What are the Holidays and Celebrations in France?

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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!

Holidays and celebrations in France - Dance party in the Middle Ages (14th C)

Dance party in France during the Middle Ages (14th C)

In addition, every event in the family (engagement, marriage, birth, baptism and even death) was a good occasion to bring together relatives and a few friends.

Thus, during the Middle Ages, people used to gather according to a strict calendar. And, contrary to what we know today, summer was not really 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.

Holidays and celebrations in France - Jules Breton, Fête de la Saint-Jean

Jules Breton, La Fête de la Saint-Jean, 1875, Philadelphia Fine Arts Museum

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, the summer solstice on Midsummer’s Day).

Holidays and celebrations in France - Music in the Middle Ages

Music in the Middle Ages

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, 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.

Major Holidays and Celebrations in France

Holidays and celebrations in France play an integral part in the country’s popular culture.

The ball of the 14th July in Paris

The bal of Bastille Day in Paris

Public Holidays in France

The French observe 11 official public holidays.

5 of them are civil holidays:

6 public holidays have a religious origin based on the Catholic faith:

Besides, people living in the two départements of Bas-Rhin and Haut-Rhin in Alsace and the Lorraine département of Moselle enjoy two additional public holidays:

  • 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.

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
Holidays and celebrations in France - Rouen Armada © Anytiope - licence [CC BY-SA 4.0] from Wikimedia Commons

Rouen Armada © Anytiope – licence [CC BY-SA 4.0] from Wikimedia Commons

Annecy Venetian Carnival © French Moments

The Venetian Carnival of Annecy – by the lake © French Moments

Menton Lemon Festival © Ville de Menton

French history at the Menton Lemon Festival © Ville de Menton

Hot-air balloons at Chambley air-base © Wikig – licence [CC BY-SA 3

Hot-air balloons at Chambley air-base © Wikig – licence [CC BY-SA 3.0] from Wikimedia Commons

Return from the high pastures, Annecy © French Moments

Return from the high pastures, Annecy © French Moments

Christmas and End of Year Festivals
Festival of Lights in Lyon © BELZUNCE Christian - licence [CC BY-SA 3

Festival of Lights in Lyon © BELZUNCE Christian – licence [CC BY-SA 3.0] from Wikimedia Commons

Saint-Nicolas in Nancy © French Moments

Saint-Nicolas in Nancy © French Moments

Holidays and celebrations in France - Christmas in Nancy © French Moments

Nativity crib figures (santons) © French Moments

Holidays and celebrations in France - Strasbourg Christmas Market © French Moments

Christmas in Strasbourg © French Moments

Music, Theatre and Film Festivals
  • Cannes Film Festival
  • Deauville American Film Festival
  • Festival of Avignon
  • Inter-Celtic Festival of Lorient
Popes' Palace in Avignon © French Moments

The famous Popes’ Palace in Avignon © French Moments

Holidays and celebrations in France - Festival Interceltique de Lorient © Pymouss - licence [CC BY-SA 3.0] from Wikimedia Commons

Festival Interceltique de Lorient © Pymouss – licence [CC BY-SA 3.0] from Wikimedia Commons

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)
Holidays and celebrations in France - Tour de France at Aime-la-Plagne © French Moments

The Tour de France passing by Aime-la-Plagne © French Moments

Holidays and celebrations in France - Tour de France 2018 in Thorens-Glières © French Moments

The Tour de France in Thorens-Glières (Haute-Savoie), 17 July 2018 © French Moments

Holidays and celebrations in France - Tour de France at Aime-la-Plagne © French Moments

The advertising caravan of the Tour de France at Aime-la-Plagne © French Moments

Holidays and celebrations in France - 24 heures du Mans © Kevin Decherf - licence [CC BY-SA 2.0] from Wikimedia Commons

24 heures du Mans © Kevin Decherf – licence [CC BY-SA 2.0] from Wikimedia Commons

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 go on holiday in the winter, but most prefer the summer months. August is the big holiday time, and many companies and businesses close down for one to four weeks. In fact, in the big cities, and 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 and celebrations in France - Montmartre June 2015 16 copyright French Moments

Summer in Montmartre, Paris © French Moments

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 in 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 has to offer and therefore have no wish to travel abroad.

Mountains and rivers, sandy beaches and beautiful countryside are all available in France.

Holidays and Celebrations in France - The A8 Motorway near Menton - Stock Photos from Michael R Evans - Shutterstock

The A8 Motorway near Menton, French Riviera – Stock Photos from Michael R Evans – Shutterstock

The French like to spend their holidays in another region of France

For their holidays (including the summer), the French appreciate inter-regional tourism.

For example, between 2014 and 2016, there were 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.
France Map of Regions © French Moments

France Map of Regions © French Moments

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%.
Holidays and celebrations in France - Hôtel de la Cathédrale in Metz © French Moments

A hotel room in Metz, Lorraine © French Moments

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 of the year when the number of French people taking holidays in France is highest (14.7%).

Holidays and Celebrations in France - Annecy Beach © French Moments

Beach of Lake Annecy (French Alps) © French Moments

These tourists alone 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).

Calvi Bay © Marco Giambersi - licence [CC BY-SA 3.0] from Wikimedia Commons

Calvi Bay, Corsica © Marco Giambersi – licence [CC BY-SA 3.0] from Wikimedia Commons

Where do the French spend their holidays in France?

The following figures give the ways in which 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%
Holidays and Celebrations in France: Sarlat-la-Canéda, Périgord © French Moments

Sarlat-la-Canéda, a popular tourist spot in Périgord © French Moments

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, between them, 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

Back to School La Rentrée © French Moments

Our daughter’s “Rentrée” © French Moments

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 important 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 at the same time 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.

Académies of France © Chabe01 - licence [CC BY-SA 4.0] from Wikimedia Commons

Académies of France © Chabe01 – licence [CC BY-SA 4.0] from Wikimedia Commons

  • 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.

French Motto on School Facade © French Moments

A school in Paris © French Moments

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 in 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 take place 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 take place 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. As its fellow European neighbouring nations, it goes through a cycle of four distinctive seasons:

  • Springle printemps
  • Summerl’été
  • Autumnl’automne
  • Winterl’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:

Spring – le printemps

The Eiffel Tower in Spring © French Moments

March-April-May-June

Summer – l’été

The St. Sixte chapel in Eygalières © French Moments

June-July-August-September

Autumn – l’automne

Paris in Autumn © French Moments

September-October-November-December

Winter – l’hiver

The village of Granier in Winter © French Moments

December-January-February-March


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Holidays and Celebrations in France © French Moments


 

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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. He has a background teaching French, Economics and Current Affairs, 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. Pierre is the author of the Discovery Course on the Secrets of the Eiffel Tower and the Christmas book "Voyage au Pays de Noël".

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