Easter traditions in France – Pâques en France

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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. It commemorates the resurrection of Jesus Christ on the third day after his crucifixion on Good Friday and marks the end of the fasting period of Lent.


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  • About the French word “Pâques”

    Christ Easter Pâques

    The resurrected Christ, Issenheim altarpiece, Unterlinden Museum, Colmar © French Moments

    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). While 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

    Alsace pommier

    An apple tree in full bloom, Alsace © French Moments

    Easter is celebrated on a Sunday, the date of which is dependent on the seasons and the movement of the sun.

    Easter Sunday is celebrated 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), this is set as Rome.

    The date is based on the lunar calendar. In 2015, Easter is set for 5th April, then in 2016 it will be 27th March, and in 2017, on 16th 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!). Good Friday (Vendredi Saint) is a working day, except in the French départements of Moselle in Lorraine, and Haut-Rhin and Bas-Rhin in Alsace.

    Easter traditions in France Eguisheim Alsace Pâques

    Easter traditions in France: street decorations in Eguisheim, Alsace © French Moments

    Dates

    Easter and the holidays that are related to it 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 three next years:

    • 2013 : March 31 / May 5 for the Eastern Orthodox Church.
    • 2014 : April 20
    • 2015 : April 5 / April 12 for the Eastern Orthodox Church.
    • 2016: March 27
    • 2017: April 16
    • 2018: April 1
    • 2019: April 21
    • 2020: April 12
    Easter traditions in France Eguisheim Alsace Pâques

    Easter traditions in France: decorations in Eguisheim, Alsace © French Moments


    Easter traditions in France

    Easter decorations in Alsace – décorations de Pâques

    Easter traditions in France Colmar Alsace

    Easter traditions in France: decorations at Colmar, Alsace © French Moments

    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.

    Easter eggs – l’œuf de Pâques

    Easter traditions in France chocolate egg Pâques

    Easter traditions in France: the chocolate egg © French Moments

    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 it was forbidden to eat 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; a tradition which gave birth to numerous legends and customs.

    In France, it was only in the 18th century that fresh eggs were emptied and filled with chocolate. Then, chocolate-shaped eggs were made to be hidden in the garden for children to find.

    The Easter Bunny – le lapin de Pâques

    Easter traditions in France bunny

    Easter traditions in France: chocolate Easter bunnies © French Moments

    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. It is believed that it was in Alsace and the Upper Rhineland (both then in the Holy Roman Empire) that that 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.

    The Easter Bells – les cloches de Pâques

    Easter traditions in France

    Easter traditions in France: [Lindt] chocolate bells on sale in French supermarkets © French Moments

    However, in Catholic lands, such as France, rabbits are replaced by another tradition: the Easter Bells.

    Even though chocolate Easter bunnies are found 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, the eggs are brought by the Easter Bells (cloches de Pâques) on their way back from Rome.

    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.

    Easter traditions in France Egg hunt

    Easter traditions in France: the egg hunt © French Moments

    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.

    Easter chocolate – le chocolat à Pâques

    Easter traditions in France Chocoline

    Easter traditions in France: the chocolate hen © French Moments

    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”.

    Easter traditions in France Fritures Pâques

    Easter traditions in France: the fritures de Pâques © French Moments

    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

    Easter traditions in France: writing an Easter card © French Moments


    Easter traditions in France: English-French Vocabulary

    Easter traditions in France Alsace Eguisheim

    Easter traditions in France: a decorated fountain in Eguisheim, Alsace © French Moments

    (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)

    Find out more about Spring in France.

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    About Author

    Pierre is a French/Australian who is passionate about France and its culture. He grew up in France and Germany and has also lived in Australia and England. In 2014 he moved back to Europe from Sydney with his wife and daughter to be closer to their families and to France. He has a background teaching French and holds a Master of Translating and Interpreting English-French with the degree of Master of International Relations and a degree of Economics and Management.

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