In France, we know how to celebrate life on many occasions! Whether you are visiting Paris or the Province, holidays and celebrations in France will definitely bring an ‘exotic taste’ to your stay. Did you know that the French annual calendar is punctuated with eleven bank holidays? As well as several religious, civil and commemorative celebrations? I hope this article will give you some insights into what to expect on your next travel to France!
Traditions and Celebrations in France
To make life more pleasant, people took part in many festivals in the kingdom of France. Indeed, there were more than a hundred days of festivities during the year!
In addition, every event in the family (engagement, marriage, birth, baptism and even death) was an excellent occasion to bring relatives and a few friends together.
Thus, during the Middle Ages, people gathered according to a strict calendar. And, contrary to what we know today, summer was not a time of festivities.
No summer holidays in the Middle Ages!
Peasants knew that with summer would come the season of heavy work. On Midsummer’s Day, at the end of June, they would gather for one last big party (fête de la Saint-Jean or St. John’s Day). Fires were lit to celebrate the longest day. Young men practised jumping over the flames.
Between Midsummer’s Day (late June) and St. Michael’s Day (late September), everyone was busy either working in the fields, fighting in the war or training for the military.
Traditional festivals in France
Most holidays are sacred. However, religion has often preserved ancient pagan customs, which were attached, for example, to the worship of the sun (the winter solstice at Christmas, and the summer solstice on Midsummer’s Day).
In contrast to the summer, festive days are much more frequent in winter and spring.
For example, the Christmas period lasted twelve days with the Feast of the Innocents, the Feast of the Fools, and New Year’s Eve, and ended with the Feast of the Kings with its traditional galette des Rois.
Later on, the following events would take place:
- Candlemas (Chandeleur) – and its candlelight procession,
- Shrove Tuesday (Mardi Gras), the last feast day before Lent
- the first Sunday of Lent (le Dimanche de la Quadragésime), when tradition has it that fires are lit to dance around before going through the streets and the countryside carrying lit torches or firebrands.
- Easter (Pâques),
- and many others until Pentecost Sunday.
Get the ebook Holidays & Celebrations in France!
288 pages – 117 illustrations
In this book, Pierre reveals the secrets of French celebrations, from the most famous to the least known. It is a cultural journey into French customs and traditions that will satisfy the curious readers and the lovers of France.
Major Holidays and Celebrations in France
Holidays and celebrations in France are integral to the country’s popular culture.
Public Holidays in France
The French observe 11 official public holidays.
5 of them are civil holidays:
- New Year’s Day (Jour de l’An),
- May Day (1er Mai or Fête du Travail),
- Victory in Europe Day (8 mai 1945),
- Bastille Day (Fête Nationale), and
- WWI Armistice Day (Armistice du 11 novembre 1918).
6 public holidays have a religious origin based on the Catholic faith:
- Easter Monday (lundi de Pâques),
- Ascension Day (Jeudi de l’Ascension),
- Whit Monday (Lundi de Pentecôte),
- Assumption Day (Assomption),
- All Saints’ Day (Toussaint), and
- Christmas (Noël).
- Good Friday (Vendredi Saint), and
- St. Stephen’s Day (Saint-Etienne – known as Boxing Day in English-speaking countries).
This is due to historical reasons when the three départements were returned to France in 1918.
Celebrations in France
Every season has its share of celebrations and festivals.
- Epiphany (Epiphanie)
- Candlemas (Chandeleur)
- Mardi-Gras & Carnivals (Carnaval)
- Valentine’s Day (Saint-Valentin)
- April Fools’ Day (1er avril)
- Europe’s Day (Journée de l’Europe)
- Mothers’ Day (Fête des Mères)
- Fathers’ Day (Fête des Pères)
- Feast of Saint John (Fête de la Saint-Jean)
- World Music Day (Fête de la Musique)
Holidays and Celebrations in France: local events
Some celebrations in France are local events, including sporting events. Here’s a (very) small list.
Folk Festivals in France
- Lemon Festival in Menton (Fête du citron de Menton)
- Nice Carnival (Carnaval de Nice)
- International Kite Festival of Berck-sur-Mer
- Transhumance Festival in Saint-Rémy-de-Provence
- Rouen Armada
- Grande Braderie of Lille
- Mondial Air Ballons festival in Lorraine
- European Heritage Days (Journées européennes du patrimoine)
- Return from the alpine pastures (Fête des Alpages)
- Wine harvest festivals in Alsace (Fête du Vin or Fête des Vendanges)
Christmas and End of Year Festivals
- Christmas market of Strasbourg (Marché de Noël de Strasbourg)
- Saint-Nicolas celebrations in Nancy
- Foire aux Santons in Marseille
- Festival of Lights in Lyon (Fête des Lumières de Lyon)
Music, Theatre and Film Festivals
- Cannes Film Festival
- Deauville American Film Festival
- Festival of Avignon
- Inter-Celtic Festival of Lorient
Sporting Events in France
- Easter Feria of Arles
- Monaco Grand Prix (Grand Prix de Monaco)
- Roland Garros French Open in Paris
- The 24 Hours of Le Mans (Les 24 Heures du Mans)
- Tour de France cyclist race
- Vendée Globe (a single-handed non-stop round-the-world yacht race starting and ending in Les Sables d’Olonne)
Due to the pandemic, most of these events were cancelled in 2020 and 2021 for the first time since World War II.
The way the French spent their holidays in France
Summer holidays and celebrations in France are synonymous with the great exodus!
Indeed, for eleven months of the year, the French think about the twelfth month, when they will take their annual holidays.
Some people like skiing and going on winter holidays, but most prefer the summer months. August is the big holiday time, and many companies and businesses close for one to four weeks. In fact, in the big cities, especially in Paris, the place is deserted except for tourists.
In summer, around 70% of the French people surveyed go on holiday for an average of two weeks.
Holidays in France, a country of great variety
For 56% of them, their favourite destination remains… France!
This is the highest rate of residents staying in their country for their holidays in Europe and the two other countries surveyed (the United States and Brazil).
How to explain this?
Well, most French people are quite satisfied with what their country offers and therefore have no wish to travel abroad.
Mountains and rivers, sandy beaches and beautiful countryside are all available in France.
The French like to spend their holidays in another region of France
The French appreciate inter-regional tourism for their holidays (including the summer).
For example, between 2014 and 2016, there was on average :
- 4.4 million departures per year from the Paris region to Normandy.
- 4.1 million departures per year from the Paris region to Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes.
- 2.7 million departures per year from the Paris region to Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur.
- 2.1 million departures per year from Provence-Alpes-Côte-d’Azur to Occitania.
- 0.9 million departures per year from Hauts-de-France to Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes.
What types of accommodation do the French use during their holidays?
Camping is very popular, especially with the less well-paid. The better-off tend to rent villas for the holiday period. Moreover, country people and city dwellers overwhelmingly arrange to stay with friends or relations.
The type of accommodation is as follows:
- Hotels: 10.6%.
- Campsite: 5.4%.
- Rental, gîte or bed and breakfast: 11.1%.
- Secondary residence: 9%.
- Family and friends: 57.4%.
- Other: 6.5%.
When do the French spend their holidays in France?
More than a quarter (26.2%) of French people’s holidays are taken in July-August.
August is thus the month when the number of French people taking holidays in France is highest (14.7%).
These tourists generate more than 80% of the overnight stays recorded in Metropolitan France.
The average time spent elsewhere in France for holidays or to visit a loved one lasts an average of 5 nights.
Corsica is an exception, with more than 11 nights spent per stay (due to its island location in the Mediterranean).
Where do the French spend their holidays in France?
The following figures give how the French passed their holidays in 2016 if they stayed in France.
- In towns: 30.2%
- In the country: 23.9%
- By the sea: 22.2%
- In the mountains: 20.2%
- Other: 3.5%
In addition to travelling in the region, the French appreciate foreign destinations, with a preference for neighbouring countries. Thus, Spain and Italy have been the two favourite destinations for the last few years, with more than 7.6 million departures in 2017.
Of course, the pandemic crisis of 2020-2021 has momentarily upset these trends. With a succession of lockdowns and curfews, holidays and celebrations in France have come to a halt.
School Holidays in France
The school year in France stretches from “La Rentrée” (coming back to school) to “Les Grandes Vacances” (Summer recess).
School holidays (les vacances) play an essential part in the tourism industry in France.
The dates are set by the Ministry of Education (Ministère de l’Éducation nationale). They vary depending on the zones the schools are located.
There are three school zones in France. They are not contiguous to facilitate access to sports resorts and tourist sites.
Therefore, the winter and spring holidays don’t take place simultaneously, whether a school is based in Paris, Strasbourg or Toulouse. Thus relieving the pressure on skiing and Mediterranean resorts.
The zones gather regional education authorities known as “académies” in French.
- Zone A includes the “académies” of Dijon, Besançon, Clermont-Ferrand, Grenoble, Lyon, Poitiers, Limoges, and Bordeaux.
- then Zone B includes the “académies” of Aix-Marseille, Amiens, Caen, Nancy-Metz, Lille, Limoges, Nantes, Nice, Orléans-Tours, Reims, Rouen and Strasbourg.
- and Zone C includes the “académies” of Toulouse, Montpellier, Créteil, Paris and Versailles.
Corsica and the Overseas départements and territories of France apply different school holidays times. Like in Australia and New Zealand, the school year in the French territories of New Caledonia and Wallis and Futuna starts in late January and finishes in early December.
Five periods of holidays in France
The school calendar includes five periods of holidays in France:
- The Summer holidays (les vacances d’été or les grandes vacances) are the longest and the most awaited by pupils and teachers. The two-month break starts at the beginning of July and ends early September.
- Autumn holidays or All Saints holidays (les vacances d’automne or les vacances de la Toussaint) last two weeks around the beginning of November.
- Christmas holidays (les vacances de Noël or les vacances de fin d’année) last two weeks and include Christmas and New Year’s Day.
- Winter holidays (les vacances d’hiver) are two weeks long and occur between the second week of February and the first week of March.
- Spring holidays (les vacances de printemps or les vacances de Pâques) do not always encompass Easter. They occur between the second week of April and the first week of May.
The Four Seasons of the year in France
France is situated in the Northern Hemisphere. Like its fellow European neighbouring nations, it goes through a cycle of four distinctive seasons:
- Spring – le printemps
- Summer – l’été
- Autumn – l’automne
- Winter – l’hiver
These seasons have shaped most of the holidays and celebrations in France.
Click on the images below to reach our dedicated pages on the seasons of France:
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Get the ebook Holidays & Celebrations in France!
288 pages – 117 illustrations
In this book, Pierre reveals the secrets of French celebrations, from the most famous to the least known. It is a cultural journey into French customs and traditions that will satisfy curious readers and lovers of France.