“Have you noticed that everyone is taking a cake to work today?” asked Emmanuelle on the way to school. “And everyone is taking a cake home, too?” It turned out to be the Fête de la Galette, a time in January when everyone eats these flakey round cakes and the person who gets the piece with a bean hidden in it is King or Queen for a day. The Fête de La Galette seems to go on and on. I was sweeping crumbs off the kitchen floor for a month.
Other French holidays have been harder for the kids. Hallowe’en, for example, doesn’t really happen. Part of it is for security reasons (can you imagine people running around Paris at night wearing masks?) and part of it is that they have so many of their own holidays they could hardly fit another one in.
Another ubiquitous French holiday is May Day, the first of May. You know it’s coming because on every street corner someone has set up a tiny makeshift stand selling tiny sprays of Lilly of the Valley to wear on your label or use as a bouquet. My friend Solange said that growing up in France, her father bought one for her and her sister every year. It’s a custom started by Louis XIV, who was given a bouquet on that day and decided to make it a good luck tradition for his courtesans.
One day I was walking Charlotte to school at 8:20 a.m. and the owner of a local café was putting up red, white and blue balloons on his doorway. I asked him what was happening. “It’s the Beaujolais Nouveau,” he told me, “we start very early.” He wasn’t kidding – we went out that evening at 5 to join the parties and found they were all over. Everyone was drunk by noon on the light and fruity red wine that is released on a specific day each November and drunk like orange juice with breakfast.
Finally, there is the biggest holiday of them all: Bastille Day, the 14th of July (locally called La Fête Nationale). Tonight, all the fire halls open up for dances, and there is a symphony and fireworks at the Eiffel Tower.
We’ll never forget our first Bastille Day in Paris three years ago. We were driving in from the countryside and got caught behind the famous military parade of tanks and armoured vehicles down the Champs Elysées. A police officer told us to park the car and come back for it in a few hours since all the streets in the centre of Paris were closed. We ended up wandering into Parc Monceau, where the kids played in the playground and climbed trees. Little did we know that a few years later our youngest daughter would be going to the international school on that park and we’d live a few blocks away. Serendipity at its best.