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France Explained For Members

Why isn't January 6th a public holiday in France?

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Why isn't January 6th a public holiday in France?
A Galette des Rois (French Epiphany cake). Photo by Kenzo TRIBOUILLARD / AFP

It's a massive nationwide party in neighbouring Spain, while Italy, Portugal and several Latin American countries get an extra day off work - so what happens in France on the Festival of Epiphany?

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January 6th marks the Christian festival of Epiphany when the Three Kings (or Three Wise Men) reached the baby Jesus in Bethlehem and handed over their gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.

It's an important day in the Christian calendar and several Catholic countries - including Italy, Spain and Portugal, have a public holiday on the day.

In fact in Spain, the Día de los Reyes is a much bigger deal than Christmas - towns hold parades and carnivals, children get presents delivered by the kings (not by Santa) and the country generally stops and has a party.

So why doesn't France take a day off to celebrate the Three Kings?

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Is it because France is a secular country, we hear you ask? Well no, because despite secularism (laïcité) being coded into law, France actually gets several days off for Catholic festivals, including the comparatively obscure Ascension and Assumption.

In fact it has to do with a man named Cardinal Caprara, who spent the latter part of his life in Paris as a papal envoy - and who in 1802 issued a decree stating that Epiphany could be celebrated on the first Sunday in January, if people were unable to take the day off and celebrate on January 6th.

France has been doing that ever since, and you will see a special Mass celebrated on the first Sunday of January (January 7th this year) marking the festival of epiphany.

The Vatican extended this rule to the rest of the world in 1971, but by that time the January 6th holiday was firmly embedded in the holiday calendars of several countries and if there is one thing that politicians the world over shy away from doing, it's telling the people that they must give up a beloved public holiday (which is basically also the reason that France has those Catholic holidays). 

However, that does not mean that Epiphany passes unnoticed in France - we do get special cake.

The Galette des rois is traditionally eaten on January 6th - although you will see it on sale in boulangeries and supermarkets from the beginning of January - its name referencing the Three Kings, not France's ill-fated royals.

Hidden inside the cake - which is a kind of flaky pastry tart filled with frangipane or sometimes apple purée - is the fève (bean) which, if it turns up in your slice, brings good luck for the year ahead.

The cake comes topped with a gold paper crowns, and the person who gets the fève dons the crown and becomes the 'monarch' for the day.

Galette des Rois: What you need to know about France's royal tart

Traditionally the cake is eaten with either cider or Champagne.

This year January 6th falls on a Saturday, so you can have an extra glass of cider or Champagne (and our neighbours in Spain or Italy don't get an extra day off work either). 

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France does, however, have a total of 11 public holidays (or 13 for the historic region of Alsace-Lorraine) and this year just one of them falls on a week, while two are on consecutive days, making a rare 'double holiday'.

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