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CULTURE

La Chandeleur: The day the French get superstitious and go crazy over crepes

Find out how and why February 2nd can be the most crêpe-themed day of your life in France.

La Chandeleur: The day the French get superstitious and go crazy over crepes
It's the French pancake day. Photos: AFP

Coins on crêpes, flipping crêpes, and crêpes on top of the wardrobe. 

That’s what you can expect to see on Wednesday, February 2nd, as the French dig out their non-stick frying pans to celebrate La Chandeleur.

I’ve never heard of it before. What exactly is La Chandeleur?

It’s a religious holiday in France that’s been around since Roman times. Nowadays it mainly sees people eat a lot of crêpes, light candles and become very superstitious.

Why crêpes?

Well there’s a lot of history to this day – more on this later – but in short, it was a good way to use up the extra wheat ahead of the new harvest. And symbolically, it looks like a sun, so it was a reason to rejoice as the days started to get longer.

Why February 2nd?

The date actually marks when Jesus was presented at the temple in Jerusalem.

Before becoming a religious holiday, Chandeleur stemmed from several pagan traditions celebrating the fertility of the earth and the beginning of the end of winter.

It’s said that in the 5th century, Pope Gelasius I started the Festival des Chandelles on this date, a candlelit procession through the streets of Rome that culminated in placing the blessed candles in the churches. Gelasius linked this custom to crêpes by handing out galettes (a type of savoury crêpe) to poor pilgrims who arrived in Rome that day.

And how about the Chandeleur superstitions?

Well, in France’s Franche-Comté region, a proverb says that if someone can carry a Chandeleur candle all the way home from church without it going out, then that person will “certainly stay alive this year”.

A bit of a morbid superstition for a candle, you might think, but you’ve obviously not heard what the folks down in the Haute-Garonne department thought.

There, they said that if a candle’s wax only dripped on one side of the candle during a religious procession, it announced the death of a loved-one during the year.

They also said that “bewitched” people could only be cured by a soothsayer using a blessed altar candle on the day of the Chandeleur.

He would then draw various symbols on the ground, then mix soil from a graveyard with holy water, only to douse the floor with it together with a mix of poppy, fennel, and wild mustard.

Soothsaying is less popular than once it was.

I’ll stick to eating crêpes then.

There’s plenty of tradition surrounding the crêpe-making too, so if you want to do it the French way, listen up.

Firstly, it’s traditional to have them in the evening. And don’t forget the superstitions

It’s recommended to toss the crêpe in the pan with your right hand while holding a piece of gold in your left – for good luck of course.

Another old tradition also saw people putting the first crêpe in a drawer or on top of a wardrobe to attract prosperity for the coming year.

People often invite friends and family round for crêpes, but if you don’t want to share your crêpes you could always claim that you’re sticking to social distancing rules.

Are we done with superstitions?

Afraid not, we haven’t mentioned the weather yet – a crucial part of the day.

Tradition says that a rainy day means another 40 days of rain. Indeed, you might hear the French say “Quand il pleut pour la Chandeleur, il pleut pendant quarante jours“.

Other sayings suggest that a sunny day will bring more winter and misfortune, a clear day means winter is behind us, and a cloudy day means another 40 days of winter.

These three all sound better in French, where they rhyme. Here they are, in the same order:

Soleil de la Chandeleur, annonce hiver et malheur“, and “Quand la Chandeleur est claire, l’hiver est par derriere“, and “Chandeleur couverte, quarante jours de perte“.

Member comments

  1. Regarding the choice of February 2nd (Groundhog Day here in the U.S.), the Albanian language has two words for “winter,” dividing the season in half. And the division point occurs February 2nd. The notion is obviously very old.

  2. We lived for 20 years in Strasbourg but I only heard of the Chandeleur fête when we moved to Lyon. Clearly not an Alsatian fête!

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FRANCE EXPLAINED

Can France’s Constitution be changed to add the right to abortion?

In the wake of the American Supreme Court's decision to end abortion rights for women in the US, French politicians from the centre and the left say they will move to have the right to terminate pregnancy enshrined in France's Constitution - so how easy is it to amend the Constitution in France?

Can France's Constitution be changed to add the right to abortion?

France’s first Constitution came into force in 1791, written by the French Revolutionaries and promising liberté, egalité and fraternité.

Those values are still very much in evidence in France today (in fact they’re carved into every public building) but in 1791 medicine involved bleeding, social networks meant gossiping with your neighbours over the wall and wigs made out of horsehair were very fashionable – in short, things change.

And the French constitution changes with them.

In fact, even talking about ‘the’ constitution is a little misleading, since France has had 15 different constitutions between the French Revolution of 1789 and the adoption of the current constitution in 1958 – the birth of the Fifth Republic.

Since 1958, there have also been 24 revisions to the constitution. Introducing it, then-President Charles du Gaulle said “the rest is a matter for men,” (we’ll give him the benefit of the doubt and assume he meant people, since women did have the vote by then) in other words, he envisaged that it would be revised when necessary.

So the short answer is that constitutional change in France is possible – and there is significant precedent for it – but there are several steps involved. 

What does it take to change the Constitution?

Changing the constitution in France requires Presidential approval, plus the approval of both houses of parliament (the Assemblée nationale and the Senate) and then the approval of the final text by a three-fifths majority of two parliaments.

The other option is a referendum, but only after the two assemblies have voted in favour.

In short, it needs to be an issue that has wide and cross-party support.

Articles 11 and 89 of the French constitution cover changes.

Article 11 allows for a constitutional referendum, which is a tool that is intended to give the people decisive power in legislative matters. A high-profile example of this is when former French President Charles de Gaulle employed Article 11 to to introduce the appointment of the president by direct universal suffrage in 1962, which modified then-Article 6 of the constitution. However, this method of changing the constitution is controversial, and can technically only be done for specific themes: the organisation of public authorities, economic and social reforms, or to ratify international treaties. Technically it does not require the referendum to first pass through parliament.

What did previous reforms cover?

Looking at the reforms in the last 60 years, the scope has been pretty wide.

The French Constitution was substantially amended to “take account of these new developments, needs, ideas, and values.” The goal of these amendments was to better “define and control the power of the executive, to increase the powers of Parliament, and to better assure the protection of fundamental rights.”

About 47 articles were amended or drafted, and some new provisions came into force immediately, such as the limitation to two consecutive presidential terms. 

Examples range from the 2000 Constitutional referendum where French people voted to shorten the presidential term from seven years to five years; the 2007 constitutional amendment to abolish the death penalty, and several amendments to adapt the French constitution to make it compatible with EU treaties such as the Maastricht and Lisbon treaties. 

Is a constitutional change more powerful than a law?

The most recent call for change – sparked by events in America – is to add the right to abortion into the constitution.

The right to abortion in France is protected by the “Veil law,” which was passed in 1975, so is there a benefit to adding it to the constitution as well?

Simply being a law does not give a definitive and irrevocable right to abortion in France and the law can be changed – parliament recently elongated the legal time limit for performing an abortion up to 14 weeks, which shows that under different circumstances lawmakers would be free to remove these provisions and chip away at the “Veil law.”

READ MORE: EXPLAINED: What is the law on abortion in France?

If a majority of deputés agreed on a text banning abortion it could become law (although there are other procedural steps to pass through and such a decision would be challenged in the courts). Whereas, as outlined above, changing a constitutional right requires a much broader consensus from across the political spectrum.

In short, enshrining the right in the constitution would provide further protection for the right in the event of a future government that is anti-abortion – Marine Le Pen, who came second in the recent residential election has always been very vague on whether she supports the right to abortion, while many in her party are openly anti-abortion.

Why has France had so many constitutions?

The simple answer is that France’s many constitutions have reflected the shift between authoritarianism and republicanism throughout French history.

France is currently on its Fifth Republic, and its history since the French Revolution has also involved several periods of restoration of the monarchy and a brief period under an Emperor – all of these different regimes have required their own constitution.

READ MORE: Explained: What is the French Fifth Republic?

During the tumultuous revolutionary period, France had several constitutions, culminating in “Constitution of the Year XII,” which established the First French Empire. When the monarchy was restored, a new constitution codified the attempt to establish a constitutional monarchy.

France’s current constitution ushered in the Fifth Republic, largely at the behest of General Charles de Gaulle who was called to power during the May 1958 political crisis. One of the defining characteristics of the Fifth Republic is that it is a democracy, though the executive (the president) holds a significant amount of power.

So far, the Fifth Republic’s constitution has lasted 64 years, and should the Fifth Republic last until 2028, it will be the longest Republic – even longer than the Third Republic which endured from 1870 to 1940.

Could France have a new constitution in the future?

It is very possible. Former left-wing presidential candidate, Jean-Luc Mélenchon has proposed a Sixth Republic, which, according to France 24, would involve “proportional representation to make parliament more representative; giving citizens the power to initiate legislation and referendums, and to revoke their representatives; and scrapping special powers that currently give France’s executive right to pass legislation without parliamentary approval.” 

Mélenchon failed in his 2022 presidential bid however, so the Fifth Republic is still – for the moment – on course to beat that longevity record.

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