Easter, which commemorates Jesus Christ’s resurrection after his crucifixion, is the most important Christian holiday in France. However, even non-Christians partake in Easter celebrations. Here’s what you need to know about French Easter traditions in France, one of Europe’s most atheist countries.
Before diving into Easter traditions in France, it might be helpful to give you an outline of France’s religious landscape.
2021 update: due to covid, most large gatherings for Easter were cancelled or modified.
France Is One Of Europe’s Most Atheist Countries
France has a paradoxical relationship between its militant secular side and historical connection to Catholicism and Catholic symbols.
On paper, France is supposed to be a secular nation that separates church and state (Rooted in the French Revolution).
The reality is more complicated.
Secular does not mean atheist however, France does have a lot of self declared atheists and non practicing Catholics who celebrate Easter with great enthusiasm.
A 2012 Gallup study showed 34% of the country identified as religious: 29% of France’s population identified as atheists while 34% identified as non-religious.
Compared to 1871, that’s a huge shift in Catholicism where 98% percent of the population declared themselves Catholic.
There’s also the growing Muslim population and the 2004 law which bans all religious symbols in public schools.
This law was nicknamed the «headscarf ban» because it disproportionately affects the Muslim community.
Despite this strong secularism, and growing number of atheists, culturally speaking, the Catholic and secular worlds of France are closely intermingled and Catholicism continues to play a public role.
Quoting French sociologist Jean-Paul Willaime, there are essentially two versions of France:
- “A Catholic country with a secular culture.”
- “A secular country with a Catholic culture.”
France was one of the principal “Catholic” countries of Europe
For most of the past thousand years, France has had a strong Catholic history that dates back to 496 when Clovis, the king of the Franks, considered the founder of France, converted from paganism to Catholicism: earning France the title of “The Eldest Daughter of the (Catholic) Church.
The Catholic Church remained France’s official state religion until the French Revolution, which radically shifted power away from the Catholic Church.
Dechristianization of France during the French Revolution
During a two-year period known as the Reign of Terror among Catholics, attacks against Church corruption and the wealth of the higher clergy were some of the most violent in European history.
In a decree dated November 2, 1789, revolutionary authorities suppressed the Church, and abolished the Catholic monarchy.
They also declared all Roman Catholic possession and property “les biens nationaux,” which can be translated as both “The good of the nation” and “National goods,”
To resolve the financial crisis that caused the Revolution, the newly nationalized church properties were sold. Later, the crown and monarchy possessions were treated the same.
The revolutionaries exiled over 30,000 priests.
In Paris, over 200 priests were killed by angry mobs. Priests and nuns were drowned in mass executions (known as les noyades) in Nantes and Lyon for treason, and hundreds of priests were imprisoned and suffered abominable living conditions in the port of Rochefort.
After the revolution: The end of dechristianization
In 1799, after Napoleon seized control of the government, he negotiated the concordat of 1801 with Pope Pius VII. This treaty established new rules for the relationship between the French Republic and Catholic Church, ending dechristianization in France.
1905: France becomes a Secular Nation: Separating Church and State
For 104 years, the concordat remained in effect until 1905 when a major law, currently still in effect (the policy of laïcité “secularism”), officially separated church and state in France.
In the new secular France, Individuals are still free to practice their religion, however, separately from the state.
Although the law of 1905 forbids funding the Church, paying clergy salaries, the government funds all schools, including private religious schools, which are mainly Catholic in France.
The catch is that religious schools must maintain the same standards and curriculum as the public schools and do not discriminate on the grounds of religious affiliation nor make religious education obligatory.
As a result, it’s not uncommon for children of non-religious families or of other faiths to attend Catholic schools in France.
Oftentimes these Catholic schools offer better conditions or are more convenient, and because the government funds them are very affordable; usually costing between one to two thousand euros per year.
Alsace-Moselle is the exception to secularism in France
The exception to the secular law of 1905 is Alsace-Moselle, in France’s northeastern region, which was under Prussian rule at the time.
Catholicism, Calvinism, Lutheranism, and Judaism are still officially recognized religions in the region, which is why religious education is obligatory for public-school students, and the regional government pays the salaries of the clergy in those regions.
The Many Ways Easter In France Is Celebrated
Happy Easter = Joyeuse Pâque
Now that you understand France’s religious landscape, it’s easy to understand how a largely secular and atheist country can embrace easter with such enthusiasm.
Let’s dig into some Easter traditions in France.
French Easter Traditions
Although attending weekly mass is a dying custom in France, some will opt to go to Easter Sunday mass. The same is true for Christmas mass.
The famous Easter egg hunt (Chasée aux oeufs)
The most widespread tradition in France is the famous Easter egg hunt on Sunday Morning.
Sometimes families will organize an Easter egg hunt, but local associations in towns and cities usually organize an Easter egg hunt also.
For instance, Chateau de Merville sometimes organizes the largest Easter egg hunt in the labyrinth of a French Chateau in France.
Boiled eggs are not part of the Easter egg hunt.
Before the technique for solidifying chocolate was perfected around the middle of the 19th century, children hunted for boiled eggs. Oftentimes the eggs were painted red to symbolize the blood of Christ.
These days, thanks to chocolate, children hunt for (les friandises) small treats and chocolate in the shape of eggs, bells, chickens, rabbits, lamb, and fish, but not boiled eggs.
Sometimes there are plastic eggs filled with small chocolate in various shapes.
Flying Easter Bells That magically drop Chocolate Eggs (Les cloches volantes)
It’s tradition to tell children that flying bells bring the chocolate treats for the Easter egg hunt.
The tradition of the flying Easter bell began around the 7th century in Europe.
THE FLYING BELLS LEGEND
To commemorate the time that elapsed between the death of Christ and his resurrection, the Church forbade ringing church bells on Holy Thursday, Good Friday, and Holy Saturday.
The legend parents tell children in certain Catholic countries and particularly in France, is that Church bells stop ringing on Holy Thursday because they have to fly to Rome to get blessed by the pope.
The bells are usually equipped with a pair of wings, ribbons or are carried on a chariot.
Then on Easter Sunday, the bells return from Rome loaded with chocolate eggs which they drop in gardens, open fields, backyards, and apartment balconies as they fly home just in time to ring on Sunday Morning to announce Christ’s resurrection and Sunday mass.
The flying bell story was a way to explain why church bells didn’t ring for three days.
The Easter bunny exception:
In some regions of France that are close to Germany, it’s the easter bunny (rabbit or hare) that hides chocolate easter eggs in gardens for children to find during the Easter egg hunt.
Common Chocolate treats Easter Symbols.
It’s estimated that 15000 tones of chocolate are sold each year in France during Easter. This represents about 4% of the total amount of chocolate sold in France annually.
While children usually hunt for small chocolate treats during the Easter egg hunt, Shops in France usually sell larger, more ornate Easter chocolate.
Some Chocolate Treats similar to what you might see in France
A popular chocolate treat during Easter in France.
Easter Ratchet: Les crécelles de paque
A very old tradition that has almost disappeared is the easter rachet or cog rattle.
For three days leading up to Easter, while the church bells were silent, boys, usually choirboys, would walk the streets singing chants to announce church services while whirling their ratchets and filling the air with harsh staccato noise.
This ancient tradition continues in small pockets of France, mainly in towns in the northernmost region of France and the northeastern region of France. Nowadays, both boys and girls get to whirl their crécelles de paque, not just choir boys.
After the Easter egg hunt, the whole family usually gathers around for the Sunday Easter meal, usually consisting of a leg of lamb (un gigot d’agneau), perhaps some beans, asparagus and eggs.
The lamb is considered a symbol of purity and righteousness. It also refers to Jesus, who sacrificed himself to redeem the sins of men.
A Giant Omelette
Eggs are an important symbol of Easter symbolizes fertility and rebirth. During lent, eggs are not allowed until easter day.
In many ancient civilizations, such as the Egyptians and Greeks, it was customary to eat eggs at the beginning of Spring.
In Bessiers, a southwestern city in France, the city formed the brotherhood of the Giant Omelette.
Every year on Easter Monday, in the main square, the brotherhood makes a giant omelette with around fifteen thousand eggs for a small army of people who gather for the event. It’s just one event during the Easter festival.
Lamb Shaped Sponge Cake
A traditional or typical easter treat in the Alsacian region of France is L’agneau Pascal -or Lamela in Alsacian.
It’s a very dense and spongy cake in the shape of a lamb made with many eggs.
Good Friday is not a public holiday in France.
Unlike other Catholic countries where Good Friday is a public holiday, French workers and students don’t have the day off until the day after Easter. It’s called Easter Monday in France.
The exception is the lucky residents of Moselle and Alsace, where both Easter Monday and Good Friday are public holidays.
Alsace-Moselle region of France is the exception. When these regions of France were reunited with France after 1918, the local law set in place by Germany for Good Friday was kept. It’s the only region of France that is not secular.
Easter used to be a weak long holiday in France.
From the 11th century up until 1801, the entire week following Easter Sunday, known as “Easter Octave,” was generally a public holiday to allow people to make the pilgrimage to Rome via one of several routes.
Via Francigena is one of the oldest published pilgrimage routes in Europe, also known as “Chemin Romieux”, the road to Rome.
When Napoleon Bonaparte’s regime came into power, he put an end to the week-long break with the signing of the Concordat of 1801, which reduced the weak long Easter Octave to a single day: Monday.
Apparently, Napolean wasn’t a big fan of people taking time off from work. He once famously said “The people eat on Sunday, they should be able to work on Sunday” « le peuple mange le dimanche, il doit pouvoir travailler le dimanche »
It wasn’t until 1886 that Easter Monday was officially declared a public holiday.
Pentecost Monday was also declared a bank holiday that same year.
Easter School Holiday (Spring break)
And last but not least, children in France get a two-week spring vacation called “les Vacances de Printemps.” The official name for this vacation used to be “Easter vacation,” but in 2000, Macron wrote a decree removing the term “Easter” and replacing it with “Spring.” Each year the date of the vacation changes but usually occurs in April or May, depending on which of the three school zones you’re located.