So you want to see how to celebrate Easter in France. What can you expect? Well, there are some unusual traditions and a fair few delicious treats to enjoy.
In France most attractions open their doors for the season. Just as gardens begin to bloom and trees taking on that wonderful sharp green colour of young leaves.
The Origins of Easter
Pâcques (Easter) is derived from the Latin word Pascua. It was originally a Hebrew word for Passover which, in Jewish tradition, marks the Exodus from Egypt. For Christians, Easter commemorates the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ.
Like many traditions, the origins and dates go way back to pagan times with old ceremonies, such as the spring equinox, being entwined with the new religions. There were parellels; our ancestors worshipped the sun, particularly as it grew stronger and overcame winter’s darkness. Christ, or the son of God, died on the cross but like the sun, rose again. Take it as you will.
France celebrates Easter with a holiday
Easter Monday is a holiday in France, but not Good Friday. Except for (there are always exceptions)..Alsace. On the eastern border of France between France and Germany, Alsace was inevitably a battleground, changing hands several times. When part of Germany, Good Friday became a public holiday. When Alsace reverted back finally part of France, they quite understandably held onto the public holiday.
You might wonder why every church bell is silent between Good Friday and Easter Sunday. There’s a charming explanation as to how France celebrates Easter with its bells. The bells have flown to Rome to be blessed by the Pope, taking the grief of the catholic French at Christ’s crucifixion with them. Well that’s what French children learn…and probably discard at about the same time they stop believing in the tooth fairy.
Whatever the belief, most children are delighted when Easter Sunday brings a rousing sound as the cloches volantes (flying bells) return to symbolize Christ’s return. And before you get too carried away by this sign of the strength of religious feeling in France, there’s another explanation. It’s time for the traditional Easter egg hunt.
Easter Eggs – Where did they come from?
The first chocolate treats associated with Easter appeared during the 19th century in France and Germany. Chocolate eggs have always been the most popular. But in keeping with tradition, rabbits and hares make an appearance. Rabbits are familiar; hares however need an explanation though they are prolific breeders along with the rabbits. The Anglo-Saxon goddess of spring, Eostre (who may have inspired the name of Easter) had a hare as her companion, symbolizing fertility and rebirth.
You might come across some of the Easter egg games that children play. Perhaps an egg-rolling competition where raw eggs are carefully rolled down a slope. The ‘victory’ egg is meant to be the stone rolled away from Christ’s tomb.
Or you might see children tossing raw eggs in the air. The winner is the one who doesn’t drop the egg.
Eggs were saved in the week leading up to Easter and decorated. Colours had significance: red symbolized the blood of Jesus when he was crucified; green, inevitably was for spring coming around.
In the run up to Easter, every chocolatier produces masterpieces. Easter eggs are fabulously decorated, along with small and large bells; white and dark chocolate Easter bunnies, chickens, and fish.
Hunt out an Easter Egg Hunt
The best known and also the largest egg hunt (chasse aux oeufs) in France takes place at the Château Vaux-le-Vicomte near Paris. Chocolate eggs are hidden around the stately grounds and there’s a one-meter tall chocolate squirrel to discover. That is not as odd as it might seem at first; the squirrel is the symbol of Nicolas Fouquet, the original owner and there are squirrels all around the gardens.
Vaux-le-Vicomte is easy to get to by public transport then a private shuttle, so if you’re nearby make sure you visit this extremely grand and beautiful château which is still in private hands.
There’s also a good selection of Easter egg hunts in public parks in Paris. Check here for details.
Also check out your local tourist office which will have information on their nearby events.
France celebrates Easter in a very odd way: Eggs into omelettes
Every year the little town of Bessières in the Haute-Garonne department in Occitanie, prepares a giant Easter omelette. It’s a typically French occasion: a small town takes a bit of history, creates an annual festival around food and a tradition is born.
It’s all down to Napoleon who, according to legend, was on his Spanish campaign when he stopped for the night here. The omelette the local inn keeper prepared was so outstanding Napoleon ordered a round up of every egg in the region so the villagers could make a gigantic omelette for his army.
The Brotherhood of the Giant Omelette gathers around a steel flying pan that weighs a ton and measures four metres in diameter. A crane lowers the pan onto a bed of hot coal then 15,000 eggs, 25 litres of olive oil, six kilos of seasoning and armfuls of chives are stirred by chefs (estimated at 40) with long wooden paddles until it’s cooked.
It’s then divided up and given to the locals with slices of French bread – cut from loaves 1.5 metres long.
More somber events take place in Corsica, still a deeply catholic island where Good Friday processions are celebrated. The main events are in Bonifacio, Calvi and Erbalunga. The best known, U Catenacciu (the Chained Man), takes place in Sartène. A chained and hooded penitent reenacts Christ’s journey to Calvary, carrying a cross along a steep route across the town accompanied by other penitents, similarly dressed. It takes place after dark with candles lighting the way. The identity of the penitent, who’s chosen from a long list of volunteers, is known only to the parish priest
Watch YouTube for a short film of the procession. The music is quite beautiful.
If you’re in Alsace over Easter, make sure you go to one of the special markets. Towns are covered in Easter-related decorations as stalls fill the streets with both chocolate and live bunnies and more.
In Provence, the town of L’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue holds its annual Easter antiques fair over the Easter weekend. This year it’s from April 10th to 13th, 2020. The town is almost entirely devoted to antiques, and is one of the biggest antique centres in Europe. At Easter it expands into the streets and expands into brocante and bargains that the normal punter can pick up for a song.
Read about the main events in April in France