Schoolchildren in France love the month of May. For their teachers and parents, though, it’s a real cauchemar (nightmare). Of the eight holidays that merit school vacations in France, four of them occur during the month of May. Of the five weeks in the month only one of them – this one – spans a full five days.
Known as jours fériés, or days without work, the French calendar of holidays is surprisingly religious, considering its officially laïque (secular) government. Since French schoolchildren get only July and August for summer vacation, the rest of the year is sliced into two-week vacations and long breaks. The first vacation of the school year is in November – the holiday of Toussaint, or All Saint’s Day. Toussaint is a Catholic holiday celebrating, surprise, surprise, all the saints and is not only a religious holiday, but a national one.
Armistice Day on November 11th gives students and workers a nice long (and non-religiously affiliated) weekend, before the two-week Christmas vacation in December. In the U.S., public schools aren’t allowed to slap Christian names onto the school holidays – the Tacoma School District always called it “Winter Vacation” – but on the official Sciences Po année calendrière 2007-2008 calendar, it’s shamelessly labeled as the Vacances de Noël.
Most of January is spent celebrating l’Epiphanie. The holiday, which celebrates the three kings who followed the star of Bethlehem to find Jesus, officially falls on the first Sunday in January. Though kids don’t get a vacation for this holiday, every boulangerie in France sells the galettes des rois throughout the month, and schools have Epiphany parties to determine the day’s official king. The cakes, which are round and dense, are made from a thick almond paste surrounded by a flaky pastry crust. In each cake the boulanger hides a fêve, and whoever is served the piece with the little token – typically something like a golden coin or a ceramic baby Jesus, wins the cardboard crown and is king for the day. (The galettes are delicious – I’m not sure I would have made it through Sciences Po finals week if it hadn’t fallen at the end of January and smack in the middle of the fête des rois).
Kids typically have two weeks off in February which is just a school break – there aren’t any bank holidays in February – and two more off in April for Pâques (Easter). You know you’re living in a historically Catholic country when the translation for Passover is Pâques juifs, or “Jewish Easter.”
May Day is a completely secular holiday – it’s known as the workers’ holiday because no one has to work, and is celebrated by giving sprigs of muguet (lily of the valley) to friends and family. May Day fell on a Tuesday this year, and though most workers only had the one day off, the nanny kids enjoyed a four-day weekend.
The very next Tuesday was May 8th – a celebration of the victory of 1945 and the end of German occupation in France. This holiday is also completely secular and creates a second four-day weekend in a row.
Falling 40 days after Easter is l’Ascension, which celebrates the ascension of Jesus to Heaven. L’Ascension falls each year on a Thursday, and schools break for a five-day weekend – Wednesday through Sunday. Last weekend was the holiday of Ascension, and its end marked our entry into the single five-day school week in the month of May.
This coming weekend, the fête de Pentecôte (Pentecost), is actually a pretty controversial subject in France. Pentecost had been a jour férié since 1886 – until the French government began to get concerned that there were just too many holidays – particularly religious ones – in May. In 2004 the holiday was renamed the Journée de solidarité envers les personnes âgées et handicappés (day of solidarity for the elderly and handicapped) – a much more secular holiday for an officially secular state. The creation of the new holiday was led by the government of former Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin, following the heat wave of 2003 that resulted in the deaths of fifteen thousand people in France – mostly the homeless and elderly.
What’s supposed to happen on Pentecost is that everyone in France spends the day working, and all the production of that one day should go to the elderly and the prevention of the risks that would come if another heat wave were to hit Europe (like the one that’s being predicted for this summer, perhaps?) The problem with turning a former day off into a day on is that France is not a country of workaholics. The 35-hour work week is a law, shops close at dinnertime (remember the Oprah in Hermés incident?), and the entire country shuts down for the month of August when everyone takes their vacations. Trying to take away a day off of work from people who have enjoyed it for 118 years is not going to go over well. It basically just didn’t work.
France kept the day of solidarity – but with one modification. It’s now up to every individual business and company to decide whether its employees will enjoy a holiday or will work for the elderly. That’s why Sciences Po students had no idea whether or not we’d be having another three-day weekend until last week. My only class that is really affected by the celebration of Pentecost or solidarity is my French class – and last week not even our teacher knew whether or not we’d be counted absent for taking the holiday. She’d even called the Sécretariat to inquire and got only a “we’ll let you know” in response.
We finally received our answer in the form of an email in the middle of last week.
Conformément aux dispositions de la loi du 30 juin 2004 “relative à la solidarité pour l’autonomie des personnes âgées et des personnes handicapées”, nous vous informons que Sciences po sera fermé le lundi 28 mai 2007, lundi de Pentecôte.
In conformity with the law of June 30, 2004, “relating to the solidarity for the autonomy of the elderly and handicapped,” we’re informing you that Sciences Po will be closed on Monday May 28, 2007, the Monday of Pentecost.
We’re so not complaining.