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Easter in France

Easter in France

26 Mar 2015 BY Tim Wells

France has for centuries been regarded as the heart of European Christianity, and as one would expect, its celebrations of Easter, the central feast of the Christian calendar, are colourful and bursting with fanfare. They actually begin six weeks before, with the three days known in England as Shrovetide: a period to confess one’s sins before the onset of Lent, the biblically traditional 40-day period of fasting and penitence which begins with the memento mori ritual of Ash Wednesday. Just before, however, comes Mardi Gras (“Fat Tuesday”, and also known as “Shrove Tuesday”), a day of one final blowout of pleasure and excess before the season of sober privation.

Mardi Gras is also known in many parts of the world as Carnival, and while other national expressions of this feast can assume more spectacular (as in Rio de Janeiro or New Orleans) or bizarre (as in the Rhine cities of northern Germany) forms, Mardi Gras in France is every bit as exuberant and colourful. In Nice, especially, the celebrations will go on for days before, with huge gaudily-coloured figures paraded through the streets, fireworks, balles en masque, a fragrant Battle of Flowers near the beach, and the whole range of pleasures in excess. In many cities a huge puppet with royal pretensions will be burned on the public square on Ash Wednesday, as a final flourish to end the ecstasy.

But even in the traditional gloom that follows, however, the portents of the colourful festivities soon to come cannot be mistaken. It is springtime, after all, and the perenially-promised “green shoots” are not to be suppressed, and they make their annual appearance. The shop windows are filled with the spring collections, the haute-couture industry’s contemporary take on the eternal theme of renewal, rebirth, and regeneration which has accompanied our spring seasons since pagan times. On a slightly less highbrow note, the patisseries and confiseries preview their own versions of brilliant Easter parades with row upon row of sweet delectables, mostly in the shape of fish and bells. The Easter Bunny, being of a more Teutonic origin, gets less of a share of the limelight here than elsewhere, but still shows up in a wide variety of chocolate guises.

Easter Week in France often begins not with the traditional palm but rather boxwood fronds, which are hung over the door to ensure good luck. On Good Friday, throughout France the church bells fall silent. Since around the 12th century, the story goes that on the day of Christ’s death all church bells - Les Cloches Volantes - miraculously flew to Rome, carrying with them all the sorrow associated with the Passion. It remains speculation whether in the 13th century the bells went to Avignon instead; in any event, throughout France church bells remain silent until Easter Sunday morning, when having returned from Rome (and bringing with them brightly-coloured eggs and chocolates by the tonne) they burst out in joyous peal, celebrating the Resurrection of Jesus.

Easter Sunday, like most feast days, is a day for the children; in France they awaken to search for Easter eggs and chocolates hidden throughout the house and garden. Games of “Poisson d’Avril”, usually associated with April 1st but played over Easter as well, involve sticking paper fish onto the backs of unsuspecting adults and laughing with glee, then it's off to the garden for an egg-rolling contest: the raw eggs are rolled down a gentle slope, with the surviving egg declared the victor, and symbolizing the stone rolled away from the tomb of Christ. Finally comes Easter lunch, usually serving up a delicious quiche or omelette for starters, followed by a traditional roast lamb, the innocent perennial symbols of new life and regeneration washed down by the finest of consecrated vintages.

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