The French are rather a superstitious bunch – and some of the superstitions are very odd - got 13 for dinner and think the number 13 is unlucky? Then go French, pop an egg on the table, now you have 14 for dinner! Tread in dog poo and think it's ruined your day? Non, non, non - in France it could be lucky, depending on which foot did the deed! Want to make a wish come true? Well that's simple, just find a French sailor, dressed in uniform including the traditional beret with a red bobble on top - and give that bobble a twiddle! What?
Yes, these and more strange and fabulous superstitions will be discussed in this very fun podcast episode!
Plus a listener asks a question about the seasons in France and we explain how the bonker French Revolutionary calendar could have made things very different with 10 day-long weeks, and 3 week-long months and a unique name for every day of the year!
Thanks for listening!
PODCAST 16 - Weird and wonderful superstitions of France
Janine: Bonjour and welcome to the Good Life France podcast – everything you want to know about France and more. I’m Janine Marsh, I’m an author and travel writer and though I was born in London, UK, I now live in a tiny village in the far north of France with 60 animals including 8 cats, 2 dogs, chickens, ducks and geese.
Olivier: Bonjour, I’m Olivier, Oli for short. You may not be able to tell because I don’t have any foreign accent at all, but I am from France, though I have lived in the UK for 20 years and when I am not at work, I have a radio station that plays fabulous French chansons… It’s called Paris Chanson.
Janine: Actually Oli before we start, why don’t you tell us a little more about French chansons because although the word chanson means song in English there’s a little more to it than that isn’t there!
Olivier: Yes, it’s true, chansons are songs but in France when we say La Chanson Francaise, we mean it to refer to a particular kind of song, basically where the words are as important, or maybe more important than the music, and usually it means the songs of the 1930s, 40s and 50s. Songs that are telling stories. There are lots of classic chansons singers – Charles Trenet for instance who sang La Mer, and of course Edith Piaf – I mean who can ever forget the words of Non, je ne regrette rien – I regret nothing, the words touch your soul…
Janine: I love that song, when it starts and you hear that opening almost military-sounding introduction…
It just gives me goose pimples… what an amazing voice. And, you can find Oli’s radio station at parischanson.fr – I’ll spell it out for you at the end of the podcast!
Olivier: Thank you Janine and yes Edith Piaf sang very beautiful chansons. Absolutely amazing. But now… what’s on the podcast menu today Janine?
Janine: Today we’re going to be talking about French superstitions, and traditions! Yes the French are rather a superstitious bunch – and some of the superstitions are very odd. And there are some really wonderful traditions too, some odd, some are just lovely so we’ll touch on a few off those too.
Now I must say, being superstitious is normal in most if not all countries, and plenty of superstitions are the same in France as they are in many countries – like not walking under a ladder and lucky black cats. But France also has some superstitions that are very peculiar and I am going to kick it off with a question to Olivier to show you what I mean.
So Olivier, the French believe it is lucky to tread in dog poo. True or False?
Olivier: Hmm well it is both true and false! It’s only lucky if you tread in merde with your left foot. But if you tread in it with your right foot – not so lucky.
Janine: Yes, I’ve heard this before, and I once saw a shop in Paris selling quote “lucky dog shit from Paris” unquote. They obviously didn’t follow their own advice because it wasn’t a best seller and the shop has now gone. Imagine someone coming to Paris for a holiday and then taking home a souvenir like that for their friends. “Here you are grandmother, I bought you a gift from Paris!” Maybe you would wrap it up nice, the French way, you know stylish paper, a ribbon, maybe some glitter. And then imagine the anticipation of the person you’re giving the gift to, they pull the ribbon, they gently peel back the paper, they lift out the tin and read those words… and then look at you as if you have lost the plot, gone totally bonkers!
Olivier: I don’t know why we say this really because it’s not very lucky at all, you have a mess to deal with whichever foot. I think it was started as a joke because in Paris some people don’t clear up after their dogs and somehow the joke became a superstition that spread…
Anyway let’s talk about something nice - the tradition of the fete du muguet. Muguet is the lily of the valley flower, and in France we give these lovely plants to our loved ones. King Charles IX of France was given a lily of the valley plant on the 1st May in 1561. He was told it would bring him luck and being a superstitious person, he thought it would be a nice idea to give a lily of the valley plant every year on May 1st to the ladies of his court to bring more luck all round.
Over time it became a tradition to offer a lily of the valley bouquet to bring good luck. The little white flowers were also made into a boutonnière, or buttonhole in English, for boys to wear to parties in the olden days where girls dressed in white were allowed to meet potential boyfriends! They were called “bals de muguet” Lily of the Valley dances, and a sweet Moselle wine was served and it was said that to be happy all year. one had only to drink the wine known as “May drink” on May 1st.
And did you know that Prince William’s wife, Kate Duchess of Cambridge, had a bouquet of Lily of the Valley for her wedding in 2011?
Janine: I love the Lily of the Valley tradition, such a lovely scent. But I really like the weird superstitions so here’s another one… One day I was in our local supermarket, queuing at the checkout with the usual kiss on the cheek and chit-chat going on at the checkout when the server knew someone in the queue, while we all waited in line. This is normal in France. The checkout staff in rural French supermarkets pretty much know everyone that comes in and they always have a catch up and a kiss over the counter. It wouldn’t matter if a top Hollywood star was in the queue and late for an awards ceremony, or if the President had popped in for a bottle of milk (which maybe could happen as he has a second home in the seaside town of Le Touquet near where I live) – anyway it doesn’t matter who is in the queue, or how long it is, we all have to wait for this important social ritual.
Anyway, I was next in line to be served and the woman in front of me who was pregnant said to the lady at the counter that she had seen a “hibou” (an owl) and therefore her bébé was going to be a girl! Now my French is ok, though it’s not perfect but I was sure that I heard that right. So when I got home I l looked it up and sure enough it’s an old French superstition. Seeing an owl when you’re pregnant foretells that you will be give birth to a female child.
Olivier: Ok that it is a bit of a strange one. And yes we do have some very strange superstitions, like some people say that if you sing on ‘alloween, it will create stormy weather!
Janine: Wow imagine it’s Halloween, and the sky is clear and you’re singing a nice little song in the kitchen as you make your pumpkin pie, all happy, feeling festive, glass of wine, maybe a nice white from the Loire Valley or a deep red Bordeaux. You pop the pie in the oven, it’s been a lovely sunny day… and then later a clap of thunder, a storm arrives – that might be your fault! Literally singing up a storm! I did that!
Olivier: Yes, never sing in front of a French person at ‘alloween!
When I was a kid, one of our neighbours used to say it was bad luck to cross a stream carrying a cat! Actually in the old days they used to believe that if you did that someone in your family would die. Totally crazy!
Janine: Was that something you used to do, a sort of human ferry service for cats to cross a stream?
Olivier: Non, never! Okay another cat one… if a cat sneezes near a bride on her wedding day – great, because that means the marriage will be happy! And we also say “marriage pluvieux, marriage heureux” (meaning: if it rains at your wedding, you will have a happy life as a couple).
Janine: That’s proper weird… and in France, when you move into a new home, you don’t carry your bride over the threshold, you carry the dining room table first if you want to be lucky! That’s so French isn’t it. The table for the food first, most important!
Ok that makes me think of the tradition of clinking your glasses together for a toast in France. Now that tradition is very common, many countries do it, in English we might say “cheers” and clink glasses, or we Brits might say “bottoms up or down the hatch” or “chin chin”. And in fact the French often say ‘chin chin too” or they might say “santé” – good health or several or other things. But when the French say it and clink glasses – they stare into the eyes of the person they are clinking with because the superstition is, if you don’t do that, you will suffer seven years of bad sex! Yes really! It happens to me wherever I go and I am really careful to stare back as some of my French friends get a bit tetchy if I don’t! If you are in a bar in France and you see French people drinking and clinking and staring like they’ve seen a ghost at each, all goggle-eyed – this is the reason why!
Olivier: Yes it’s true, you must stare each other in the eyes! Or suffer! Now, let’s talk about the tooth mouse! In some countries when you’re a kid and your tooth falls out, the tooth fairy comes and leaves you some money. But in France we have a tooth mouse – called la petite Souris. The little mouse collects the tooth and leaves a euro! Not as cute as a fairy, especially if a mouse scares you, but it works well with kids.
Janine: Talking of teeth, how’s this for a really really odd French superstition. My friends Gary and Annette who live a couple of villages along from my had a really old dog called Bob and he had some bad teeth that had to be taken out. So they went to the vets to get it dealt with. When they went to collect Bob afterwards, the vet asked them if they wanted to keep the rotten teeth. “Why would we want his teeth” Annette asked. “For the moles” said the vet and my friends said they did actually wonder if the vet had had a glass or two of pastis.
But no, it turns out that there was a waiting list for dogs teeth as it’s said that they keep the moles away. I wonder if that’s why they’re called molars?
Olivier: Ok, Lets talk about some foodie customs because this is France, and we cannot talk for long without talking about food. Something very important to know: never place a baguette (or even bread in general) upside down on a table. This superstition comes from long ago days when executioners could take things from shops without paying – I mean who’s going to argue? – and bakers would leave bread upside down for them. If you leave it upside down it’s said that the people who were meant to eat will be cursed and you will invite famine into your house…
Janine: One of my favourite food superstitions is when you go to a restaurant and there are 13 people in a group - and as you know 13 is unlucky - and so the waiter puts an egg on the table to make it 14 and ward off the bad luck! Which you know, it doesn’t at all, or probably not, maybe it does, but anyway apparently some people believe that makes it not unlucky 13! Apparently.
I’ve never actually been to someone’s house and there were 13 of us. Oli would you put an egg on the table if there were 13 people for dinner at your house?
Olivier: I wouldn’t personally no, but I remember very well that, during family reunions, tables were arranged or re arranged in a way to avoid being 13 on the same one. For example: 8 adults would be using one table in one room and 5 kids (my cousins and I) would be using another one in another room.
I think the most superstitious people in France are actors and people who work in the theatre – they have sooo many superstitions. Like never give a bouquet of carnations to an actress! Because it was a tradition when theatres had permanent actors for directors to offer roses to actresses when they renewed their contract, and carnations which were cheaper to those who were no longer required!
And you should say “merde” while crossing your fingers, to mean good luck to actors, not ‘break a leg’ like in the UK and North America. Lots of words are unlucky too, “cordes” – which means rope, and “rideau” for curtain. And the colour green is unlucky in the theatre, apparently the great playwright Molliere wore green for his last play and shortly after dropped down dead. Same on TV, green clothes are to be avoided if possible.
Janine: Napoleon was quite a superstitious man. He believed that Josephine, his beloved, brought him good luck and I read that she really played up on it. Once when one of his ministers suggested to her that it may be in the best interests of France to grant Napoleon a divorce as she didn’t bear him children, she reported it to Napoleon and told him she was afraid if she did it would bring bad luck. Napoleon, who likely got the minister to talk to her in the first place, didn’t push it, at least for a while. It’s said that he really believed he was guided by a lucky star, he hated the number 13 and he didn’t like Fridays!
Olivier: Well that’s the opposite to the French belief, Friday 13th is supposed to be lucky! In fact it’s the best day to buy your lottery ticket in France.
Places can be lucky too! Like in the the Père-Lachaise Cemetery in Paris where some of the thousands of graves in there are said to bring luck… It’s said that the if you visit the grave of French writer Allan Kardec, an unusual dolmen-shaped tomb known as the most flowery in the cemetery you can make a wish and by touching a certain spot on the grave, it will come true. And if it does come true, you have to come back and lay flowers – which is why it’s the most flowery grave in the cemetery.
Janine: If you go to Dijon in Burgundy, one of my most favourite cities in all of France, on the corner of the church of Notre Dame building is a little brass owl, it’s said that if you rub the owl with your left hand, not your right hand, that doesn’t count, and make a wish it will come true and if you stand there you’ll see loads of people come past and rub the owl – locals and visitors. I’ve rubbed it myself a few times. My wish hasn’t come true yet, but maybe if I buy a ticket on Friday the 13th it will!
Olivier: We also believe that if you see a ladybird, or ladybug, fly away - its good luck or it can mean good weather is on the way! If the ladybird lands on you, count the dots on its back and that’s how many happy months you will have. Or you can make a wish and the ladybird will take it to heaven for you. Or if you hold it in your hand, and it doesn’t try to fly away – it means the bad weather is coming! It’s a very old superstition and goes back more than 1000 years. King Robert the Pious (born in the year 972) was watching a prisoner being executed and as the poor man bent over to have his head lopped off, a ladybird landed on his neck. The executioner tried to wave it away but it stayed. So King Robert said it must be a sign from God that the prisoner was in fact innocent and he pardoned him.
Janine: Wow. He must have thought all his Christmases came that day that prisoner. Imagine that. I. bet people thought he was lucky. He was! And back again in Paris near the famous Sorbonne university there is a statue of Michel de Montaigne, a French philosopher born in 1533. He is sitting with his legs crossed and there is a tradition for students to rub his right foot while saying " Salut Montaigne" and it will bring good luck during the exams!
Olivier: At the Bay of St Guirec in Ploumanac’h in Brittany there is a statue of the Irish monk Saint Guirec, who landed here in the 6th century and you’ll see that his face is damaged. It used to be a custom for Breton girls to visit him and stick a pin in his nose. They did have a reason! Apparently this helped them get a husband – but eventually the poor saint lost his nose
Janine: Ok, just one last superstition – if you really want some good luck to flow your way, what you have to do is find a French sailor, dressed in uniform and wearing his traditional bonnet on which is a little red bobble. And then you have to twiddle to the bobble. I don’t know about twiddle, sounds like twaddle to me! However, I am going to the event of the Rouen Armada in June, it’s an incredible week of all things nautical with ships from all over the world in port, and streets concerts and fireworks. And I may see if I can twiddle a bobble – or maybe not, I might get arrested!
Olivier: So Janine, it’s time to answer a listener’s question, what have we been asked this week?
Janine: This week’s question is from Janine Regan of Melbourne Australia who says “ I love your podcast (and your books Janine – and thank you for that the other Janine!) and have a question I hope you can answer.
When do the seasons start and end in France? Here in Australia, the seasons start on the 1st day of the quarter: Summer 1st December, Autumn 1st March, Winter 1st June, Spring 1st September.
But I believe it’s a little different in France; is that correct?
So Olivier – when do the seasons start in France?
Olivier: Well France is in the northern hemisphere, so very different dates – our summer is the day of the summer solstice generally June 20th, 21st or 22nf, the day with the most daylight hours in the year. Spring is on usually around 20th March, Autumn around 20th September and Winter around 20th December the day of the winter solstice – the day with the least daylight hours in the year. But the dates can change. The seasons’ dates are based on the equinoxes and solstices for the year.
Janine: Thanks Oli, so yes, Janine quite different! But it could have been even more different. In the days following the French Revolution the old calendar was done away with because the government that took over didn’t want anything to do with religion and the old calendar was secular, and composed of Saints Days. So for a while a new calendar was used. It began on October 5th 1793 which then became Vendemiaire Un, Year one, not 1793 anymore. And all the days were given different names – 365 names! For instance 2nd of July was Lavande meaning lavender, and 12th of June was caille-laite meaning bed straw. And the weeks were 10 days long. The months were 3 weeks long. The months had their names changed too – so January was called Pluviose from the Latin pluviousus meaning rainy and July was called Thermidor from the Greek ‘thermon’ meaning heat and May was Floreal meaning flowery and months reflected the weather and the planting season – fog, snow, rain, wind, fruit etc. The British called the French months snowy, flowy, blowy, showery, flowery, bowery, hoppy, croppy, droppy, breezy, sneezy and freezy! The new year started in September and at the end of the year the month of Fructidor – August, had 5 extra days. It sounds ridiculously complicated – and it was. Basically, it confused the heck out of everyone so much that when Napoleon came to power and abolished the calendar and normality returned in 1806 everyone was very relieved. Not surprising really is it?!
Ah the French revolution… what a mess it has been in France since it happened in 1789….
Olivier: Feel free to keep sending those questions in – we love to answer them! Send them to email@example.com and we’ll do our best to help.
Janine: Thank you so much for listening and a huge thank you to everyone sharing this podcast with friends and family – that means a lot to us.
You can find me on www.thegoodlifefrance.com – everything you want to know about France and more – where you can subscribe to my fun newsletter, this podcast to my award winning, free magazine at magazine.thegoodlifefrance.com. A lot of people ask me if it’s possible to have a print copy but at the moment with the ever increasing cost of ink, paper and delivery my choices would be to pass on the cost to the reader – or go bankrupt. Neither of those choices appeal to me! So for now it is online, totally free and utterly brilliant – just ask the more than 12 million readers who enjoyed the last 5 issues!
Olivier: And you can fine me playing all those beautiful French chansons…at parischanson.fr
Janine: Oli I get a lot of people asking for those details again, so just to make it really clear the details are p a r i s c h a n s o n dot f r – it’s a fabulous free radio station that plays terrific French music – great for anyone learning French too!
But for now it’s au revoir from me
Olivier: And goodbye from me.
Janine: Speak to you soon!