As a teenager I am going through the final processes of completing my final exams in the subject of French. Sitting one of the oral components today, four days from the school Easter holidays has made me interested in finding out how Easter is celebrated across the water. With the very definite Easter traditions established in the country and practised wholeheartedly by my family (mmm... chocolate!) I really wanted to have a look at what my French counterparts would be looking forward to this Easter!
Myths and Legends.
France is a country comprised almost completely of Roman-Catholics, and therefore most, if not all, of the villages and towns in France have churches with church bells. French children are taught that the church bells fly to the Vatican in Rome on Good Friday, carrying with them all the grief and misery of those who mourn the death of Christ. For Friday and Saturday, no bells are rung in the entirety of France. Then, on Easter Sunday, the bells return, bringing with them the joy of Christ's rebirth and hundreds of chocolate eggs, that are hidden in gardens or rooms of the house for the children to find. When the church bells ring on Easter day, children all over France will hurry to the area set aside for egg hunts to see how many they can find, and the rest of the morning is taken up with celebrating the return of Christ with family and chocolate!
The French have many festivities that surround Easter time, starting 40 days before Easter with the special Mardi Gras carnival. Mardi Gras literally means “Fat Tuesday” and is the equivalent to our Shrove Tuesday or Pancake Day. All over France there are huge carnivals on the day of Mardi Gras, with the largest and oldest being in Nice. The carnival is amazing, and attracts around 1.2 million visitors a year. After Mardi Gras is La Carême, our Lent. The French use this time to prepare for Easter week, and also to fast.
The first of April, April Fools Day, usually falls around Easter time, and the children in France have a traditional trick they play on the adults. The idea is to place a paper fish upon the back of an unsuspecting adult, before crying “Poisson d'Avril! (April Fish!)” and running away laughing. It is a game that has been played a long time, perhaps originating from the trick of sending somebody in the household to market for an out-of-season fish, and laughing at their puzzlement when it is nowhere to be found. The true origins, however, are lost in time.
The week before Easter is known as “The Holy Week” and starts on the Sunday before Easter. This is Palm Sunday, the day when the French celebrate the arrival of Christ in Jerusalem by taking branches from trees, decorating them and taking them to church to be blessed. For those that don't have access or time to gather and decorate their own branches, people collect and decorate branches for sale outside of churches, so that everyone can be part of the Easter spirit.
The entire week leading up to Easter is filled with parades and processions culminating in the wonderful family occasion that is Easter Day. The day is taken up with Easter egg hunts, and there is a large cooked lunch in the middle of the day. The day after Easter, there is another festival in Bessières where a large omelette is prepared with around 10,000 eggs!
That last festival has bought me neatly onto my next topic: food. Each festival has different types of food, with food that it is traditional and forbidden to eat.
Starting with Mardi Gras, the day when all the fat, sugar and butter in the house is used up in making pancakes and mini doughnuts, which are eaten and enjoyed by the entire family to prepare for Lent. The doughnuts, known as les beignets, are often eaten smothered in sugar, however they can be cooked with vegetables in the batter to create a savoury snack.
On Good Friday, a majority of French families refrain from eating meat, preferring fish and vegetable dishes. On Easter Sunday itself, many people eat the traditional leg of lamb, or gigot l'agneau. Another popular dish is pork. They also have a special cake called La Gâche de Pâques, which has a texture a lot like a brioche. Almost the entire day is spent preparing the many delicious dishes, before the entire family sit down together to eat.
Of course, the most important food of Easter in many countries is the chocolate, and this is just as true of France! French sweet shops show marvellous Easter displays, with chocolate shapes and outstanding scenery. The French don't just eat chocolate eggs; French children will enjoy chocolate fish, chocolate chickens and chocolate bells. The chocolate fish and bells have Catholic origins, as well as being symbolic of the Poisson d'Avril and the Flying Bell's story. All the eggs are brightly decorated, and the fish, chickens and bells are often a colourful swirly combination of white and dark chocolate.
Fun and Games!
Easter is a great time for children, and there are many traditional games that are played to celebrate Easter.
The most famous of these is played by both adults and children, and is quite simple. Each contestant takes an unboiled chickens egg and rolls it down a small hill. The first egg to reach the bottom undamaged is the winning egg, however I don't believe there is a prize. It is symbolic of the stone rolling away from Christ's tomb.
Another game, this one played specifically by children, is one of throwing and catching raw eggs. The first person to drop their egg not only gets covered in gunky goo, but also has to share some of their Easter candy with the other contestants! That's one game I wouldn't like to lose!
Not really a game, yet I think it still comes under this heading is the famous Easter Egg Hunt! The bells deliver chocolate goodies of all types, not just eggs, and occasionally they would leave trick eggs that weren't chocolate at all! Children would also leave little nests in the hope that the bells would leave the goodies in them, making their job finding them a lot easier!
Easter in France is a fascinating time of year, and I hope I will be fortunate to witness one of the festivals one day! Thank you for reading, I hope you enjoyed it as much as I enjoyed writing it!