It’s the holiday season here in the USA which got me thinking about what our friends in France are doing this time of year. Many of the major holidays that we celebrate in the USA are also celebrated in France. How they are celebrated and when is a different story. Let’s take a look at some differences in the ways holidays are celebrated in France and the United States.


It’s the most wonderful time of the year

In the United States, we know that it’s the winter holiday season by all the decorations in the stores, the songs on the radio, and those special annual holiday television shows and movies. The concept of mass marketing a holiday is very American and something that you will not see much of in France. Some stores will have decorations symbolizing winter, Père Noel (Father Christmas is the French Santa Claus) and sometimes a Christmas tree but the concept of going all out for the holidays with decorations, commercials, songs and movies is not very French. This does not mean to say that the French don’t do any decorating or public celebrations of the holidays but simply that it is not the mass commercialization that you are used to seeing. French decorations and celebrations tend to be subtle and understated.

Same day, different date

France celebrates some of the same holidays as the United States but they are usually quite different from the American version. For example, Labor Day is celebrated on the first Monday in September in the USA but on May 1st in France. In the United States, Labor Day is a day of BBQs, hanging out at the beach or pool, and shopping. In France, Labor Day, also called May Day, is more of a just day off from school and work. Traditionally, Labor Day in France is celebrated by giving someone a Lily of the Valley and doing a protest in the streets against the government. However, my French friend tells me that these 2 traditions are happening less and less in France. Another example of same holiday, different date is Mother’s Day. In the United States, Mother’s Day is celebrated the second Sunday in May. In France, it’s celebrated on May 25th. It’s important to buy a day calendar in Paris so that you always know of these holiday date differences and don’t make the mistake of wishing your mother a Happy Mother’s Day two weeks too late!

Discover new holidays

You know those holidays marked on your calendar that you never get off from work/school? The French do get those days off so be prepared for many days off and long weekends during your time in Paris. French people love their days off and there are a couple of ways to describe them. If you see the words: jours de congés, jour fériés and les vacances on any school calendar/website- this means that you have no class. It’s interesting that days which meant nothing to you all your life suddenly give you a day off from school like All Saints Day (November 1st), Armistice Day (November 11th), and essentially every Catholic holiday. A single day off in the middle of the week is a great opportunity to walk around and explore Paris. If one of these days falls on a Friday, you can plan a long weekend trip to London, another part of France or another neighboring country. Everything pretty much shuts down in France on a day off so if you are traveling, be sure to leave the day/night before the actual holiday day.

A taste of home

Not every holiday in France is celebrated differently than in the United States. The French and Americans similarly celebrate New Years Eve and Independence Day. Fun fact-the French do not call their Independence Day “Bastille Day” like we do in the USA; they call it la fête nationale or le 14 juillet. I had the amazing opportunity of being in Paris over the New Years holiday. The Paris version of the ball drop in NewYork City is the Eiffel Tower’s lights blinking a few minutes before midnight and when it strikes midnight, fireworks go off in a beautiful, bombastic assortment of lights and shapes behind the Eiffel Tower. This is definitely a must see if you are in Paris during this time. My only advice- get to Champs de Mars a few hours before midnight and be sure to bundle up and bring blankets as it is really cold in Paris at this time of year and night. If you have the opportunity to be in Paris on July 14th(France’s Independence Day), you must check out the big parade, the fireworks and the fighter jet air show which leave streams in the colors of the French flag over the Arc de Triomphe.

Holidays are a great way to learn and experience another culture’s traditions and values. No matter how long you study in Paris, you will have the opportunity to witness at least one French holiday. Make the most of these days by exploring, traveling and partaking in the holiday spirit, whatever the time of year may be.  Make flight reservations for Winter Break today!

Andrea Bouchaud is the author of Twenty in Paris: A Young American Perspective of Studying Abroad in Paris available on Amazon. Follow her on twitter at @twentyinparis for more tips, articles and advice on study abroad.


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About Andrea Bouchaud