Celebrating New Year's Eve in France

The Vocabulary and Traditions of "La Saint-Sylvestre"

New Year In France
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In France, the New Year's celebration begins on the evening of December 31 (le réveillon du jour de l’an) and carries through January 1 (le jour de l’an). Traditionally, it's a time for people to gather with family, friends, and community. New Year’s Eve is also known as La Saint-Sylvestre because December 31 is the feast day of Saint Sylvestre. France is predominantly Catholic, and as in most Catholic or Orthodox countries, specific days of the year are designated to celebrate specific saints and are known as feast days. Individuals who share a saint's name often celebrate their namesake's feast day like a second birthday. (Another noted French feast day is La Saint-Camille, shorthand for la fête de Saint-Camille. It's celebrated on July 14, which is also Bastille Day.)

French New Year's Eve Traditions

There aren't too many traditions specific to New Year's Eve in France however, one of the most important ones is kissing under the mistletoe (le gui) and counting down to midnight. While there's no equivalent to the ball dropping in Times Square, in larger cities, there may be fireworks or a parade and there's usually a big variety show on television featuring France’s most famous entertainers.

New Year's Eve is most often spent with friends—and there may be dancing involved. (The French like to dance!) Many towns and communities also organize a ball which is often a dressy or costumed affair. At the stroke of midnight, participants kiss one another on the cheek two or four times (unless they are romantically involved). People may also throw des cotillons (confetti and streamers), blow into un serpentin (a streamer attached to a whistle), shout, applaud, and generally make a lot of noise. And of course, the French make "les résolutions du nouvel an" (New Year's resolutions). Your list will, undoubtedly, include improving your French, or perhaps maybe even scheduling a trip to France—et pourquoi pas?

French New Year's Meal

There's no single food tradition for the French New Year's celebration. People may choose to serve anything from a formal meal to something buffet style for a party—but no matter what's being served, it's sure to be a feast. Champagne is a must, as are good wine, oysters, cheese, and other gourmet delicacies. Just be careful not to drink too much or you may end up with a serious gueule de bois (hangover).

Typical New Year's Gifts in France

In France, people don't generally exchange gifts for the New Year, although some do. However, it's traditional to give monetary gifts to postal workers, deliverymen, the police, household employees, and other service workers around Christmas and the New Year. These gratuities are called "les étrennes," and how much you give varies greatly depending on your generosity, the level of service you got, and your budget.

French New Year's Vocabulary

It's still customary to send out New Year's greetings. Typical ones would be:

  • Bonne année et bonne santé (Happy New Year and good health)
  • Je vous souhaite une excellente nouvelle année, pleine de bonheur et de succès. (I wish you an excellent New Year, full of happiness and success.)

Other phrases you're likely to hear during New Year's celebrations:

  • Le Jour de l'An—New Year's Day
  • La Saint-Sylvestre—New Year's Eve (and the feast day of Saint Sylvester)
  • Une bonne résolution—New Year's resolution
  • Le repas du Nouvel An—New Year's meal
  • Le gui (pronounced with a hard G + ee)—mistletoe
  • Des confettis—confetti
  • Le cotillon—a ball
  • Les cotillons—party novelties such as confetti and streamers
  • Un serpentin—a streamer attached to a whistle
  • Gueule de bois—hangover
  • Les étrennes—Christmas/New Year's Day present or gratuity
  • Et pourquoi pas?—And why not?