French and Corsican Easter Traditions

Easter Egg - made by local artist Catherine Smedley
Easter Egg – made by local artist Catherine Smedley

The celebration of Easter in France doesn’t diverge hugely from its counterpart in the UK, apart from the obvious religious differences. People consume large quantities of chocolate and Paschal lamb, for example. However, there are some traditions and customs that are different and worth noting.

Easter is Pâques in French. It’s plural so you wish people ‘Joyeuses Pâques’. The word has the same origins as our own Paschal: from a Latinised version of the old Hebrew word Pesach or Passover. The Last Supper is thought to have taken place on the same night as the Jewish feast of Passover. No doubt this is open to debate.

Vendredi Saint is not a public holiday

Whereas in the UK and other Protestant countries Good Friday (Vendredi Saint) is a public holiday, in France people go to work as usual. The exceptions are the eastern départements of Alsace and Moselle, where it is a public holiday. Any amenities such as museums, which are normally open on a Sunday, remain so on Easter Sunday. Easter Monday, however, is a holiday throughout France.

However, on looking at our bank’s website today, I notice that Good Friday, along with Easter Monday, is not a jour bancable, i.e. you can’t carry out certain transactions. So today is in fact a bank holiday even if it isn’t a public holiday.

Flying bells

Les Cloches de Pâques (Easter bells) are the basis of a traditional tale told to children. The bells are silent from the Thursday before Good Friday until early Sunday morning. This three-day interdiction marks the period of mourning for Christ. People explain to children that all the bells have flown to Rome to be blessed by the Pope. When they return they are full of chocolate eggs that they scatter over the countryside for the children to find on Easter Sunday. The bells then chime again to mark the Resurrection.

While not actually expressing disapproval of this fairy tale, the website of the Catholic Church in France exhorts parents to explain the real reason for the bells’ silence. It says that their biggest joy should be in the resuscitation of Christ, not in finding Easter eggs. They may be fighting an uphill battle on that one.

Chocoholics’ Paradise

The usual industrially-made chocolate eggs, bunnies etc are available in the supermarkets. But local boulangers/patissiers vie with each other to make the most inventive chocolate treats and ingenious window displays. The traditional eggs, bunnies and chicks are on offer. But you’ll also see chocolate fish in abundance and, of course, chocolate bells in celebration of the fable described above.

Corsican procession

Beautiful little church at Nonza on Cap Corse
Beautiful little church at Nonza on Cap Corse

Perhaps the most interesting display of religious fervour takes place in Corsica. We have never been there at Easter but we hear that the Good Friday procession (Catenacciu) at the atmospheric town of Sartène is worth seeing. U Catenacciu literally means ‘the carrier of chains’. Dorothy Carrington described it in graphic detail in her wonderful book Granite Island: A Portrait of Corsica. Processions take place in other towns but this is the most famous.

Sartène could, with some justification, be described as vendetta capital of Corsica. It somehow seems fitting, therefore, that this act of penitence takes place there every year. In past times, any warring factions observed a truce throughout the ceremony.

The procession is a re-enactment of the Calvary. A chief penitent is chosen from many applications. Some people wait years to take on the role but only the parish priest knows their identity (no doubt a throwback to the old vendetta days). This person is robed and hooded in scarlet and, his bare feet in chains, drags a large cross uphill through the streets. A procession of garbed penitents and the parish fraternity follows, with a bier on which reclines an effigy of Christ taken down from the cross. By tradition, the chief penitent must fall three times, as Christ did on the way to Golgotha.

U Catenacciu. Public domain, Wikimedia Commons.

Dorothy Carrington describes the press of hundreds of people in the streets, overlooked by spectators jammed into the upper windows of the houses. The noise level was incredible as people shouted and pushed to get a view. Carrington writes:

These people who go about their daily affairs with the solemnity due to a religious rite become boisterous, even aggressive…What they conveyed was…a release of violent primitive energy. Perhaps they are never so united as in this yearly procession: they become aware of their brotherhood only in their shared sense of guilt.

Today, several thousand people squash into the narrow streets of Sartène to get a glimpse of u catenacciu. Now that it has become a tourist attraction, no doubt it has lost some of its elemental power and mystery. I’d still like to see it, though.

Chapelle de Saint-Eliseo above Saint-Pietro di Venaco
Chapelle de Saint-Eliseo above Saint-Pietro di Venaco

You might also like:

Saint Catherine’s Day Customs

Les Chemins de Saint-Jacques de Compostelle 

French Christmas Traditions 

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