptied fresh eggs to fill them with chocolate. Then, chocolate-shaped eggs were made to be hidden in the garden for children to find.
Who is the Easter Bunny?
Le lapin de Pâques
The Easter Bunny is an Easter tradition of Germanic and Nordic origin. The rabbit and the hare were emblematic animals of a goddess named “Ost ara”, which gave its name to Easter in English. The great fertility of the rabbit symbolised abundance, renewal and the proliferation of life. In Alsace and the Upper Rhineland (then both part of the Holy Roman Empire) the hare was first connected with Easter. Just as the Christmas tree is for Christmas, it was also in Alsace that the practice of offering Easter eggs was first recorded in a publication dating to the early 17th century.
What are the Easter Bells?
Les cloches de Pâques
However, in Catholic lands, such as France or Italy, bunnies give way to another tradition: the Easter Bells.
Even though you can find chocolate Easter bunnies everywhere in local stores and supermarkets, it is traditionally believed that it was not them who brought Easter eggs to the children on Sunday morning.
In France (except in Alsace and the département of Moselle), it is the Easter Bells (cloches de Pâques) who bring the eggs on their way back from Rome.
An old tradition
The tradition around the silent bells originates from the 7th century when the Church forbade the ringing of the bells in homage to the death of Christ between Maundy Thursday and Easter Sunday. In France, legend has it that on Maundy Thursday, the bell’s chimes flee to Rome where the Pope blesses them. There, they collect the Easter eggs which will be scattered in gardens and yards on their return journey.
By the morning of Easter Sunday, they have returned and are ringing out joyfully to declare the resurrection of Christ. When children hear them, they go out to the garden on an egg hunt.
The Easter Bells are often represented with a pair of wings, ribbons or sometimes are transported in a cart.
Le chocolat à Pâques
As at Christmas time, chocolate is an essential component when celebrating Easter in France. In many pâtisseries-chocolateries, great attention to detail results in chocolate eggs looking more like pieces of art than anything edible.
Unlike the chocolate shapes sold in the UK and in Australia, the French do not purchase only Easter eggs shapes. In fact, there is a profusion of different shapes, including chocolate Easter bunnies, Easter Bells, Easter Hens and little Easter Fish called “Fritures de Pâques”.
Fritures de Pâques
The “Fritures de Pâques” are small fish-shaped chocolates. The fish is the symbol of Christianity and during the Roman era, it was a signal for persecuted Christians to distinguish friends from foes. The little Easter fish are called “fritures” (fried whitebait) because of their shape and are often packed into straw baskets or chocolate boxes so that they resemble a school of delicious little fish.
Easter traditions in France: English-French Vocabulary
(f) for féminin, (m) for masculin, (adj) for adjective and (v) for verbs
- bell = cloche (f)
- bunny = lapin (m)
- to celebrate = célébrer (v)
- chocolate = chocolat (m)
- to decorate = décorer (v)
- decoration = décoration (f)
- Easter = Pâques (f)
- Easter Market = Marché de Pâques (m)
- egg = œuf (m)
- egg hunt = chasse aux œufs (f)
- Good Friday = Vendredi Saint (m)
- Good Thursday = Jeudi saint (m)
- hare = lièvre (m)
- Holy Week = Semaine Sainte (f)
- Jesus = Jésus
- lamb = agneau (m)
- mass = messe (f)
- nest = nid (m)
- pope = pape (m)
- spring = printemps (m)
- stork = cigogne (f)
- Sunday = dimanche (m)
- tradition = tradition (f)