Five Signs of New Year in France

Galette des Rois (PhotoXpress_Nath Photos)

Galette des Rois (PhotoXpress_Nath Photos)

First, a slightly belated Happy New Year to everyone. I hope you have a happy, healthy and peaceful 2014. Serial over-indulgence during the festive season followed by self-enforced repose has kept me away from blogging for a few days. But I’ve been pondering the ways in which the French celebration of New Year differs from the British version.

1. New Year greetings

It’s considered bad luck to wish people ‘Bonne Année’ (Happy New Year) before midnight strikes on 31st December. Instead, you should wish them ‘bonne fin d’année’ (happy end of the year). A French friend once got very agitated when she thought I was going to wish her a premature Bonne Année and cut me off in mid-sentence.

The French don’t generally send Christmas cards. They are prohibitively expensive, anyway, in France. But you might receive a New Year card wishing you ‘Meilleurs voeux’ or – more likely these days – an email.

It’s customary to wish French friends and neighbours ‘meilleurs voeux’ (best wishes) for the coming year. Around here, they tend to add ‘surtout pour la santé’ (above all for good health). And everyone agrees that ‘c’est l’essentiel’ (it’s the most important thing). When my yoga class resumes each January, the first session starts with a blizzard of kissing and good wishing. It can take 10 minutes before we get started.

2. Voeux

Politicians from the President downwards take the opportunity of the New Year to wish everyone their ‘voeux’. This is the traditional skating over the previous year and presentation of optimistic plans for the coming one.

In smaller communes, it’s not uncommon for the mairie to issue all the inhabitants with an invitation to a pot d’amitié (drinks party), where the maire offers his/her voeux. Our own commune is too populous to ask everyone, so they restrict it to people over a certain age.

This year, the atmosphere will be particularly charged owing to the impending municipal elections in March – the first since 2008.

3. New Year’s resolutions 

The French don’t appear to make resolutions. Some English friends spent part of New Year’s Eve explaining to their French neighbours the point of resolutions. But maybe the French don’t feel they need to. A recent Telegraph article apparently said that the difference between the two nations’ approaches to Christmas is that we Brits behave as if we haven’t eaten for 12 months. No wonder, then, that we resolve to give up drinking, go on diets, join a gym etc. The French are perhaps more abstemious.

4. Presents 

Some local shops give their regular customers a New Year’s present. I can’t remember this happening in the UK. Most often, you get a calendar with the shop’s name prominently inscribed on it. Since you can use only so many of them, the flammable ones tend to end up in the wood-burner chez nous.

We always make sure we get to the pharmacie soon after New Year. In our early years here, they used to issue soap that didn’t lather or evil-smelling perfume. Since then, their presents have improved markedly. One year, we received a very useful kitchen timer/alarm clock/thermometer. Last year, it was a key ring with a built-in LED torch. Today, there was nothing. Perhaps they spent too much on building the brand new out-of-town pharmacie in 2013 or maybe it’s just a sign of the times.

5. Galette des Rois

La galette des rois is the traditional cake that people eat to celebrate Epiphany (6th January). Although not strictly a New Year custom, you see them in the shops from Christmas onwards. They come with a cardboard crown and a fève or charm hidden inside. A fève was traditionally a dried bean but these days it’s a usually a small porcelain trinket. The person who finds the fève is the king or queen, who wears the crown and chooses a consort.

The fève I found one year

The fève I found one year

Epiphany (Twelfth Night) is also the time for taking down the Xmas decorations in both countries, although our commune leaves them up for weeks. Want to know what to do with your Christmas tree?

  • If it’s rooted, plant it out.
  • If not, some communes have a shredder at the local déchetterie (tip) – or you can dump it there.
  • Burn it on the fire, but watch out, it goes up like tinder. Ours does service as kindling in the wood-burner.

Beware; dumping it in a hedgerow or wood will earn you a fine.

You might also like:

Meilleurs Voeux Before the World Ends
Epiphany – the Day of the Kings – in France
French Christmas Traditions

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About nessafrance

My husband and I moved to an 18th-century farmhouse in SW France in 1997. I am fascinated by French history, rural traditions and customs and enjoy seeking out the reality behind the myths. I run my own copywriting business and write short stories and the occasional novel in my spare time. My husband appears here as the SF, which stands for Statistics Freak, owing to his penchant for recording numbers about everything.
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10 Responses to Five Signs of New Year in France

  1. pfornari says:

    We jsed to love celebrating ‘les rois’ when the kids were little…as for the three kisses, I would dread going to support Willie at his rugby matches as it meant three kisses to every player, partner, child and appendage…and not just at New Year!

    • nessafrance says:

      Yes, the kissing can get a bit long drawn out sometimes! We have just been to the market in the village and it took twice as long as normal owing to the New Year’s Greetings. Only once a year, at least!

  2. sue whatmough says:

    I like the little niceties that welcome the new year in but wish everyone took down their decorations at least before the end of January. Some communes, and individuals, round here, are so lazy they keep them up all year! And as for those climbing Father Christmas’s – the least said the better.

    • nessafrance says:

      The fashion for decorating the whole of the outside of one’s house seems to have struck here this year. Some houses flash like beacons at night. I hope they take them down today…

  3. Kate Swaffer says:

    Happy New Year to you too Vanessa, and thank you for the very informative ‘lesson’ on traditions in France and also the UK! My husband would be rather horrified being kissed by a man… I’ll make sure we visit sometime and you can set him up!! Take care always.

    • nessafrance says:

      Thank you! I imagine for Australians (which I presume your husband is), being kissed by a man would be a rather difficult concept! It certainly is for Brits. However, he can rest assured that it only happens between men who are friends or relatives. But, if you like, I can set him up when you visit. I’d like to see it!!

  4. Humorous and informative. I like your description of the yoga class and ‘blizzard’ of kissing. Traditional galette des rois is a work of art. Happy New Year!

    • nessafrance says:

      My husband still hasn’t got used to the idea of being kissed by men but in macho France it’s not considered effeminate to proffer three kisses to another man at New Year. Happy New Year, Val!

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