Monday, March 05, 2007


The month of February in France is usually fairly calm, with its two certain "holidays" and a possible third, and this year of 2007 is no exception. The campaigning for the upcoming presidential elections, of course, provides background noise and ample fruit for discussion in all walks of French life.

Two of the February holidays – "special days" would be a more appropriate term - are based on the civil calendar: the Fete de la Chandeleur at the beginning of the month (February 2nd) and St. Valentine's Day (February 14th). The former is known in the United States and in other English-speaking countries as Candlemas. It celebrates Roman Catholic holiday of the Presentation of Jesus at the Temple forty days after his birth: the name Chandeleur apparently comes from the Latin candelorum festum which means 'festival of candles', since vast numbers of these used to be lit in churches in celebration. The tradition here in France is to eat crepes on the day. While cooking the crêpes, one is supposed to hold a coin in one's hand and, with the other, flip the crêpe - and catch it while making one's wish for the New Year. Only if one catches the coin – ideally gold ! – will the wish be granted. Groundhog Day is unknown, although it's always fun to describe the tradition to French people (oui, oui, c'est 'la marmotte d'Amérique', et c'est 'le jour de la marmotte') who, although interested, may be completely unaware that the whole hibernation rigamarole is allegedly based on Celtic folklore.

After the relative success of Hallow'een in France over the last decade the marketing and merchandising busybodies apparently took a good, hard look at all of the business opportunities in the US and decided that le jour du Saint Valentin would be yet another excellent way to separate the consumer from her or his hard-earned money. The celebration of Valentines Day as a holiday for lovers dates from the Middle Ages: of course, before then it was considered to be a holiday for singles, not couples. The heretofore quiet, somewhat private holiday has now been turned into a small merchandising extravaganza à la française. Though the commercial possibilities are still nascent, at least compared to the USA, every year the media refer to it from the beginning of the month in increasingly glowing terms, for almost two full weeks. It will still take several more years before the buzz reaches anything approaching North American proportions, Amerloque feels (and hopes).

The third holiday occurring in February is mardi gras, which in the USA can also be called Shrove Tuesday – or even Pancake Day (once again, crepes are the dish of the day !). It heralds the end of Carnival: the following day is Ash Wednesday, that is, the first day of Lent, the forty-day season of fasting preceding Easter. Since Easter is a moveable feast, Mardi Gras is, too: the date can vary from February 3rd to March 9th in non-leap years, or from February 4th to March 9th in leap years. Hence Mardi Gras can even be in March, although it is very much associated in the public mind with February.

Why ? There are school vacations in February: these are called les vacances d'hiver, the 'winter break', and mardi gras is frequently associated with it (it was on February 20th this year). This 'break' is not just a respite of a few days, either, but a full holiday of several weeks. The entire country has been divided into three school zones, each of which has different but somewhat overlapping dates for its break. The Paris area vacation this year is from February 17th through March 4th, for example, while the children in Toulouse, say, are off from February 10th to February 26th, and the kids in Strasbourg are free from February 24th to March 12th. During these holidays, the ski resorts are jam packed (staggering the breaks by region ensures a nice ski season in the Alps, of course …), traffic is unbearable, and some parts of the economy even slow down noticeably. Why ? With five weeks paid vacation per year, plus the overtime accumulated for working more hours than the standard thirty-five during the week, some parents like to arrange things so that the family can take a skiing holiday together – and they do, en masse.

France is a secular society: there is no question of that. Its Christian traditions date back two millennia, and some 'holidays' are still based on that tradition. What should be clearly noted is that neither Chandeleur, nor Valentine's Day, nor mardi gras are legal or mandatory French holidays. They are simply "special' days" which come around regularly every year … just as the "winter break" does for millions of public and private school children. One is not forced to celebrate Chandeleur or Mardi Gras or St. Valentine's Day: one simply may, if one so chooses, during the quiet month of February.

Of course, if one is in the fashion business, February might not be too quiet at all, since one must prepare for the Fall/Winter 2007/2008 collections to be shown as from February 25th this year. If one is a farmer, one must put February to good use to prepare oneself, one's animals and one's products for the annual Salon International de l'Agriculure, which this year runs from March 3rd through March 11th. An American expat living in Paris who has never visited the Salon in depth can know but little of France and the French people, in Amerloque's view.

Oh, yes … as February segues into March, the campaign for President of France continues apace. TV program follows TV program and poll follows poll. The two frontrunners, Mme Royal and M Sarkozy, trade barbs almost daily, and vie with each other to attract prominent personalities to their causes. A third 'mainstream' candidate, the centrist M Bayrou, appears to be gaining in the polls and might soon be in a position to challenge one or another of the leaders, probably Mme Royal – if one believes that the polls indeed reflect reality. In Amerloque's view, they do, at a very, very precise time, just like a photograph freezes action for posterity.

Whether or not the current polls truly reflect the voters' genuine intentions in the first round of the election, several weeks off, is another story, of course.


Text © Copyright 2007 by L'Amerloque
Images © Copyright reserved to copyright holders, including Amerloque


Anonymous Jo Ann said...

Hi Amerloque!

I'm sure you're aware of Spring Break in the U.S., but since you didn't mention it...

Students get a week off in March. Popular Spring Break locations are Daytona Beach and Cancun, for example, where a lot of drinking and messing around takes place.

Another popular way to spend the week is to volunteer to do some charity work in a foreign country or in another state, perhaps doing work for organizations such as Habitat for Humanity.

When I was a student, I used Spring Break to get ahead in my studies and just relax and spend time with friends. Yeah, I was kind of nerdy that way.. A hippie nerd, you might say.

Too funny the bit about Ground Hog Day. I can only imagine the raised eyebrows from those who have never heard of this strange tradition. I never really thought of it as a holiday, though, because neither businesses nor schools close for this day. In fact, this day can come and go without my even realizing it!

And what good is Valentine's day? Again, no one gets the day off and how many poor guys have gotten in trouble for not buying their girlfriend/mother/wife some flowers or candy? ;)

6:25 PM  
Blogger L'Amerloque said...

Hi Jo Ann !

/*/I'm sure you're aware of Spring Break in the U.S., but since you didn't mention it.../*/

(grin) Oh, the French have a Spring Break, too. This year the Spring Break (les vacances de printemps) in the Paris zone is from April 8th through April 23rd. (wider grin) Another two weeks off !

Generally the French schools have (far) longer teaching days and (somewhat) longer vacations than in the USA.

/*/And what good is Valentine's day? Again, no one gets the day off and how many poor guys have gotten in trouble for not buying their girlfriend/mother/wife some flowers or candy? ;)/*/

(grin) Here it's more one's spouse/life partner, generally with flowers and/or dinner rather than candy … although that is slowly changing under the merchandising push… other people have other experiences than Amerloque's, of course … (wider grin)

Amerloque extends his thanks for stopping by and sharing !


3:26 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi Amerloque !
Just wanted to let you know that I love your posts and that I think you're doing an amazing detailed investigation each time : I learn about my own country, thank you =).

I've had a blog once, and I know how much it can be frustrating not to have many comments and not to know how many people come to read. That's why I'm writing some support.

Keep on ! I'll come back.


11:18 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

On my spring break this week I am trying to get some extra study in before my pathophysiology test next week. Also anxiously awaiting my letter to tell me whether I will be accepted to nursing school.

It is much more fun to read your blog and day dream about my last trip to Paris!!

12:34 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi, Amerloque!

This year I think that Punxatawney Phil did not see his shadow, so we shall have an early spring.

(Never forget, be sure to tell your French interlocutors that PA is home to *the* groundhog, the one and only, the true weather oracle!)

(Well, my husband and I, we have one too---one that munches and excavates by our seat at the cliff top, that overlooks the Ohio. Being no public official and so unobligated to make any scheduled appearances, he did not deign to emerge on Feb 2 even to *look* for his shadow, but I have no doubt we will see him soon, a dandelion or some gill-over-the-ground depending from his busily working jaws, scrunched up nose to the wind...)

Yours for spring greens, shy dogtooth violets in the woods, and the smell of hyacinths,


10:03 PM  
Anonymous blueVicar said...

Regarding school breaks, this time of year it seems that we barely finish one that another starts with a smattering of feries inbetween. But students work hard and deserve a break. (No, I don't feel brainwashed by my 14 year old!)

We have had fun explaining Ground Hog's Day, much simplified since the movie has some popularity, Le Jour Sans Fin.

It's fun to consider these holidays and the way their celebration varies, but I do wish we could avoid commercialization. (Deep sigh)

Meilleurs voeux!!

2:28 AM  

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