Now that I’m married to my charming Frenchman, I’ve been exposed to a whole new way to celebrate the end of the year.
Sending Holiday cards
In my family we always sent Christmas cards to the extended family, all our friends and some professional contacts, and they had to arrive at the person’s house before Christmas!
While Christmas cards can be found in France, it is not common to send them because most people send a card in January to wish the extended family a Happy New Year. Sometimes the New Year’s card will also say “Joyeux Noël” (“Merry Christmas”), but not necessarily. Recently, an email with a photo or written family update has started to replace the paper card tradition.
Special Family Calls for New Year’s
In the US, on New Year’s Day, right after midnight, you mostly celebrate with the friends you’ve surrounded yourself with, but you might wish your immediate family and close friends well with a quick text message.
However in France, right after midnight, people make calls to every member of their immediate family and to their closest friends. Some of these calls may be made during daytime on the 1st, but nonetheless that first hour after midnight is a very busy time for phone companies in France!
Last year I was very surprised when the French people I was surrounded by all turned to their phones to have delightful calls with their dear ones. While it’s not my tradition, it also would have been odd to call my American friends and family, since they all had another 6-12 hours before the strike of midnight in their respective time zones. I sat quietly drinking my champagne grinning politely and busied myself looking at Facebook.
New Year’s Greetings in December
In the US, near the end of December, any random interaction with a stranger (including shopkeepers) could include “Happy New Year” as part of their goodbye. Work colleagues who will not see you until January will wish you a Happy New Year, and some will jokingly say “See you next year!”
Be careful in France though! It’s a big faux pas to wish someone a happy new year before the new year has begun! So, instead of wishing them Happy New Year, you can say, “Bonne fin d’année” (happy end of the year) instead, right up until midnight of the 31st.
New Year’s Greetings in January
From my experience in the US, you might wish people a Happy New Year in January, but it is casual and not necessary at all. It is very common, though to ask how people’s vacations were or how they rang in the New Year.
In France the New Year’s greeting is a big deal to everyone in France! When you see professional contacts, acquaintances, family and friends for the first time in the New Year, you absolutely must wish them “bonne année” (Happy New Year) and you might even be faced with les bises (the cheek kisses they use as a greeting).
If your first contact with someone after the New Year is by email, you must wish them a happy new year right away at the beginning of your email. You should enthusiastically wish them a wonderful year ahead. A formal way to say this is: “Je vous souhaite mes meilleurs vœux pour l’année 2017 !”
All of these New Year’s greetings are taken very seriously and shared with great joy and smiles. If by some freak accident someone forgets to wish you a Happy New Year, they might apologize sincerely and make a happy to-do about wishing you your best in the New Year.
The special cake to eat in January
Starting a few days before Christmas, and continuing throughout the entire month of January, French bakers and supermarkets sell a very specific pastry called the galette des rois. The tradition was originally connected to the Christian event of Epiphany, when the three wise men arrived in Bethlehem, which is celebrated every year on January 6th. While the cake may have had a religious significance in years past, today galettes are eaten throughout the month of January by coworkers, family, and friends, simply for the fun of eating one.
Inside the pastry there is a little ceramic character called the fève (a Disney character, or a teddy bear or what have you), and the person who finds it in his or her piece of cake is the “king of the feast.” The word fève actually means “bean” because originally this little prize was actually a real bean!
In my husband’s family, there is a special method to make sure the “king” is chosen randomly. The youngest person at the table has to go under the table (or hide his or her eyes) while someone else cuts the pieces. After each piece is cut, the youngest announces which person at the table will eat that piece, and thus the pieces of cake are randomly distributed around the table. My husband, who loves the taste of the cake when it is made with almond flavor, has a propensity for always finding the fève in his slice!