Imagine waking up one morning in the mood to do some window shopping.
You roll out of bed, get ready, head out the door and stroll to your favorite local shop.
…Only to realize that it’s Christmas, and there’s absolutely no room for you to get in!
While this might seem like a dramatic occurrence—who forgets Christmas, after all?—it isn’t impossible if you’re a tourist who isn’t familiar with important national holidays.
Without careful planning, you risk going out shopping or to the bank only to find that all the businesses are closed that day. (Oops!)
Even worse, delays in public transportation due to vacations or holidays can leave you stranded.
Not to mention, you could miss out on a fun, once-in-a-lifetime cultural experience that you’ll never get to replicate.
Imagine stumbling upon a parade or a fireworks display with absolutely no idea what everyone is celebrating!
But not to worry. I’ve put together a handy primer on French holidays that’ll be all you need to prepare.
Here are all the French holidays, when they occur and what to expect.
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As with any culture, some holidays in French are more widely celebrated than others.
Out of all the French holidays, there are a few very special ones that celebrate values dear to all French hearts.
So not only are we going to learn how to say each of these holidays in French, but we’ll also take a look into France itself.
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New Year’s Day (Le Jour de l’An)
This holiday truly begins at midnight on the night of December 31, when you can find most French people out enjoying public fireworks and champagne.
Another popular New Year’s Eve tradition is a big midnight feast, called a reveillon.
Besides a large meal of pancakes and/or foie gras, the French also indulge in dancing and sometimes a kiss under the mistletoe.
No matter how you celebrate, you’ll certainly remember a New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day spent in France for years to come.
Epiphany (la Fête des Rois)
On January 6, the French traditionally celebrate the Three Kings’ visit to Baby Jesus.
According to the story, three wise men from the East were guided by a star to visit the royal baby, bringing him gifts.
On this day, French people enjoy eating an elaborate cake called a galette de roi, which is made slightly different depending on the region of France that you’re in.
A special charm, called a fève, is concealed inside the cake. The person who finds it gets to be king or queen for the day!
V-E Day (La fête de la victoire)
Victory in Europe (V-E) Day is celebrated as a national holiday in France on May 8.
On this day in 1945, Charles de Gaulle announced the surrender of Germany and the end of World War II in Europe.
This is both a joyous and a somber holiday, as French citizens celebrate their freedom while simultaneously mourning the effects of the long war and the Nazi occupation.
Schools and businesses are closed on this holiday, which is commemorated with patriotic parades and church services.
Mother’s Day (La Fête des Mères)
This holiday is celebrated on the last Sunday in May. As in the United States, it’s not a public holiday, despite its importance. Therefore, you can expect stores to open for their regular Sunday hours.
Back in the 19th century, there was a movement to encourage more mothers to have large families in light of France’s declining population. That event led to this holiday for celebrating mothers, especially those raising large numbers of children.
Even to this day, mothers of more than eight children are eligible to receive an honorary “Médaille de la Famille” (family medal) each year on Mother’s Day.
And as with English-speaking countries, it’s traditional for children to honor their mothers on this day with handmade gifts and cards.
Father’s Day (Fête des Pères)
Every year on the third Sunday in June, French children celebrate their fathers by presenting them with adorable homemade gifts.
Interestingly, Father’s Day in France as it’s known today was founded in 1949 by a company called Flaminaire (which produced gas cigarette lighters) to promote their product.
As with Mother’s Day, Father’s Day isn’t a public holiday, so you’ll still find businesses following their normal Sunday hours.
Bastille Day (La fête nationale)
The national holiday of France is celebrated on July 14 every year.
On this day, you should expect all businesses to be closed as French citizens take the day off to celebrate.
On this date in 1789 was the storming of a French prison called the Bastille, an event that triggered the French Revolution.
No matter where you are in France, there will be parades and fireworks. The largest and most renowned of these takes place along the Champs-Élysées in Paris. It’s widely considered to be the largest military parade in Europe.
Assumption Day (L’assomption de Marie)
According to Catholic tradition, the Virgin Mary (Jesus’ mother) was assumed body and soul into heaven instead of dying. This event is commemorated by Catholics all over the world on August 15.
Because of its strong Catholic roots, Assumption Day is a public holiday in France.
It’s considered a “Holy Day of Obligation,” meaning that any devout Catholic is expected to attend mass on this day.
Another French tradition is visiting the city of Lourdes, where it’s believed a young girl named Bernadette saw a vision of Mary back in 1858.
All Saint’s Day (La Toussaint)
Every year on November 1, the French people honor the memory of deceased relatives as well as that of well-known Catholic saints.
The celebration actually begins the night before on All Hallow’s Eve, coinciding with Halloween.
French people celebrate by visiting the graves of their loved ones to leave flowers (usually chrysanthemums) or lighted candles.
Armistice Day (L’armistice de la Première Guerre Mondiale)
Taking place every year on November 11, this is a solemn holiday of remembrance for those who lost their lives in World War I, as well as other wars throughout history.
It marks the date in 1918 when a treaty was signed between Germany and the Allied forces, putting an end to World War I.
Church services and military parades are common ways of celebrating this holiday.
Additionally, wreaths are laid at war monuments throughout the country, especially at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at the Arc de Triomphe in Paris.
Christmas Eve/Christmas Day (Le Noël)
France celebrates Christmas on December 25, along with most of the Western world.
Businesses and stores are usually closed on Christmas and French people celebrate quietly at home.
Many French families love to decorate with elaborate Nativity scenes, depicting the characters in the story of Jesus’ birth. Around Christmas time, you’ll often find handmade clay Nativity figures for sale in local markets.
In some parts of France, the celebrations actually begin with St. Nicholas Day on December 6.
Public Holidays in France
There are a total of 11 public holidays in France (some of which are mentioned above).
On these dates, schools and businesses are closed and most French workers have the day off.
However, there’s only one holiday on which French workers are mandated to be paid. That holiday is Labor Day, which is celebrated on May 1.
Besides taking a well-deserved paid holiday, the French also celebrate by presenting their loved ones with lilies of the valley.
If one of these public holidays falls on a Thursday, most French people will extend their time off to create a four-day weekend.
This is such a commonly-accepted practice that the French have a name for it: faire le pont, which literally means “make the bridge.”
Here are all the French public holidays with the dates on which they fall:
- New Year’s Day (le Jour de l’An) — January 1
- Good Friday (vendredi saint) — the Friday before Easter (but this is only recognized in Alsace and Moselle/Lorraine)
- Easter Monday (Lundi de Pâques) — the Monday after Easter
- Labor Day (la Fête de Travail) — May 1
- Victory in Europe Day (la Fête de la Victoire) — May 8
- Ascension Day (Jour de l’Ascension) — 40 days after Easter
- Whit Monday (Lundi de Pentecôte) — the 7th Monday after Easter
- Bastille Day (la Fête Nationale) — July 14
- Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary (l’Assomption) — August 15
- All Saint’s Day (Toussaint) — November 1
- Armistice Day (Armistice de 1918) — November 11
- Christmas Day (Noël) — December 25
Vacations in France
Like their holiday celebrations, vacations are big deals to the French.
School vacation (known as les grandes vacances) typically takes place from the first week of July until September. However, the exact dates of les grandes vacances vary depending on what part of France you’re in.
France is divided into three distinct zones, each of which enjoys school vacation during slightly different weeks in the summer. This is to reduce the amount of traffic throughout France.
And it’s not just the kids who get a “great vacation.” Citizens of France are legally entitled to five weeks of paid vacation time every year.
Not surprisingly, most of them choose to take this time in the summer to be able to enjoy some time with their children.
So if you visit France in the summertime, you can expect life to be a lot slower—especially on the roads and public transport.
But it’s all in the true celebratory spirit of the French, which you can now enjoy too!
And there you have it—the complete list of holidays in French you need to plan and prepare for before taking a trip.
With this handy guide, get ready to celebrate and embrace all that French culture has to offer.
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