There are many ways to fight the cold French winter… there are coats, gloves, soups, central heating…. and parties! Christmas is the first opportunity to warm the soul, but this celebration is more centred around Christian traditions, family, food and presents. New Year’s Eve, also called “Réveillon de la Saint Sylvestre”, is another kind of party. It has been popular since the end of the 19th century.
New Year’s Eve: the Réveillon du Nouvel An
New Year’s Eve is usually celebrated with 10, 20, 30, 50 or even 100 friends, and sometimes even with complete strangers, at home or in private functions, or even in public places, on the Champs-Elysées or under the Eiffel Tower. After Christmas, the question that everybody asks is: “What are you doing for the Réveillon?”, because New Year’s Eve is rarely celebrated in the same place and with the same people twice in a row. However different, the celebrations that take place on the 31st of December have several common denominators: the first is the pleasure of partying!
The second common denominator is abundance. Abundance of food, with various delicious dishes, and abundance of alcoholic beverages, especially champagne. Local French patisseries produce a New Year log (bûche), similar to that of Christmas. The Réveillon also implies music, usually with a good rhythm, since New Year’s Eve is a dance party! Regarding the decoration, a colourful atmosphere is usually preferred, and can be enhanced with confetti and streamers. Small pointy hats are often given to guests. Some people prefer to celebrate New Year’s Eve in a quieter and classy atmosphere, but it does not exclude a little bit of craziness and a few excesses.
The Party must go on…
The Réveillon’s enthusiasm is usually expressed in the same specific ways: people perform congas inside and outside, they kiss under mistletoe and, after a countdown that leads to midnight, they wish each other a good year (“Bonne Année !”) while clinking glasses of champagne. Some also try to call their friends and family members who are not partying with them, but around midnight the phone network is usually saturated.
Even though during the past years the fireworks’ tradition came to an end in many cities (surprisingly, there are not any fireworks on the Eiffel Tower), the custom is to be as noisy as possible, using horns and firecrackers. This custom probably originates from the old belief that noises scare away demons and bad spirits, which are more threatening during this night of transition between two years.
It is also at midnight that, in most cases, the guests announce their good resolutions for the new year: work more, work less, lose weight, travel, start painting… and reduce their alcohol consumption, after the hangover of the 1st of January.
We do not know if the President of France also wishes a happy new year to his friends and family at midnight, but he definitely transmits, from the Elysée Palace, his presidential wishes to the French nation on the 31st from 8pm, on TV (“les vœux présidentiels”).
A new day: the “Jour de l’An”
After waking up painfully at the beginning of the afternoon and cleaning up, French people slowly regain consciousness and write cards to their friends and family members to who they could not wish a happy new year to at midnight, in which they usually wish them a good health, and a lot of happiness and success.
The last custom associated with the New Year in France is the offering of “étrennes”. It was the name of the candies and money that the children of Savoie used to receive from their family when they visited them to wish them a happy new year. Today, this word rather refers to the small bonus that the employers offer to their staff, cleaners, etc… It can also refer to the exchange of presents.
The 1st of January and the 1st day of the year
The only mystery that has not yet been solved regarding the New Year is the origin of its date. Yes, the 1st of January was not always the first day of the year in France!
During the 6th and 7th centuries, we used to celebrate the New Year on the 1st of March, while in the 9th century, during the reign of Charlemagne, it’s on Christmas Day that it was celebrated. In the 10th century the first day of the year was Easter and, before the 16th century, the year started on the 1st of April (learn more on the 1st April in France). According to the rumour, it was the King of France Charles IX who decided to make the 1st of January the first day of the year, with the Roussillon edict.
The fact that the New Years’ Réveillon is sometimes called “Réveillon de la Saint Sylvestre” is just a coincidence. Sylvestre (or Sylvester as he is known in England) was the 33rd Pope and, once canonised, he became one of the Saints who are attributed a day in the Gregorian calendar.
The season of the French winter celebrations ends with the Epiphany, on the 6th of January. On this day, French people eat the “Galette des rois” (the Kings’ cake), which is a reference to the Magi, the Three Wise Men who visited the baby Jesus on the 6th of January.