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FRENCH TRADITIONS

Oysters to firemen’s balls and la rentrée: The 25 seasons of the French year

Some countries have just four seasons, but those lucky enough to live in France have a dizzying array of different 'seasons' defined by food, drink, dress and festivals. Here is our guide to the real seasons of France.

Mushrooms, protests and oysters all have a season in France.
Mushrooms, protests and oysters all have a season in France. All photos: AFP

Let’s start with France’s real ‘new year’, the grand return to work and school in September.

La rentrée

Les grandes vacances are a big deal in France as the country takes its summer holiday, and this is followed by la rentrée (the return).

It’s when the schools start their new academic year, but also marks a general return to work for employees, while the government launches a new programme of legislation and even the literary world gets in on the act.

READ ALSO Why la rentrée is so much more than a new school year

Avoid driving on the final weekend before la rentrée unless you particularly enjoy sitting in traffic jams.

La vendange

Vineyard owners traditionally begin the harvesting of the grapes in September, although rising global temperatures mean that beginning the harvest in August is not unusual these days. 

Foire aux vins

Ahead of the wine harvest, shops clear their shelves for the new vintages with foires aux vins – wine sales. These are good places to pick up a few special bottles at bargain prices. 

Mushroom foraging season

As mushrooms come into season you will see heaped stalls at the market, but many French people also enjoy foraging for their own mushrooms. Fortunately, pharmacies offer a mushroom-checking service to ensure that your haul is safe to be eaten.

What you need to know for safe an enjoyable mushroom foraging in France

La chasse

If you live in the country, September is the time to be ready to duck as the hunting season begins.

Hunting in France largely involves shooting and hunters are not always the most scrupulous about health and safety, so it pays to be wary if you’re walking in the country when la chasse is out. The exact dates vary according to the region, but in general the hunting season runs from September to February.

Huge coats and scarves season

As soon as the temperatures begin to drop even a couple of degrees in September, the French dig out their big coats and scarves, even though the weather may still seem pretty mild to anyone who grew up in northern Europe or the northern states of the USA or Canada.

Toussaint

Halloween is not as a big a deal in France as in the USA, although it is gradually becoming more popular but November 1st is All Saints Day (Toussaint) and that is a public holiday. Schools also have a two-week holiday around this period.

Calendar season

With the end of the year in sight, calendars go on sale and many groups sell their own door-to-door to aid good causes. We recommend the pompiers (firefighters) calendar, purely in the interest of supporting a good cause, obviously.

Racelette/fondue season

Cold weather brings with it a variety of France’s heartier winter classics, in particular the delicious melted cheese dishes of raclette and fondue, which are traditionally only eaten as the temperatures fall.

6 of France’s best winter dishes made with melted cheese

Double holiday month

November is the month that always has two holidays – November 1st (Toussaint) and Armistice Day on November 11th (although whether you get a day off work depends on what day of the week the holidays fall on).

Vin chaud

Cold weather also means hot wine and the hot, spiced vin chaud is widely sold throughout the cold months in France, sometimes at special stalls or at Christmas markets but also in ordinary bars and cafés if you need a winter warmer.

Oyster season

Tradition (coming from a time before fridges were invented) dictates that oysters should only be eaten in months that have an ‘r’ in the name, which basically means winter.

Popular throughout the season they’re a really big deal at Christmas where they play a starring role in the traditional seafood banquet.

Christmas

If you really love Christmas, head to north-east France where the influence of neighbouring Germany ensures the best Christmas markets and traditions. Christmas festivals, markets and events exist across France, however, with lots of presents and special treats. Children get another two weeks off school.

New Year

The first day of a new year is a public holiday in France, but the event itself isn’t as much of a big party as you get in other countries, so don’t expect a wild night. Save that for July.

Galette des rois 

As the new year begins, boulangeries fill up with special cakes wearing gold crowns. These are the galettes des rois, traditionally eaten on January 6th to mark epiphany, along with a complicated ceremony to decide who will be lucky in the year ahead.

Galette des rois: Everything you need to know about France’s royal tart

Truffle season 

If you’re in south west France the ‘black diamond’ season runs from December to March as the black truffles particular to the region are harvested and sold off at specialist markets.

Pancakes

February sees La Chandeleur, the day when the French eat crêpes and indulge in some complicated rituals to bring luck for the year ahead (hey, everybody needs a bit of luck, right?)

La Chandeleur: The day the French go crazy over crêpes

Easter 

Easter marks a two-week holiday for French schools and a single day off for French workers – Easter Monday is a holiday in France but only workers in the Alsace-Lorraine region get Good Friday off, for reasons to do with war with Germany.

The day itself is marked with family dinners, extravagant cakes from the patisserie, lots of chocolate and a cute story about flying bells

Riots and lucky flowers

May 1st, the international workers’ day, is a public holiday in France, usually marked by big marches from trade unions and much smaller riots from the usual suspects.

If you’re not a fan of rioting you could always join in the other May Day tradition of buying a muguet (Lily-of-the-Valley) flower. These are sold across France in aid of various good causes and are said to bring good luck to the buyer.

May Day really means to the French

Another double public holiday month

May sees two public holidays, May 1st and the commemoration of VE Day on May 8th, although again whether you get extra time off work depends on the year.

Rosé season

As the temperatures begin to rise, the big coats are cast aside and suddenly the wine shops are full of rosé. A lightly chilled rosé wine is of course a classic summer drink for any occasion and is especially popular in Provence where many rosés are made.

Picnic season

Good weather also means picnics, which the French tend to take more seriously than other nations. If you’re invited to a picnic don’t think you can get away with bringing a ham sandwich and a couple of bags of crisps – think salads, a selection of good cheeses or charcuterie, fresh baguette, something from the patisserie to finish with and of course, wine.

Soft fruit as far as the eye can see 

Seasonality of fruit and vegetables is more strictly observed in France and as many soft fruits come into season in the summer months expect to see peaches, apricots, strawberries and cherries piled high at your local market once the harvests begin.

Firemen’s balls

July 14th marks France’s Fête nationale (known as Bastille Day in the anglophone world) which is a public holiday and also sees lots of military parades.

But the best bit is the Bals de pompiers (firemen’s balls) which France’s famously well-toned firefighters host at their stations for the general public.

What you need to know about Bastille Day

Everyone on the beach

July and August are the summer holiday months when French cities empty out and French people decamp to the beaches or the mountains. You can pretty much forget about getting much work done over the summer as most people will be away but you might enjoy the feeling of a strangely deserted Paris (apart from in the tourist spots).

The 8 signs that August has arrived in France

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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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