Eight New Year’s Traditions in France

A photograph of the Champs-Elysées on New Year's Eve. The Arc de Triomphe is illuminated by blue, white, and red light. Crowds line the street.
New Year on the Champs-Elysées, Paris by Ninara is licensed under CC BY 4.0

The French celebrate the New Year much like everybody else: they have parties with friends and family, countdown to midnight, let off fireworks, and even go for a New Year’s swim. Nevertheless, there are certain traditions and customs that are unique to France, and are definitely well-worth knowing if you plan to spend the New Year there.
The French generally refer to New Year’s Eve as La Saint-Sylvestre. This is because December 31st is the Western feast day of Saint Sylvester I, who was the Pope from 314-335. His pontificate saw the start of the Christian Roman Empire, and legend has it that he both converted and baptized Emperor Constantine. As well as La Saint-Sylvestre, you’ll definitely hear someone say << Bonne année ! >>, which is “Happy New Year!” in French.
But without further ado, here’s our list of eight of France’s New Year traditions.

Le Réveillon

In France, le réveillon is the dinner that is eaten on Christmas Eve and New Year’s Eve. The name comes from the French word le réveil (“the awakening”) because the meal lasts until after midnight. There’s no exact set meal, but le réveillon will traditionally consist of French delicacies and luxury food. These often include snails, oysters, foie gras, smoked salmon, cheese, game meat, lobster and caviar. Common desserts include Yule log, tart and meringue. These foods can make up a meal eaten at home, or may be selected from a réveillon menu at a restaurant on New Year’s Eve. Either way, they’ll definitely be champagne.

A plate of oysters
Oysters are often included in réveillon meals in France

New Year’s Gratuities

It’s traditional in France to give a gift or a tip to workers whose services you regularly rely upon, such as household cleaners, nannies and apartment block concierges. These gratuities are known as les étrennes, and are often given in exchange for calendars that are sold door-to-door by firefighters, binmen, or postal workers.

A group of firefighters talking
Firefighters in Strasbourg by Franck Kobi is licensed under CC BY-ND 4.0

New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day Swims

On New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day people of all ages in France brave the freezing sea water for a dip, or un bain des givrés. This communal swim may also be known as le bain de la Saint-Sylvestre, or le bain du Nouvel An, depending on which day it takes place. One of the most popular beaches for this swim is that at Malo-les-Bains in Dunkirk. A New Year’s Day swim is an annual tradition held around the world, particularly in the Northern Hemisphere, although in most other countries the swim takes place exclusively on New Year’s Day.

La Galette des Rois

The galette des rois (“kings’ tart”) is a cake that is made from puff pastry and filled with frangipane. The cake marks the feast of Epiphany – the Christian festival day that celebrates the Magi, or Three Wise Kings, bringing their gifts to the baby Jesus. The French traditionally eat the galette on January 6th (Epiphany Day), but it can be served anytime in January. It is also customary for a small figurine, known as a fève, to be placed in the cake. The lucky individual who finds it in their portion is then to be crowned king or queen for the day. The fève is often a model of an angel or a baby Jesus, but it’s not unheard of for the Eiffel Tower or Mickey Mouse to make an appearance too.

A galette des rois with a golden crown resting on top
Traditionally, whoever finds the fève in their slice of the galette des rois will get to wear a golden crown

New Year’s Eve Grape Harvest

This particular tradition is a local one, which takes place in the town of Viella near the France-Spain border. On 31st December every year, locals participate in a night-time grape harvest known as les vendanges de la Saint-Sylvestre; the harvested grapes are then used to make the Saint Sylvestre Pacherenc wine. The harvest takes places after Mass at the local church and a torch-lit procession to the vineyard. Interestingly, this tradition is also quite a recent one, and only began in 1991, when an early frost prevented the usual mid-November harvest. Instead, the winegrowers decided to wait until the final day of the year to pick their grapes, and subsequently found the wine produced from this harvest to be exceptional.

Kissing under the Mistletoe

In Anglo-Saxon countries, mistletoe (and sharing a kiss under it) is associated with Christmas. However, in France, it comes out on New Year’s Eve instead. Decorations at parties may include the mistletoe, and when the clock strikes midnight, couples will kiss sous le gui (under the mistletoe).

French couples will kiss under the mistletoe when the clock strikes midnight on New Year’s Eve

Les Voeux Présidentiels

Every New Year’s Eve at 8pm, there is a televised presidential address to the French people known as les voeux présidentiels (“the presidential wishes”). The president uses this speech to reflect upon the last year and discuss hopes for the next. It is broadcast from the Elysée Palace, the official residence of the French president. The tradition was begun in 1960 by Charles de Gaulle and has continued ever since.

New Year’s Greeting Cards

The French don’t tend to send out Christmas cards in December. Instead, they send out New Year’s cards in throughout month of January to their work colleagues, friends and extended family. In these cards, it’s customary to write a message of at least a sentence or two, and not just << Bonne Année ! >>. You might put something like << Pour la nouvelle année, je te souhaite plein de joie, de succès et d’inspiration. Merci pour tous les moments partagés et les souvenirs heureux. A bientôt pour plus de belles retrouvailles en 2020 ! >>.