How France keeps the party going all throughout January
Here in our little corner of California, major “Back To Work” vibes have filled the air. With the holiday season over - and Thanksgiving before that, and the election before that, and the weird vacuum of space and time that was most of 2020 - the first week of January does actually feel like the turning over of a new leaf (even if that new leaf is the same old télétravail, the French equivalent of working from home).
And although we start a new month and a new year under the same strange COVID-related circumstances, there is nonetheless that age old push to make resolutions. Perhaps due to all the excess eating and drinking that both last year and the holidays have brought, the number one resolution for 2021, despite everything, is still related to diet and exercise.
There is maybe no greater place in the world to eat healthfully and exercise regularly than in California, where a bounty of fresh produce and a sprinkle of attractive Hollywood stars are constant sources of motivation.
Want to guess where it’s impossible to start a New Year’s diet? France.
The holiday festivities - and the food and drink that accompany them - in France and many other Francophone countries, including Quebec, Belgium, Switzerland, and Lebanon, seem to stretch on for all of eternity. Which, in theory, sounds wonderful.
But New Year Dieters, be warned: Just when you thought it was safe to spend a month chowing down on salads and guzzling water, up pops yet another holiday tradition encouraging you to have one final slice of cake and one last glass of bubbly.
Here is our list of how the French keep the party going all through the month of January:
Les galettes des rois
The King’s Cake, one of the most delicious French-pastry concoctions on the planet - what, with its flakey puff pastry and sweet frangipane center - is supposed to be eaten on either January 6th or the first Sunday after the New Year in celebration of Epiphany, a holiday commemorating when the three kings, or wise men, met a newly-born Jesus. We have absolutely no clue as to where puff pastry comes in here, but the “rois mages” in the story lend their name to this treat.
If you are in France or the other aforementioned francophone countries, you start your celebration with a trip to the bakery to pick up the appropriately-sized galette with your desired fillings (traditionally, it’s almond frangipane, but pistachio is common, as well as apple, pear, chocolate…).
The baker will then hand you one or two paper crowns with your order. We'll explain in a minute.
Once back home and gathered with your loved ones, you ask the youngest person in the room to climb under a table before you start slicing your galette. When the youngest person in the room is, say, six, this is a really cute moment. When the youngest person in the room is thirty-six, things get interesting. The person under the table then calls out who should be served. This overly-complicated process is there to safeguard against any cheating that might happen regarding the fève (the token).
The fève, which literally translates to fava bean, can be anything from a miniature Virgin Mary to Donald Duck baked into your galette. The only constants here are that, a) finding the fève in your slice of cake means that you have “won” the title of King or Queen (as well as that coveted paper crown) and b) you will marvel on how you didn’t break your teeth on a rock-hard mini-statue.
This is all well and good, and the calories from one slice of galette are worth it. But no one saves this celebration for only the 6th of January. In a pre-COVID world, the French eat galette with colleagues at work, as well as at any social gathering for most of January, meaning a person could easily be served a fève-spiked slice once a week for the entire month, if not more. Oh, and how could you enjoy a piece without a glass or two of champagne or sparkling cider?
See how your resolutions go right out the door?
Bonne année !
If you’ve only said it once, chances are you haven’t said it enough. Shouting out bonne année, or Happy New Year, isn’t just reserved for midnight on the 31st. You should say it to every single person you encounter for the month of January.
Technically, you are only obligated to say this to an individual once. Meaning you don’t wake up and tell your spouse happy new year every morning.
Hey, during the first week of the year, it does feel appropriate to keep passing on the well-wishing. But by the end of January - when you still have the right to wish health and happiness on those you meet in the streets, shops, or Zoom parties - it feels old and a little tiresome.
New Year’s Cards
You’ve got mail! Receiving a card by the post is a lovely feeling these days when most of us only get bills or catalogues we’ve forgotten to unsubscribe to in our letter boxes.
We’ll admit it, we really love the French tradition of sending New Year’s cards as opposed to Christmas cards because it’s for everyone, not just people who celebrate Christmas.
But for anglophones who have moved to a French-speaking country and have already sent their traditional card for the month of December, there can be some major pressure to do it all over again for the month of January… we say, you do you.
Life is like a box of chocolates. You never know what you're going to get (but you can be sure that you are going to get a massive box of them for the holidays in France).
Again, we shouldn't complain here... the tradition of giving friends, family, teachers, and colleagues a box of fancy French, Swiss, or Belgian chocolates is a wonderful thing. But when the boxes begin to pile up in your kitchen, or loved ones and coworkers constantly bring their collections your way so you can "help them" work their way through, things get sticky.
And just when you think the chocolates, champagne, and cakes from the month of January are over and life can return to normal, February - and Valentine's Day - pops up on the calendar...
The truth is, we might laugh at the continued festivities during the month of January, but something about prolonging your pleasure and not giving into extremes seems both appropriate and very French. They would ask us why we need to save our indulgences for only one time a year and feel the need to get healthy right after when, of course, moderation in all things (including moderation) is the best way.
Here’s to eating salads, drinking water, and being active and healthy. But here’s to also allowing ourselves to enjoy and treating ourselves like royalty every now and then.