After returning to Paris following a three-week trip to the United States to visit family for the holiday season, I was dreading the month ahead. Sure, I was looking forward to seeing my students, and to hearing their stories of how they’d spent their holiday break. In France, public schools are closed for the last 2 weeks of December and through New Year’s Day, so they’d no doubt be coming to class distracted by parties, gossip, and ready with questions for me about Christmas in the United States.
But it was January. And January is cold. As I stood on the sidewalk outside of the Charles de Gaulle airport terminal and waited for the shuttle, it was a brutal 18 F degrees (-8 C), and the cold air stung my eyes and overwhelmed my lungs. It stung more as I was reminded that the holiday season was over. And it was a magical one in Paris. As I mentioned in my previous post, Paris is magical and enchanting when visited at any time of the year, but it is especially so during the months of November and December. Now, in January, the holiday lights on the Champs-Elysees will have gone dark, the wooden huts at the Christmas Market in front of the Eiffel Tower will be boarded up, and the lifelike department store window displays on Boulevard Haussmann will be taken down.
January in Paris
As I settled back into life in Paris, I heard “Bonne Année!” (“Happy New Year!”) a lot during that first week, from the shopkeepers at the Franprix grocery store, from the baker at the Boulangerie, from my co-workers at the high school where I taught. How beautiful, I thought, as I think of most of the French language. But after the first week in January, I kept hearing it.
I learned that Happy New Year wishes are exchanged in France throughout the entire month of January, for no reason other than to send wishes for happiness and health.
A Cake for a King
It was January 15, and my roommate, Kim, and I were out buying supplies for a party we were hosting for our coworkers from the English Teaching Assistant Program, a mix of American, English, and Irish 20-somethings spending the year in Paris like us. As the baker handed Kim her baguette wrapped in delicate white tissue paper, she said, “Bonne Année!” and then she asked, in French, “Have you had your Galette des Rois yet?”
I’d heard of a Galette des Rois, a King Cake, but this is traditionally consumed for Mardi Gras, the Tuesday before the first day of Lent. It’s a sweet, Brioche-style bread covered dusted with colored sugar, and it contains a teeny-tiny plastic baby. If you are the person who finds the baby, you are crowned the King or Queen, and it’s believed you’ll have good luck in the year ahead.
The shopkeeper explained that this Galette des Rois is consumed in honor of the Feast of the Epiphany on January 6, which marks the arrival of the Three Wise Men in Bethlehem. Instead of a tiny plastic baby, this Galette des Rois contains a tiny plastic charm, a fève. Similarly, whoever finds the fève in his or her piece of cake is crowned the King or Queen.
Wishes and More Cake
After that encounter, during which we actually ended up buying a Galette des Rois for our party that night, Kim and I started noticing Galette des Rois in bakeries and groceries across Paris. As we kept noticing these sweet, festive cakes through January 31, we kept hearing Bonne Année.
Although I didn’t find the fève in my Galette des Rois that January 15 night, the continued wish for a Happy New Year certainly brightened my January in Paris.
So, this January, in the spirit of French traditions, I encourage you to keep saying Happy New Year this entire month.