Easter is an especially festive time to visit France. To some, the holy day has enormous spiritual significance. To others, it's simply a time to shake off winter and revel in the comings of spring. In any case, tourists and locals alike can appreciate the celebratory feasts, nostalgic Easter egg hunting, and the chocolate treats that can only be found on France's pâtisserie shelves this time of year.
Easter is known to the French as Pâcques, deriving from the Latin word pascua, a Greek transliteration of the Hebrew word denoting the Passover feast. Carnival, running from mid-January to just before Easter, has become a major part of the equation. Carnivals are primarily celebrated in catholic countries, with a particularly strong tradition in France.
When to Celebrate
Easter Sunday and Easter Monday are the significant holy days (both recognized as public holidays) in France. On the Sunday after the first full moon, church bells are rung wherever there are steeples and towers. The bells are meant to indicate that children will soon be getting their Easter eggs. The following Monday (Lundi de Pâcques) is also a holiday, which means public spaces will be quiet as locals spend time with their families.
Where to Celebrate
The two regions that are particularly exciting at this time of year are Alsace in the east and Languedoc-Roussillon—which follows many Catalan traditions, being so close to Spain—in the south.
Easter markets take over the two historic squares of Colmar in Alsace during Easter weekend. They are the Place de l'Ancienne-Douane and the Place des Dominicans, both of which were important meeting places in the Middle Ages. Here, you'll find food stalls, shows, and a children’s section with animals and birds. Throughout the weekend, there will be live jazz wafting from nearly every cafe and bar. While you're in Alsace, pay a visit to the extraordinary Isenheim Altarpiece, one of the world's great religious works of art.
In Languedoc-Roussillon, there's the Procession of the Sanch on Good Friday in Perpignan. This parade of black-robed figures, all with distinctive peaked hoods and always led by a figure in red, winds through the streets to the beating of tambourines. The figures belong to the brotherhood of La Sanch ("the blood"), which was founded in the early 15th century by Vincent Ferries at the church of St. Jacques in Perpignan. The original purpose of the ominous parade was to accompany condemned prisoners to their execution. It eventually became associated with the procession of Christ to his crucifixion, and now it's an Easter tradition in this medieval city.
Night processions also take place at Collioure—on Cote Vermeille (known as one of France's most beautiful villages)—and Arles-sur-Tech. If you happen to be in Paris during Easter, make your way to the American Church or the American Cathedral, where you're bound to find fellow Americans celebrating.
How to Celebrate
One universal tradition that is found almost everywhere Easter is celebrated: egg hunting. The French call it la chasse aux oeufs and these little treasure-seeking missions occupy countless parks, playgrounds, and green spaces around the country. Some, like the massive egg hunt that takes place in the shadow of the Eiffel Tower every year, are not little at all.
Besides Easter egg hunting, church services, and a few special holiday events around the country, food is a theme throughout. Lamb is traditionally the main dish on Easter Sunday. People will eat either a gigot d’agneau (rack of lamb), brochettes d’agneau (lamb kebabs), or navarin (casseroled lamb). In the south, omelets are also a popular Easter food.
Chocolate is an integral part of Easter. Holiday-themed confectionaries fill the windows of just about every patisserie. Covered in gold foil or ornately decorated are the chocolate eggs, bells, hens, bunnies, and fish—called fritures (fried whitebait)—that you'll find packed into charming straw baskets.