It’s no secret that the French are very attached to their vacations and public holidays!
If the French is privileged with a minimum of 5 weeks of vacation per year, one of the longest durations in the world, they are however far from getting the most public holidays. Indeed, the World Record goes to Myanmar, with 32 public holidays.
In France, there are only 11 public holidays when the country stops (almost completely) working, which places the country far in the rankings, and behind many European countries such as Sweden and Lithuania (15 ), or Austria, Belgium, Slovakia, and Norway (14).
Today being May 1st (Labor Day) let’s take the opportunity to tell you a little more about the public holidays celebrated in France.
New Year’s Day
As pretty much all countries that have adopted the Gregorian calendar, France celebrates the first day of the civil year, and this, since March 23, 1810. In France too, we celebrate the start of the new year at midnight on New Year’s Eve, also known as “Saint Sylvestre”.
It is a day most often marked by rest after the excesses of the previous days (end-of-year and Christmas celebrations), but it is also the first day to start your “good resolutions”!
This second public holiday of the year finds its roots and traditions in Christianity since Easter Monday is none other than the celebration of the resurrection of Jesus Christ, who according to religious texts, went back from the dead 3 days after his crucifixion.
Since it is always a Monday, the date of this holiday changes from year to year, between March 23 and April 26.
Celebrated by Catholics and Protestants alike on the previous Sunday and Monday since the 11th century, nowadays, families often gather for this long weekend around a good meal (with the typical “Paschal Lamb”).
But Easter is above all synonymous with an egg hunt for children. History has it that church bells do not ring the day before Easter, as a sign of mourning for the death of Jesus. The children are thus told that they are going to Rome and that they return the next day (now laden with chocolate eggs that they hide in gardens or around the house).
It has been a public holiday in France since the 1801 Concordat between the Pope and Napoleon Bonaparte.
The 1st of May
If many French people think that this day only concerns them or that the holiday originates in France, we must look over the Atlantic ocean to find its roots.
We have to go back to May 1 of the year 1886, when a vast strike fighting for the 8-hour day got underway in the United States. This battle won by the unions and workers made that day a symbol of social struggles, and is now celebrated in many countries.
In France, May 1st has been a public holiday since 1947, and its symbol is the sprig of lily, a typical spring flower that only grows around this period, and that French people give to one another.
This holiday celebrates the end of the Second World War, and the victory of the allies (USSR, Great Britain, France, United States…) against the axis (Germany, Japan, Italy).
On May 7, 1945, at 2:41 a.m., a first surrender was made by the Germans in Reims (France).
However, Stalin, feeling aggrieved, had the German army officially surrender to the Red Army in Berlin the next day, May 8, in Karlshorst, in the suburbs of Berlin.
It is therefore this date that has been retained by History, and it has been celebrated as a public holiday in France since March 2, 1953 (with a break between 1959 and 1981, at the initiative of de Gaulle in a logic of reconciliation, then reinstated by Mitterand).
The second Christian holiday of the year, and the second holiday whose date changes each year, the Ascension corresponds to the ascent to heaven of Jesus Christ and occurs 40 days after Easter Monday, i.e. the duration during which he stayed with his disciples.
This day is also celebrated in many European countries with a Christian tradition.
This holiday isn’t celebrated in any particular fashion among the French, but they often take advantage of a “bridge” on the following Friday, allowing them to take an extended weekend, often synonymous with a short stay to celebrate the beginning of warmer days.
The Christian feast of Pentecost takes place 10 days after Ascension Thursday, i.e. 50 days after Easter, and has been celebrated since the 4th century. It commemorates the descent of the Holy Spirit among the apostles. It is celebrated for two days, Pentecost Day, a Sunday, and “Pentecost Monday”, a French public holiday since March 8, 1886 (except between 2004 and 2008 when this day was declared a “day of solidarity with the elderly” ).
Also known internationally as “Bastille Day”, July 14th has been France’s national holiday since 1790, marking one year after the storming of the Bastille, and which also corresponds to the day of the federation.
This day symbolically marks the end of the monarchical order (albeit momentarily, since several monarchical restorations took place in the 19th century) in France.
It is on this day that the troops of the French armed forces parade on the Champs Elysées in Paris, in the morning.
In the evening, fireworks are set off in most towns and villages and are followed by many popular balls (such as the firefighters’ ball).
It is a day of celebration of the Nation, of the Republic, but also a popular festival where the masses come out to watch the show and dance.
August 15th – The Assumption
Just as the ascension to heaven of Jesus Christ is celebrated, that of the Virgin Mary is also declared a public holiday in France. According to the Church, the mother of Jesus was “raised to heaven” at the end of her life. Since 1638, therefore, France has celebrated the Virgin Mary, who according to Louis XIII, blessed his wife (Anne of Austria) with a royal heir.
This holiday is very often a sign in France of crossovers on the holiday routes, since it occurs towards the end of the summer holidays and shortly before the start of the school year in September. It is often this day that is chosen as the end of the holidays, and is often synonymous with nightmares on the roads!
November 1 – All Saints Day
Often associated with the “Day of the Dead”, All Saints’ Day is a Christian holiday celebrated on November 1st.
In France, for All Saints Day, the tradition is to go to the cemetery to pray at the graves of deceased loved ones, and put flowers on them. It is the second public holiday with Easter Monday that appears on the calendar with the signing of the Concordat of 1801.
The second public holiday linked to a world war, November 11 marks the German capitulation of 1918, in Rethondes. The event is known to have taken place aboard a dining car of Marshal Foch’s train, in the forest of Compiègne, bringing together Allied and German generals.
November 11 officially becomes a national holiday on October 24, 1922, by decision of Parliament. Every year, official ceremonies take place in most towns in France (close to the war memorials), in homage to the deceased fighters.
The last feast of the calendar year, and probably the most celebrated, Christmas is the 11th and last French holiday and commemorates the birth of Jesus.
If in reality, we do not know the exact year or day of his birth, it is this day that was designated by the Roman historian Sextus Julius Africanus, who estimated the date of conception of Jesus at March 25 … and so 9 months later, December 25 marks Christmas (or Nativity).
It is probably the “least religious religious holiday” in France since by tradition, non-Christians (mainly atheists) celebrate Christmas every year. Whether it’s New Year’s Eve on December 24 or 25, the French proceed to exchange gifts around the tree and enjoy sumptuous family meals.
Note that in Alsace-Moselle, a 12th public holiday is celebrated, December 26, the “Family Day”, in the extension of Christmas.
Here we are, we hope that you now know more about French history and culture with this little lesson on the public holidays celebrated in France!