Wednesday, January 18, 2023

Some French customs ... Noël and New Year

Already half of January is gone. I have to hurry up and send my good year wishes to my French family and friends before the end of the month. In France it is the custom to send cards of Bonne Année (New Year) meilleurs voeux (best wishes) during the month of January (not in December because that is considered bad luck.) The wishes have to be sent or given between the start of the New Year and January 31st. Along the years I have received many cards. I'll show some of them below. (Click on collage to enlarge.)
Very few Christmas cards are sent in France, it is not the tradition. They are very hard to find anyhow. Also I have never received cards from France with photographs of the senders like it is done here, more and more. Here I even received some from US businesses, such as from the man trimming my front yard grass (see below.)
My Muslim friends have sent me New Year greeting cards, too.
Usually most holiday stamps in France are just for a happy New Year and best wishes. Those stamps are not religious.
The French post office also issues Chinese lunar New Year stamps.
Another custom from the US which is not followed in France is the outdoor lightning and decorations on people's houses; however, most cities in France are decorarted during the holidays. (Photos below of Paris, Rennes, Strasbourg, Nimes and a town in Brittany.) Also in France you don't usually hear Christmas carols in the shops as you do here.
As you can see in the photos above there are many Christmas trees. Actually in France there are Christmas trees everywhere - from the largest cities to the smalles villages, and in city halls, church steps, public spaces, train stations, and of course shops. Below are some large Paris department stores during the holidays. Top left is Le Printemps, next to La Samaritaine, below left is the Galeries Lafayette next to the Bon Marché. (France is one of the least religious countries in Europe, with only 6% attending church, at least once a month.)
The reason is that Christmas trees are not considered religious in France. They are not called Christmas trees in French but arbres or sapins de Noël (trees or pine trees of Noël.) Noël is not a Christian word, but its origin is from the Gaulish language, even though the Catholic church tried hard to say it is from the Latin (!) You may not know too much about the Gaul Empire. In France, in my first grade elementary class, I learned that it was the origins of France.
We were always taught about "nos ancêtres les Gaulois" (our ancestors, the Gauls.) That saying is quite popular in France. Below is a map of the ancient Gaul Empire and a Paris restaurant named after it.
There are many books on that subject as well.
The Gauls became so popular in France that a brand of cigarettes is called "Gauloises." They came in different flavor, dark, blonde, light and menthol. I knew them well because my father was a chain smoker of the strong dark ones (he died of lung cancer at 65 years old.) Now it is written on the pack: "Nuit gravement à la santé" /seriously damages health. They were manufactured in France but young people don't smoke as much now or prefer American tasting, sweeter cigarettes. Since 2017 they have been made in Poland; however, the "menthol" flavor has been banned since 2020. Cigarettes are only sold in tobacco stores in France. Malboro are the most popular and cost 10 Euros a pack of 20 cigarettes ($11.)
The Gaulish warriors were fierce, tall and muscled. They excelled on the battlefield, terrifying their enemies with their famous "sacred fury." The Greek historian Diodorus Siculus (between 30 and 60 BC) described the Gaul warriors thus: "The Gauls are tall of body, with skin moist and white. Their hair is blond not only by nature but also because they practice to increase artificially the peculiar nature of their coloring. Some of them shave off their beards, but others let them grow moderately. The nobles shave their cheeks, but let their mustaches grow freely so as to cover their mouths. They dress in astonishing clothes, tunics dyed in all colors ..." (Interesting to note that the Gauls/French already bleached their hair 600 years BC!.)
Vercingetorix was the Gaulish chieftain that we knew so well when were were children. He is considered the first national hero of France for his defense of our land. It is said even his enemies greatly admired him and feared him. He was tall, handsome, a charismatic leader and an inspiring public speaker. Below are two paintings about Vercingetorix and two French stamps commemorating him.
Napoleon III (1808-1873) a nephew of Napoleon I, greatly admired Vercingetorix. He paid with his own funds to have a statue of the warrior erected in central France, in Alesia, Burgundy (a site of a Gaulish battle.) The monument sculpted by Aimé Millet, erected in 1865, is in bronze and 22 feet tall. At its base is written: "La Gaulle unie, formant une seule nation, animée d’un même esprit, peut défier l’univers." (Gaul united, forming a single nation, animated by a common spirit, can defy the universe.") There are other statues of Vercingetorix, one of him riding a horse and made by Frédéric Bartholdi (1834-1904) the French sculptor who designed the Statue of Liberty, now in the USA.
Napoleon III insisted that all schools curriculum should start with the history of Gaul. He was the first President of France from 1848 to 1852 and the last monarch of France as Emperor of the French from 1852 to 1870, also the last monarch to rule over France. The Gauls spoke the Gaulish language which became extinct by 1000 AD. Quite a large number of French words came from Gaulish, such as brave/bragos, brosse (brush)/bruskia, cheval (horse)/caballos, manteau (coat)/mantion, sapin (pine tree)/sappos. And we are back to our fir tree with Noël coming from the Gaulish "noio" (nouveau-new) and "hel" (soleil-sun.) More than a thousand years before the Christian era the Gauls had a pagan festival around our December 24, at the time of the winter solstice. It lasted for a week or so. The spruce, tree of birth and symbol of life, was linked to this festival to celebrate the rebirth of the Sun. It was then decorated with fruits, fllowers and wheat. This evergreen tree was a picea abies, or European spruce, shown below around a lake in France and on a botanical plate of 1885.
In 336, under Emperor Constantine, the Church in Rome chose December 25 to celebrate the birth of Christ. It may have been a PR gesture for dethroning the centuries old solstice pagan festival which took place on Dec. 24/25 and replacing it with a Christian referent. It was also to take advantage of this well established pagan festival; people were given a Christian alternative to the pagan festivities. Eventually many of the pagan symbols and actions were re-interpreted in ways acceptable to Christian faith and practice, including the date and name of the festival. All countries switched to these Christian names but not Gaul/France. France kept the name of Noël from the ancient pagan festival and the name of its tree, the only country to do so. Till now they refer to it as Noël and le sapin de Noël (the pine tree of Noël.)
Some old French tree of Noël traditions: in 1521, in Sélestat in Alsace (the town where my grandfather was born and raised and under the German Empire at that time,) a fir tree in the city square was decorated with paper flowers and sweets. Later they added candles (walnut shells filled with oil) chocolate and garlands. The city of Sélestat is celebrated as the capital of the arbre de Noël in France, tradition born there is 1521. In 1738, Marie Leszczynska (daughter of the King of Poland,) wife of Louis XV, King of France, had a Christmas tree installed in the Palace of Versailles, helping to spread the fashion for the decorated tree throughout France. (Photos below: Sélestat cradle of Noël, a stamp, Marie Queen of France, and Sélestat in summer.)
But another country has a secular holiday fir tree - they call it Yolka. After the Russian Revolution, Christmas celebrations were banished in the Soviet Union. In 1935 they replaced it with a secular New Year holiday with a New Year fir tree called "yolka." There were celebrations and gift giving. The Kremlin gave a special New Year party for children with clowns, gifts, dances, songs and more (and I think they still do.)
New Year with decorated yolka tree, gift exchanging, celebrations and singing have survived till now in Russia and former Soviet Union states. Large yolka fir trees can be found in many cities, such as Grozny the capital of Chechnya (mostly Muslim,) Kazan, Ulan-Ude in East Siberia and many more.
So it is now that everyone in Russia and former USSR states celebrate New Year with a decorated fir tree, Christians, Muslims, Jews, Buddhists, Atheists, Agnostics, Sikhs, Hindus, etc. It is not considered a Christmas tree, just like in France, it is a universal tree of light, fun, goodwill and hope. During the Soviet years the Jews were not allowed to celebrate Passover, Hanukkah or any other religous holidays, but they could celebrate Novy God (New Year) with a decorated yulka tree - and they all did. After millions of Jews emigrated from the Soviet Union they continued their yolka tradition and passed it to their children. However, many Jews in Israel cannot accept the concept of a secular decorated fir tree and have been trying to stop that tradition. I even read in international newspapers that some towns in Israel a couple of weeks ago vandalized and or burnt yolka trees. It is quite sad to me that some people leaving their country to escape persecution are not fully accepted in their new country either. At least they can come to France and have a yolka tree (but as in the US, there is anti-Semitism in France, too, alas.)
As I said above the concept of sending Christmas cards is not followed in France. Since living in the US I have changed my customs/traditions and I do send Christmas cards. I also send New Year cards to France (I feel one should not be rigid but flexible with traditions.) In France you should not say "Happy New Year" before the 1st of January - it is considered back luck. But after the first you may wish it to everyone you meet, write it on every email or text! Another French tradition started by General de Gaulle in 1960 is the New Year's Eve presidential message (like the Christmas message of the late UK Queen and new King.) On television, at 8 pm the President of the French Republic speaks to the nation from the official Elysée Palace and gives his "Presidential Greetings." This year President Macron in a 20-minute statement addressed the French people with "wishes for unity, boldness and collective ambition." My wish for you is to have a great year. May the next 12 months be synonymous with joy, laughter and good health.


DJan said...

What a wonderful and informative post this is! I feel very blessed to have learned so much from it, and that I can go back another day and re-read it and take even more from it! Thank you, dear friend, for your scholarly missive. :-)

Lowcarb team member said...

I did enjoy reading your post.
Thank you for taking time to share your cards, photographs and the interesting information. I certainly appreciated it.

My good wishes for 2023.

All the best Jan

Arti said...

Again, thanks for another in-depth post on an interesting topic. Glad to see you mention the coming Chinese New Year of the Rabbit. Having lived in Canada many more years than my birthplace of Hong Kong, we usually just have a family dinner on this occasion. This year we're having one on New Year's Eve (Jan. 21) and at a restaurant which owner is from Croatia... not Chinese food I'm afraid. :)

Mae Travels said...

Your description of French Christmas and New Year’s traditions is very fascinating. I experienced some of these customs when I was in France for long stays a couple of times. I have also enjoyed the French custom of a lavish New Year’s Eve meal ending with champagne at midnignt!

Just one quibble: the sale of the Louisiana territory was by Napoleon I, and was during the Presidency of Thomas Jefferson. Just as French children learn of the Gauls, American children learn — or at least they used to learn — about the Louisiana Purchase and its impact on the very young country. This expansion of the frontier had many consequences.

(From Wikipedia: “ The Louisiana Purchase was the acquisition of the territory of Louisiana by the United States from the French First Republic in 1803. In return for fifteen million dollars, or approximately eighteen dollars per square mile, the United States nominally acquired a total of 828,000 sq mi in Middle America.?)

It’s great that you are back to the blog!

best… mae at

Vagabonde said...

Thanks Mae to correct me on the Louisiana Purchase, I was getting lost on my Napoleons. I studied this so long ago and the emphasis was more on French history. I'll go and take it out.

David said...

Hi Vagabonde, Very interesting history of Christmas, New Year celebrations, customs and traditions shared among various religious groups in France and in other parts of Europe and western Asia. I had no idea that only 6% of the French population attends church on any sort of a regular basis...a bit stunning actually as I would have guessed a much higher number. As for racial and religious bias and discrimination, its everywhere and its been made much worse through the misuse of social media. As for the old classic cars, I have 2 more posts coming up with even more of them. Take Care, Big Daddy Dave

David said...

Hi Again Vagabonde, A footnote to my earlier comments. FYI, I am a stamp collector (start to about 1970) and I have hundreds of French stamps. I especially like the stamps issued for the former French colonies. Take Care, Big Daddy Dave

Nadezda said...

I was interested in the ancestors of the French, the Gauls. I never knew about this story. Vagabonde. I always learn something new from your posts. Christmas cards that are sent out throughout January are a good tradition. They are beautiful. Thanks for such interesting information.

Ginnie said...

The way you do your research on these subjects (like Christmas, New Years, Noel, etc.) always blows my mind, Vagabonde. Seriously. It's an education to visit you every time I come!!! Thank you.

Jenny Woolf said...

There is lots to think about in this post! I believe the French are quite resolute in maintaining the non religious revolutionary attitude to religion in the public sphere. My French friends seem to enjoy 6 January festivities - the same is the case in Spain and in Germany I seem to recall they celebrate St Nicholas in early December with toys in the shoes. I never thought the French would stop that constant smoking of Gauloises. Of course not everyone did but, it was such a noticeable thing the minute you got to France, that distinctive smell wafting around cafes. happy new year to you!

Jenn Jilks said...

These are so lovely!

Cloudia said...

Thank you for this informative
And companionable post!

Rajani Rehana said...

Beautiful blog

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