New Year in France: traditional celebrations or something special? 

French culture

Every culture and every country around the world has its own way of celebrating New Year’s Eve.
Why do the French call it Saint-Sylvestre?
What are their traditions?
Do they do New Year’s Eve differently in French-speaking countries?
There are two things to remember when it comes to celebrating and soaking up French customs: get your glad rags on and ring in the New Year!

The history of New Year’s Eve

Celebrating New Year’s Eve: it all began in World War I

1915: French soldiers were stuck in the trenches during WWI so the general staff decided to boost their morale. They gave out a bottle of fizz to every four soldiers on the Meuse front with one instruction: to open it at midnight! Alongside the bottle, every soldier was given a hamper with 100g of ham, 75g of jam, an orange, two apples and a cigar. It became an annual event covering the entire western front after that. 

1918: The soldiers took the tradition of celebrating the New Year home with them at the end of the war.

January 1st: a date fit for an emperor!

Why do we celebrate the New Year on January 1st? Because Julius Caesar said so! 

The Roman emperor established the date as the start of the New Year because of its association with Janus, the god of transitions, in Roman culture. 

Ancient Romans celebrated the Saturnalia in the lead-up to New Year’s Day. The celebrations took place during the winter solstice (around December 24th) and people gave each other money and wished each other well! 

The French had to wait until King Charles IX came to the throne for January 1st to become New Year’s Day, after hundreds of years of the Celtic New Year being in April in Europe.

Who is “Saint Sylvestre”?

The French call December 31st “Saint Sylvestre”. Saint Sylvester was the 33rd pope. Catholics believe that the Roman citizen made his name by protecting Timothy, a Christian from Antioch who died a martyr’s death for his faith. Sylvester was made pope in 314 and Christianity was recognised as a religion by the Roman Empire during his reign when Emperor Constantine I converted to it.

New Year’s Eve traditions

“Se mettre sur son 31”

This French idiom goes hand in hand with December 31st: “Se mettre sur son 31” means get your glad rags on, get dressed up. Where the 31 comes from isn’t quite as clear-cut. It may be a deformation of the medieval word “trentain”, a lavish cloth made of three lots of one hundred threads and used to make the finest clothes. Since only wealthy people wore trentain, the rest of the population didn’t know much about the fabric and may have understood it as trente-et-un. “Se mettre sur son 31” or “put on your glad rags” became a common saying to mean you were getting ready for a special occasion.

Mistletoe, kissing and Celts.

Mistletoe is a New Year symbol. It’s a must-have decoration for the holiday season hanging over doors and tables. You kiss beneath the branches for good luck in the New Year. Celebrating New Year under the mistletoe is a Celtic tradition: druids believed the sacred plant had magical powers because it’s evergreen (so it never ages or fades?). It became a lucky charm that is supposed to make women fertile, protect people from evil, bring wealth and prosperity… We’re going to get some mistletoe!

What’s on the New Year’s Eve menu in France? 

For a long time, the blow-out feast over the holiday season was just at Christmas. The NYE banquet began as a light supper with company before midnight mass. People would have a heavier meat-based meal after midnight, making it a “jour gras” or “fat day”.

There may not be a traditional meal for December 31st nowadays but some dishes have become New Year’s Eve signatures. Champagne tends to be served before dinner or to ring in the New Year at midnight. Small pastries, foie gras, oysters, snails, scallops and smoked salmon are among France’s favourite dishes at NYE with the Yule log making a comeback for dessert. 

Institut des Frères Lumière à Lyon<br />

Don’t miss the deadline to wish people a Happy New Year by January 31st!

It’s customary in France to wish friends and family a Happy New Year from January 1st onwards to give them good luck. People used to go and visit their loved ones, workmates, the needy, homeless and sick in the first fortnight of the New Year. Some replaced the somewhat onerous custom with cards to send their best wishes rather than having to go around the houses. They got out of it without looking rude by leaving a card to say Happy New Year at the front desk. The invention of the stamp and spread of printing in Europe meant “carte de voeux” were sent by post.

Top 3 unique New Year’s Eve events in France

Celebrate like royalty at Vaux le Vicomte

Château de Vaux-le-Vicomte puts on a fairytale event for December 31st. An architectural sound and light projection lights up the castle walls in tribute to the château’s inauguration on August 17th 1661 which Nicolas Fouquet organised for the Sun King. Attendees of all ages play games in the French grounds, watch the animal ball in the Musée des Équipages and visit the beautifully decorated rooms. 

Swim in the Côte d’Azur

A dip in the sea is a tradition in Antibes! Locals have flocked to Plage de la Salis beach at 11am for over 20 years to wake them up from the last night’s shenanigans and start the New Year fresh-faced. The Day One d’Antibes association promotes the event and visitors to the region love it. After swimming in water that rarely gets above 15 degrees, the brave souls can warm up at the jazz concert and fireworks in the evening. 

Evening grape harvest in Gers

Now here’s a unique tradition in the Occitan region: a (very) late harvest that sees winemakers, locals and villagers pick the last of the sugary Pacherenc du Vic Bilh grapes in Viella village. The tradition dates back to 1991 when the spring frost meant winemakers had to wait a long time for the fruit to ripen on the vine… until New Year’s Eve! The unique harvest is followed by a communal meal at Château de Crouseilles. Guests pick twelve grapes off the last bunch when the clock strikes midnight!

Celebrating the New Year in France is an opportunity to discover the country in a relatively festive atmosphere, under the lights of Christmas. French New Year’s Eve is more a friendly or family celebration “at home”, but people are going out more and more, especially in cities, to celebrate the passage to the New Year in bars or in public squares… Champagne is always a must!

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