Posing at the Louvre, pre-Nutella discovery judging by my displeased expression
When I landed in Paris over New Years, however, I didn’t have time to relive my fond childhood memories of chocolate-hazelnut spreads and piping-hot packages of goodness. I promptly tripped and fell in the Airbnb and landed myself in Hôtel-Dieu, a hospital on Île de la Cité — claimed by Wikipedia to be the oldest in France — with a broken ankle and a prescription for crutches or béquilles and a very stylish boot...to boot. I’m not sure I can attest to Hôtel-Dieu's reputation of agedness, as I spent most of my time there (7 hours) waiting under strong fluorescents for my name to be called, watching my fellow patients and doctors alike take smoke break after smoke break in the damp couloir as my ankle grew to the size of a softball. I can, however, say that if you’d like to have a charming time in Paris, steer clear of the combination of red wine and a dimly lit Airbnb hallway, or you’ll end up hobbling along ten paces behind your family, as I was, barely managing to avoid fatal collision with tourists and motorcycles alike.
Putting on a brave face
So, my time in Paris went by without a whisper of a crêpe. I spent our short vacation icing and elevating my foot while my parents brought me squished pain au chocolat and paracetamol. Luckily for me, however, this Friday, February 2nd, is la Chandeleur, which might not mean much to the average American, but for someone who works at the French Library, I’m hoping to partake in some crêpe eating, no matter the state of my ankle.
I’m not entirely familiar with la Chandeleur as a holiday, even though I lived in France with a host family for a year and some change. My daily life in Rennes was already enough of a celebration of crêpes — my friends and I would park ourselves in our favorite Crêperie Sainte-Anne for hours after school, drinking bowls of cidre and luxuriating in all the different flavor combinations from sweet to savory. We especially loved the Breton classic, galette complète, with its perfect marriage of ham, cheese, and a fried egg on top. Every day was la Chandeleur, which might explain why any celebration of the actual holiday is lost in my memory.
Doing a quick Google search, I discovered a few things. February 2nd, while also marking a Christian holiday (Candlemas), was first fêted by pagans celebrating the fertility of the earth and the beginning of spring. Crêpes came to symbolize the sun due to their round shape and light color, and they were eaten with the hopes of bringing about luck and prosperity in the New Year. La Chandeleur is also meant to be a very superstitious holiday, with countless examples of superstitions surrounding each step of the crêpe making and eating process. One tradition states you should hold a coin in one hand and flip the crêpe in another. If you manage to successfully flip the crêpe, you can expect financial gains in your near future.
I asked around to a couple of our French colleagues at the library, looking to better understand what la Chandeleur actually signifies in the culture. Benoit, our librarian, gave me some valuable insight into his family’s celebration of the holiday:
“La Chandeleur is mostly about gathering with family and eating as many crêpes as possible. We used to have a complete meal with salty crêpes first, but le clou du spectacle was the sweet ones. It was a moment we were all waiting for. The table was filled with options to mix your crêpe with (Nutella, confiture, crème de marron, jus de citron, sucre de canne). As we grew up, we started to finally have access to la crêpe flambée, which is usually cooked with rum or another alcohol that you light on fire in the pan. Chandeleur is basically another occasion for the French to eat, drink and spend a long time around the table.”
I suspected as much. The French love any excuse, religious or not, to spend an entire afternoon and evening sitting around a table. In fact, I probably did celebrate la Chandeleur with my host family without even realizing, writing it off as one of our weekly 5-hour long meals.
In addition to Benoit’s experience, I had to talk to our Gastronomy & Wine Program Manager, Delphine Klein. Delphine gave me some insider tips on the proper consumption of a Chandeleur crêpe:
“We always celebrated la Chandeleur in our family. As a child, I can remember the large crêpes our mother prepared for the evening meal, a tall stack of crêpes on a round plate in the center of the table. We brought out our house-made jam (blueberry was my favorite) and caster sugar to season our crêpes. The trick was to spread the jam evenly, applying just the right amount (not too much, not too little), roll the pancake and eat it while still warm, without the jam dripping from the ends and getting everywhere...a true artistry for tiny hands! We ate as many as possible, until we gave ourselves stomach aches. What a joy to have sweets for dinner while avoiding soup and vegetables for a night!”
Crêpe à la confiture: a match made in heaven
Neither of my sources were able to corroborate my Google search findings that la Chandeleur is also famous for being a day of extreme superstition in France. It seems that February 2nd is first and foremost a celebration of two things: delicious food and good company, both of which I look forward to finding at the French Library this weekend.
We’re celebrating la Chandeleur a day late: this Saturday, the 3rd, from 2:30 to 4:30 PM. I’ll be there on my crutches, finally getting the crêpes I deserve, and I hope I'll see you there to join us in fêting these sun-shaped harbingers of prosperity, harvest, and Nutella.
Maxine discovered her affinity for French language and culture while living with a host family and studying French literature in Rennes, Brittany during her junior year of high school with School Year Abroad. During her time at SYA, her parents took beginner’s classes at the French Library—it was then that Maxine first learned of the library’s existence. Maxine continued with her French studies at Tufts University, majoring in English and French literature with a concentration in visual studies. Along with her time in Rennes, Maxine lived in Paris for a summer where she worked at a small art gallery in the Marais.
Six years after her high school experience in France and a year post college graduation, Maxine is thrilled to be the Administrative Assistant to the French Library, where she hopes to continue learning about and celebrating French culture and literature. In her free time, Maxine enjoys reading, seeing the newest art films at Kendall Square Cinema, and going for runs around the Esplanade.