Find out how to jump into French New Year traditions. Make your own French King cake to share with friends for Epiphany in France.
Each year people are unsure what to do to celebrate the new year in France, but you can be sure the French New Year involves some delicious food and drink. In France, 31 December is known as la Saint Sylvestre because it is the day dedicated to the saint’s feast day, known as la fête de Saint Sylvestre. The New Year’s Eve feast is also referred to as le Réveillon de Saint-Sylvestre.
Celebrating New Year’s Eve in France
Traditionally New Year’s Eve in France kicks off with a glass of champagne and foie gras, although each region has its local specialities. Here in Fontevraud it is more likely that locals eat oysters or moules à la marinière (mussels) and toast the French New Year with a glass of Crement de Loire or one of the delicious ‘pettilants’ wines from the caves of Gratien et Meyer, Vouvray or Ackermans of Saumur.
French New Year’s parties range from intimate dinners with friends and family to ‘une soirée dansante’ in the form of une Grande ball; balls are organised in most French towns where locals love to bring in the New Year dancing. Having always been a bit of ‘a legend in my living room’, I imagine before the night is out, my family will be do some Auld Lang Syne moves across the floor beside me. In the past I have sung with our local gospel choir in the grounds of the Abbaye Royale in Fontevraud, while at our local hotel they sometimes put on a special ‘do’ featuring gastronomic delights and degustations for New Year’s Eve in France.
Imagine for a minute that you are in one of the finest restaurants in Paris, perhaps at Maxim’s or the Café Royale. A small band is playing blues or a little jazz, or it might even be a Palm orchestra playing a Viennese waltz gently in the background. Towards midnight, paper hats and confetti will be distributed and everyone will count down to the New Year in France together. Next watch out for your hats because everyone in the room will exchange kisses and wish each other a Bonne Année (Happy New Year).
Millions of French people eat out on New Year’s Eve and also for the French New Year’s Day and commonly it will be an elaborate feast of sometimes up to as many as 15 courses, though around eight courses are more usual.
We ourselves have done it in the past, when we all agree on a lavish dinner; thus we may have a fish supper featuring sandre (perch fish) or maybe some crab from La Rochelle. Sandre tastes heavenly if prepared simply, such as grilling, and paired with a ripe Chenin Blanc or Muscadet wine.
We normally keep some Christmas crackers nearby and pull one or two with our French New Year’s dinner. At midnight, in accordance with New Year traditions in France everyone shares a kiss under a sprig of gui (mistletoe) and offers best wishes to each other. Unlike in the UK and other parts of the world, the French kiss under mistletoe (gui’) on New Year’s Eve in France and not before.
It’s not uncommon to finish the New Year celebration in France by setting off a few fireworks from the roof terrace or garden.
New Year in France: Le Jour de l’An
On New Year’s Day we share our resolutions, but unlike our French friends we do not usually exchange gifts or cards. In fact in France you are more likely to receive a New Year’s card wishing you Bonne Année then you would ever receive a Christmas card from a French friend or neighbour.
According to Clement A Miles who wrote a book in 1912 on the subject of New Year traditions in France, it is on this day ‘that presents are given, family gatherings held, and calls paid’ in France. ‘In the morning’ he goes on ‘children find their stockings filled with gifts, and then rush off to offer good wishes to their parents. In the afternoon the younger people call upon their older relations, and in the evening all meet for dinner at the home of the head of the family’.
Some families may carry on this New Year tradition in France, but most of our French friends tend to exchange presents on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day as times and traditions are changing.
For our New Year in France, it is almost certain that following a delicious and extravagant meal we will go for our annual long and winding walk along the picturesque riverbanks at Chouzé sur Loire.
French New Year greetings
- Happy New Year: Bonne Année! Joyeuse Année!
- Happy holidays: Joyeuses fêtes!
- Happy New Year and good health: Bonne année et bonne santé
- Season’s greetings: Meilleurs vœux!
- All my/our wishes for the New Year: Tous mes/nos voeux pour la Nouvelle Année
Terms for the New Year in France
- Christmas Eve and New Year’s Eve: Le Réveillon
- New Year’s Eve: la Saint-Sylvestre
- New Year’s Eve party/feast: le Réveillon de Saint-Sylvestre
- Midnight: minuit
- New Year’s Day: le Jour de l’An, le Nouvel An
- 1 January: le premier Janvier
- Mistletoe: Le gui (hard g)
- New Year’s resolution: une bonne résolution
- New Year’s gifts: des étrennes
- Epiphany: Fete des Rois
- Firework/s: un feu d’artifice/ les feux d’artifice
- To propose a toast: porter un toast
- Hangover: la gueule de bois
Epiphany in France
On 6 January in honour of the Epiphany (the day when the Three Kings visited baby Jesus), it is traditional to share with family, friends or neighbours a slice or two of La Galette des Rois, or French King cake. This is a rich puff-pastry case filled with an almond cream paste, in which if you are lucky you will find a little china treasure or ‘feve’. If you do, you are then entitled to wear the golden crown that is usually attached to the cake and become the King or Queen of the party, who then can also choose someone to be their king or queen and lead a traditional dance.
At this time of the year, a profusion of the kits for these galettes fill the shelves of French supermarkets, though, you can also have a go at making one with the below King cake recipe.
King cake recipe: La Galette des Rois
- Two large rounds of rich puff pastry called feuilleté in France (you do not need to buy the most expensive, but do not buy the cheapest either) or you can make your own with loads of butter and flour, but the bought varieties are excellent.
- Good quality apricot jam – homemade or Bonne Maman is a favourite make of ours.
- Eight ounces of ground almonds
- One egg white for the almond paste
- Use the egg yolk to brush over the pasty before baking.
Combine the almonds and sugar, and add egg white while working the mixture vigorously. The paste should be firm and smooth when ready. Sandwich one side of the pastry with a generous slathering of apricot jam. Next do the same with the almond paste onto the second round of pastry.
Place on top of each other and brush over the beaten egg yolk. Sprinkle with sugar. Bake in a pre-heated oven (180°C) for around 15 minutes or until it is a rich golden brown colour.
King cake recipe tips
When you make a French King cake, the advantage is you put in your own special ‘fève‘ (token).
French King cakes are traditionally served with a plain top, but you can adorn it with candied fruits or fill it with a chocolate paste if you prefer it to the Frangipane one above.
You can make your own crown with card, foil, stickers, faux jewels, glitter etc.; it’s a fun activity for children to create your own mini workshop dedicated to the theme of Epiphany in France and La Gallette de Roi.
Let your imagination express itself: if tidying up is a problem, play a game of carefully taking down the decorations and putting them away for next year.
A taste of the New Year in Paris
To give you examples of the kinds of French food eaten at New Year’s in Paris, here are some inspirations for your New Year menu (la menu pour le Jour de l’An):
- Quails egg mousse, raw and cooked green asparagus, black truffle paste soldiers
- Homard (lobster) Thermidor with nori, and a crustacean broth
- Line-caught sea bass with imperial caviar, green cabbage and whipped lemon butter
- Thon St Remy (tuna cooked in tomatoes and fresh herbs), served with seasonal vegetables, celery root and mushroom stuffed conchiglioni pasta
- A ripe Brie de Meaux with walnuts
- Pink Champagne granité, grapefruit and hibiscus jelly gilded with gold leaf
- Soft coconut cream, strawberry and wild strawberry elixir
- Bon bons, stuffed fruit and chocolates
What was it that Sir Walter Scott said about New Year? ‘That each age has deemed the new-born year the fittest time for festal cheer’. Well certainly according to New Year traditions in France on December 31 and January 1, the New Year celebration in France can be even more ‘festal’ than Christmas.