Just as babies born at Christmas are called Noel, Easter babies are called Pascal. Pancakes are served here on February 2, Candlemas, not Shrove Tuesday. That is Mardi Gras, when the French eat doughnuts and waffles and there is a great carnival in Nice and parades of dressed-up children everywhere. In fact, carnival comes from the Latin ‘carnelevare’, which means ‘to take out the meat’.
On Palm Sunday – Sunday of Branches in French – in regions where there are no palms, olive, laurel or even box branches are taken to church to be blessed and French children are given a new outfit for Easter.
During Lent no meat or eggs should be eaten and on Good Friday even non-believers and atheists eat only fish. Butchers used to clear their shop windows of meat, but remained open and you could go inside and buy your steak as usual.
Church bells, ‘flying bells’, grow a pair of wings and leave for the Vatican late on Holy Thursday carrying with them the grief of those about to mourn Christ’s crucifixion. When the Pope has blessed them they return full of chocolates and eggs early Easter Sunday morning. No church bells ring from Good Friday to Easter Sunday, when they convey a sense of new life, new hope and fresh adventures ahead.
Easter egg hunts are to search for the chocolate eggs which the bells have dropped, but when I organised one they all melted – and anyway the dogs had eaten most of them long before the children found any. The largest is outside Paris at Vaux-le-Vicomte, the chateau built by Fouquet, Louis XIV’s Superintendent of Finance. Louis and Colbert, who succeeded Fouquet, were so jealous that they had Fouquet arrested by D’Artagnan, the Gascon musketeer. He was imprisoned for life while Louis transformed Versailles from a small hunting chateau into a palace. At Easter the King would be served the largest egg that had been laid that week.
Children used to make nests for the eggs brought by the Easter bunny too and leave carrots out for him. There was also a custom of rolling raw eggs down a slope, symbolising rolling away the stone from Christ’s tomb, and even throwing raw eggs up in the air and catching them.
Some regions make special Easter breads, but the traditional lunch on Easter Sunday is usually eggs mimosa, the first asparagus, roast leg of lamb – pink – with haricot beans, early strawberries if there are any and a mocha cake called a ‘nid de Pâques’ or Easter nest.
In Bessières, outside Toulouse, a huge omelette is cooked every Easter Monday to remember Napoleon, who, having eaten a delicious one for supper, ordered that all eggs be gathered and made into a giant omelette for his troops. On Easter Monday in 1973 a group of friends decided to make a 10,000-egg omelette there to commemorate Napoleon’s stay and this has become a tradition.
After Easter comes the Ascension and then Whitsun or Pentecost – for a secular country, France observes a remarkable number of religious holidays.