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Flying bells and giant omelettes: Eight ways the French celebrate Easter

Food, drink, family gatherings and egg hunts all feature at Easter in France - plus some more unusual traditions.

Flying bells and giant omelettes: Eight ways the French celebrate Easter
The Bessieres giant Easter omelette. Photo: AFP

Easter is of course a religious holiday marking the resurrection of Jesus, and many of France’s traditions during Pâques stem from old Catholic customs. 

Like many other historically Catholic countries, France is a big fan of Easter. All around the country, you’ll see shopfronts and bakeries decorated with chocolate rabbits, chickens, bells, and other signs of spring. 

The Easter Bunny isn’t quite as popular as he/she is in the UK or US, but the lapin de pâques or the lievre (hare) de pâques does make an appearance, especially in the east of the country, where traditionally he brought eggs to children at Easter.

Many other delightful and sometimes bizarre traditions mark the holiday in France. Here are a few of them.

Flying bells

Traditionally it is the cloches volantes, or “flying bells” that have brought treats for children.

READ ALSO How to have a traditional French Easter

French Catholic tradition says that on Good Friday (the Friday before Easter), all church bells in France sprout wings and fly down to the Vatican to be blessed by the Pope.

So no church bells ring between Friday and Easter Sunday morning, to commemorate the death of Jesus (and because they’re all in Rome, obviously).

After their getaway to Italy, the bells return to France laden with goodies for well-behaved children — namely chocolate eggs. And then during the church services of Easter Sunday, the bells go crazy once again in celebration of Jesus’ resurrection. 

A 15,000-egg omelette

It’s not everyday that you see an omelette large enough to feed an army. But in the town of Bessières in south west France, they certainly don’t do omelette half measures.

Every year on Easter Monday, around 10,000 people gather to make a giant omelette, made with 15,000 fresh eggs, a four-metre pan, 40 cooks, and extra long stirrers.

This rather bizarre tradition is in recognition of when Napoleon Bonaparte and his army once spent the night near the town. After eating (and evidently very much enjoying) an omelette made by a local innkeeper, Napoleon ordered the townspeople to gather all the eggs in the village to make a gigantic omelette for his army to eat the next day. 

Crucifixion reenactments

This religious ceremony on the island of Corsica entails a reenactment of the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. The evening begins with a candlelit procession through the town, led by a “penitent” wearing a hooded robe and a heavy cross and chain.

He completes a nearly two-kilometre tour of the city, during which he must fall three times during this journey, as Christ did.

The penitent’s identity is a mystery to everyone except the priest, and each year there is a long list of volunteers hoping to be chosen for the honour.

Egg battles

Although France loves its chocolate eggs, there are some traditional Easter games that involve the real kind. An old Easter custom in France is to hold an egg-rolling competition, in which raw eggs are rolled down a gentle slope.

The surviving egg is dubbed the “victory egg”, symbolising the stone being rolled away from the tomb of Christ.

Another Easter egg game consists of children tossing raw eggs into the air. The first to break his or her egg is a loser and must give some candy to another child. Although in some versions of the game, there is no such tragic penalty. 

Chasse aux oeufs

Children in many countries hunt for eggs on Easter Sunday, but some lucky little ones get to hunt for their treats in the gardens of a French castle. One of the most famous chasses aux oeufs in France takes place at the Chateaux Vaux le Vicomte near Paris.

As well as a huge number of chocolate eggs hidden around the gardens, one lucky hunter will find a one-meter tall chocolate sculpture. To mix things up, this tasty sculpture is not of a bunny or an egg as you might think, but instead a squirrel.

Alsatian Easter markets

In the eastern region of Alsace, they take Easter celebrations a step further with lively Easter markets and events.

In a region also famous for its expansive Christmas Markets, cities like Colmar celebrate the holiday and the beginning of spring with live music, art exhibitions, and sales of local artisan and gastronomic products. 

Chocolate art

France has some world-famous chocolatiers, and they certainly don’t hold back at Easter.

If you’re lucky enough to be in France at this time of year, keep an eye out in the chocolate shops for their magnificent creations. You’ll see beautifully detailed sculptures of eggs, fish, chickens, rabbits, and more. They’re almost too beautiful too eat… almost. 

Working on Good Friday

One Easter perk the French don’t have is a free day on Good Friday.

Workers in most other Christian nations don’t have to work on this day, which marks the crucifixion and death of Jesus. But even though the French still have plenty of other public holidays to mark Christian religious events, Good Friday is not one of them.

The exception is the lucky residents of Alsace, the only French people who get to stay home this day.

READ ALSO Why is Good Friday not a holiday in (most of) France? 

But, Easter Monday is a public holiday, so make the most of it. 

By Katie Warren

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FRANCE EXPLAINED

Bears, lemons and pig-squealing: 9 of France’s strangest festivals

From pig-squealing competitions to men in bear suits, these are some of France's most bizarre traditional festivals.

Bears, lemons and pig-squealing: 9 of France's strangest festivals

France is home to hundreds of festivals every year, from small local celebrations to internationally renowned events such as the Strasbourg Christmas market, Nice Carnival and the Lyon Fête des lumières. But there are other festivals that are, frankly, a bit strange.

Here are France’s 9 strangest festivals;

Fête du Citron

When life gives you lemons…create a festival involving over 140 tonnes of citrus fruit and invite about 230,000 visitors annually? That is pretty much what Menton, a town on the French Riviera did in 1928 when a hotelier in the region wished to increase tourism. Known for its delicious lemons, Menton has grown the fruit since the 1500s and shipped them all over the world.

The hotelier’s idea, which came into fruition in 1934 ended up becoming a world recognised three-week festival, where the city and its garden show off giant sculptures – some over 10 metres in height – made of lemons and oranges, amid parades, shows, concerts and art exhibits. 

Fête de l’Ours

Recently added to the UNESCO ‘intangible heritage’ list, the Bear Festival takes place in the Pyrenees, along the border with Spain. Stretching all the way back to the Middle Ages, the festival has some surprising components: it involves a man dressing up as a bear and chasing humans.

At the end of the festival, the humans catch the man in the bear costume, and ‘skin’ him (take off his bear costume) so he can become a person again.

READ MORE: What you need to know about the French bear festival recognised by Unesco

It is intended to be a celebration of the end of winter, and while it was practised in all villages in the region up to the 19th century, it still occurs in three villages in the Haut Vallespir, located in the Pyrenees-Orientales département.

La Pourcailhade (Festival of the Pig)

Every year the small village of Trie-sur-Baise in the Pyrenees hosts a unique festival dedicated to pigs. Throughout the celebration, you’ll see pigs in various forms – from piglets to pork and people in pig costumes. The Pourcailhade is known for one moment in particular: the pig squealing competition, where participants get on stage and attempt to give their best pig imitation. 

The festival first started in 1975, at the former home to Europe’s largest pig market, and it usually takes place in August, though the festival had a six-year pause and made its comeback in 2018.

There are also piglet races and competitions to see who has the best pig-costume, but the cri de cochon (pig squeal) contest is something to behold, as shown below.

The Underwear festival

Captain Underpants would fit right in to this village in the south of France, located the Lot département.

Started in 2016, this festival is meant to pay homage to a reporter who made the little town of Montcuq famous across France during a nationally televised segment in 1976. During the celebration, participants can compete with one another in games from sumo-wrestling to a race (in underwear).

The sausage and pickle festival

Andouillette might be one of the French foods that foreigners find least appealing, but its cousin, andouille, is perhaps a bit more appealing…though possibly not enough to join a contest for the fastest andouille and pickle eater.

READ MORE: Readers reveal: The worst food in France

Every August 15th, the village of Bèze, located in eastern France, hosts a festival celebrating the sausage. One key moment is the competition to see who can swallow one kilo and 200 grams of tripe as quickly as possible, all with their hands tied behind their backs. The festival also crowns a queen of andouille and a king of the pickles, and the proceeds go toward helping children with disabilities.

This is not the only andouille centred festival in France. Another one, the “Fête de l’Andouille” which takes place in northern France involves a very important step where the crowd tries to catch pieces of andouille thrown at them from a balcony.

Fêtes de Bayonne

Known as France’s wildest festival, the Fêtes de Bayonne are a five-day party celebrating Basque cultural identity, and they take place in Bayonne every summer. 

Starting in 1932, the Fêtes can be controversial because they have traditionally involved bull fighting, or corrida, which some French lawmakers have been working to outlaw.

READ MORE: Could bullfighting finally be banned in France?

Aside from the bulls, the festival consists of lots of singing, dancing, sports competitions, traditional dress, and crowd-surfing. 

Festival-goers wear red and white outfits to symbolise the northern Spanish province of Pamplona, though some purists wear the colours of Bayonne: white and blue.

One of the most notable parts of the festival is the paquito chocolatero – a type of crowd-surfing where a person is passed over a chain of people sitting on the ground. The Fêtes de Bayonne have beaten the world record for the longest chain of people several times, most recently in 2022, a chain of 8,000 people passed one person over the crowd.

The Historic Ladle Festival

In practice since 1884, the Fête Historique des Louches, this tradition takes place in northern France in Comines. The legend goes that the Lord of the town was imprisoned in a high tower, and to show his people where he was being held, he apparently threw a wooden spoon with his coat of arms from the tower.

The festival, which takes place each October, has plenty of other activities, including a pageant, but the most noteworthy part is the parade where wooden spoons are hurled at the crowd. The goal is to walk away with the most ladles, proving to everyone that you truly deserve to live in the town of Comines.

The Gayant Festival

Close to the border with Belgium, the city of Douai in France’s north engages in a festival to celebrate three large statues, representing a giant family. Called the “Gayants” – they symbolise the city and according to folklore, they helped the villagers survive battles, invasions and wars over the centuries. The procession involves a parade where the giant statues are taken around the city.

This is another French festival that was registered in the “intangible cultural heritage” list with UNESCO, specifically under the category of “Giants and processional dragons of Belgium and France.”

Festival of the Unusual Taking place in Finistère, on France’s western coast, this festival has been going on for almost three decades.

Every July 14th, villagers come to demonstrate one of their “unusual talents,” whether that be throwing an egg or demonstrating how long they can peel an apple. One highlight of the festival is the race – where contestants try to go faster than one another on bed frames with rollers. Some contestants use the festival as a way to show their prowess in the Guinness Book of World Records – one village member broke the record in bending beer caps at the festival.

While France’s many festivals might seem a bit odd to foreigners, they still pale in comparison to some festivals taking place in the anglophone world, such as the Cooper’s Hill Cheese-Rolling event in the UK, where participants race down a 180 metre hill to try to catch the Gloucester cheese rolling down it. 

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