French Tradition: Les Voeux Et Les Etrennes

The tradition of giving étrennes on New Year’s Day harks back to the Roman period. Despite attempts by the Church and the French Revolution to abolish this tradition, it has prevailed all the way until present day.

The use of the New Year’s gifts dates back to Antiquity when the Romans offered figs, dates and honey to their friends and relatives. This was to wish a pleasant and sweet rest of the year to the recipient. The word étrennes actually comes from the name of the goddess Strenia or Strena meaning ‘valiant’ or ‘generous’. Under the reign of the early Kings of Rome, green branches from a wood dedicated to such prosperity were offered to the magistrates as a sign of good fortune at the beginning of the New Year.

The giving of gifts became so common that all people gave the Emperor a silver gift. The Emperor’s successors were not so enamoured by this tradition and each tried to abolish it. The date of New Year has frequently changed and the Romans would celebrate this festival on 1st March. It was King Charles IX who made the date of 1st January the established date of the New Year that we know and celebrate today.

Nowadays, this tradition has extended to the giving of gifts, or a little bit of money. It is often the case that children will write vœux, usually a card wishing good luck and fortune for the New Year and their grandparents or an older generation within the family will then give them a little gift or pocket money to thank them for their kind thoughts. Etrennes are now also used as an opportunity to thank those in the service industries such as the concierge in the building or the local cleaners for their service throughout the year. In Roman times this meant that everyone began to work hard so as to not be lazy for the rest of the year and to ensure that they would receive the gifts again.

It does, however, seem that this tradition is dying out, as offering presents on New Year’s Day has gradually disappeared in favour of giving of gifts at Christmas. Nevertheless, some do still partake in this tradition and it remains a very thoughtful and positive action to start the New Year.