Easter Magic in France

Easter Magic in France

Missing France, the warm sunshine, early strawberries and blue skies? Here’s some Easter and chocolate goodies from the lovely Beth and friends in southwest France.

For Christian folks, Easter, which signifies a period of mourning followed by a joyous celebration, is an exceptional time here in France. It’s one that possesses another magic for children of all ages.

Like in many countries, supermarket shelves are decorated with rows of themed chocolate goodies. Not to be outdone, the festival is the perfect opportunity for chocolatiers and pâtissiers to demonstrate their skills by preparing lavish displays. Bunnies, eggs, baskets and chicks are all lovingly created, along with bells with wings and ribbons. Why the strange bells? I wondered.

I knew that the Bunny is an Easter tradition of Germanic and Nordic origin going back to ancient times. The fertility of the rabbit symbolised renewal and multiple creations of life. As for eggs and chicks, there are several theories as to why they have significance.

The egg, an ancient symbol of new life, has been associated with pagan festivals celebrating spring, as is the chick. From a Christian perspective, Easter eggs represent Jesus’ resurrection and emergence from the tomb, which gave rise to an old French tradition – the contest of rolling raw eggs down a gentle slope.

Legend has it that the surviving egg was victorious and symbolised the stone being rolled away from the tomb of Christ. I understood most of the logic behind these myths but was still foxed by the winged bells, so dug deeper in my research.  I discovered that Les Clôches de Pâques (Easter bells) tradition goes back a long, long way – the 7th century, in fact.

The Catholic Church forbade the ringing of church bells between Maundy Thursday and Easter Sunday. It’s the same now. Beginning on Maundy Thursday (Thursday just before Easter), France’s church bells stay silent for three days, mourning the death of Jesus as told in the Bible. They remain silent until the day of his resurrection.  According to legend, during this period, the holy bells fly on a pilgrimage to Rome, carrying the grief of those who mourn Jesus’ crucifixion. They are blessed by the Pope and fly back on Saturday eve with tiny wings and ribbons. And that’s not all.
The bells are loaded with presents which they drop for children across France on their return to church bell towers. On Easter morning, they triumphantly ring out to announce the resurrection of Jesus Christ. This joyous pealing signals the start of another magical event for children across France. From this moment, “La Chasse aux Oeufs” (The Egg Hunt) can begin.   

In our little village, the Mairie runs an Easter Egg hunt for the children. The last time I was involved, I joined a gaggle of giggling adult helpers. We crept stealthily around the salle des fêtes gardens, hiding gifts under bushes, in plant pots, on flowerbeds, and several were concealed in plain sight.

At the appointed hour, excited kids appeared with their parents. The mayor cried, “Les cloches sont passées” (the bells have passed), and the children dashed off to forage. Each had a basket, bag or deep pockets to store their treasures.

Choccy eggs, bunnies, chicks and winged bells. There were loads of them strewn all over the place. Each of the organisers was on hand to help, and I wound up with a young lass who was determined to fill her pannier, pockets and mine too.

Finally, the mayor called time and the children assembled with their prizes. Some were more successful than others, but that didn’t matter. Each was presented with a special egg by the mayor as a treat for taking part. As you can see from those beaming faces, it was a great success.

For anyone who can manage a meal after snacking on chocolate, the typical Easter repas (feast) here is also significant. Dining tables are decorated with colourful seasonal flowers, and family members paint eggs to theme the festive period.

The main dish is traditionally lamb and there’s a reason for this. Lamb symbolises spring, new life and innocence. It also represents Jesus as the ‘Sacrificial Lamb’. I haven’t come across a specific recipe for our area, although a leg of roast lamb cooked in a marinade of garlic, rosemary and Dijon mustard is very popular. And I’m not surprised; the combination produces a taste sensation.

Desserts are often chocolate-based puds here and usually served with fresh strawberries. The Gariguette variety is a local favourite. If you haven’t tried them, you really should. They are unbelievably sweet and fragrant.

Naturellement, no French meal is complete without wines and the ubiquitous cheeseboard. With literally hundreds of different types of cheese produced here in France, the options are practically endless. It’s really up to the host’s whims with an eye on French cheese serving etiquette, which is a whole subject on its own.

Pâques, as with many festivals both secular and religious, is celebrated with reverence and joy in southwest France. It is seen as a family occasion, and, yes, it really does possess that magie spéciale.

Thank you once again Beth for this new piece (and photo), we look forward to more stories next month. Until then you can see Beth's lovely books and stories on her FatDogs website.