Sunday, December 31, 2006


New Year's Eve, I seem to remember, began with a pub-crawl and ended with Auld Lang Syne in a roomful of slurring, sweaty-palmed strangers. It was either that or a night in front of the telly with a glass of sherry and a depressingly jolly television presenter. New Year's Eve in France is a far more sophisticated affair and, while Christmas is considered to be for children, New Year's Eve is definitely for the grown-ups.

New Year's Eve is also known as Saint Sylvester's night, as it is the feast day of that saint. Saint Sylvester was Pope from 314 to 335 and not much is known about him except that he would definitely not approve of all the gluttony and general debauchery that goes on in his name these days. He's got another Pope to thank for that: in 1582, Pope Gregory XIII ordered a new and more accurate calendar - the Gregorian calendar - to replace the old Julian one. Up until then, the New Year began on the 1st of April but this new calendar called for New Year's Day to be celebrated on the 1st of January. This obviously caused a great deal of confusion, especially in England where they considered it to be just another load of Papal Bull and ignored the whole thing for nearly two hundred years. As a result they were constantly eleven days behind the rest of Europe, which would not surprise anybody here. The English finally gave in and adopted the new calendar in 1752, solving a lot of problems, except perhaps in the postal service, where they still can't seem to get the hang of it. France, on the other hand, adopted the new calendar at once but typically, a large proportion of the population either chose to ignore it or hadn't been informed and the resulting chaos created April Fool's Day, but that is another story.

As usual, the French celebrate by having an enormous meal on New Year's Eve called le réveillon. The same name is given to the enormous meal they have on Christmas Eve, which they follow with another enormous meal on Christmas Day. Boxing Day doesn't exist in France but if it did, they would probably have an enormous meal then too, perhaps in a box, like McDonalds. Traditional ingredients of le réveillon include turkey, oysters, foie gras, snails and champagne. The French always drink a lot of champagne, which tends to defeat the object of le réveillon - a word that comes from the verb "to stay awake".

At midnight, they raise their glasses in a toast, murmur "Bonne Année" and kiss each other demurely on both cheeks. Nobody sings incomprehensible minority language songs or tries to snog the person next to them and they certainly don't start cavorting around the room with their legs flailing to the strains of "The Conga". They simply exchange tasteful gifts while they're still sober and the meal goes on until the early hours of the morning when those who haven't already slumped face down into their bouillabaisse, stagger off to bed to sleep it all off. They wake up in time for the President's traditional speech in which he apologises for the mess he's making of running the country and makes up for it by offering amnesty to all the motorists who haven't paid their parking fines.

For the next few weeks after New Year's Day, you are expected to greet everyone heartily with "Bonne Année, Bonne Santé" and send cards to friends and family throughout January rather than at Christmas. And while we're on this subject, I would like to take the opportunity to explain to my friends and family that this is, in fact, the reason my Christmas cards often arrive in the middle of March…no, honestly, it is…


La Page Française said...

That's really interesting about April Fool's Day, I had no idea that was the origin behind it. And thank you for giving me an excuse to tell my family and friends why my cards always arrive late too!

Gigi said...

You're welcome (for the excuse). It's quite handy being an expat, I find, because you can blame your shortcomings on being 'foreign' or living in a foreign country. Works both ways!

angela said...

I'm still sending out cards. Oh the shame!
And no I didn't know that about AprilFools Day either.