France – New Year’s Etiquette

OUTSIDE royal and official circles, etiquette sits lightly on English shoulders. Christmas boxes to children, servants, and postmen are certainly regarded in the light of an obligation. Here what may be called domestic subjection to the calendar begins and ends. We may notice or pass over the New Year as we will. In France, it is otherwise. New Year’s etiquette is surely the heaviest untaxed burden ever laid upon the shoulders of a civilized people. From the Elysée down to the mansarde, from the President of the Republic down to the dustman, every successive First of January is memorialized with almost religious ceremonial. The Protocol is not more rigidly followed, the Code Civil itself is not more precise, than French etiquette of the New Year. It is then that the bureaucratic and military world respect-fully salute their chiefs ; it is then that family bonds are re-knit in closest union ; it is then that our neighbours bring out their visiting lists and balance the debit and credit of social intercourse. With ourselves the dropping of an acquaintance is a ticklish and disagreeable business. They manage these things better over the water. Not to receive a New Year’s call, or, if distance prevents, a visiting card, is the indisputable, the recognized indication that sender and addressee are henceforth to be strangers.

French etiquette of the New Year, may be divided under three heads, that of étrennes, or gifts ; secondly visits ; thirdly, cards. The first is obligatory in the case of friends and acquaintances as well as relations and subordinates, and requires considerable thought. Custom has pretty well settled the question of gifts in money to concierge, or portress, postmen, telegraph-boy, tradesmen’s assistants, and domestic servants. Thus the modest householder occupying a tiny flat and eking out an income of three or four thousand francs (£120 to £160) yearly, must reckon upon a minimum outlay of a hundred francs (A) on New Year’s Day, larger incomes being proportionately mulcted. Heads of business houses pay away large sums in gifts of money. A young lady, the experienced manageress of a large establishment, lately told me that the New Year’s gifts from her employer had often been several hundred francs. As for her part, she was in the habit of giving twenty francs to one relation, ten to another, and so on, besides making presents to friends and liberally tipping underlings, she could hardly have been richer for the Largesse. We are in the habit of considering our neighbours as a thrifty, even parsimonious people. On the contrary, New Year’s expenditure proves them to be the most lavish in the world.

The settling of accounts with house porters, telegraph messengers, and one’s household is easy. Precedent and means regulate the scale of liberality. Much more onerous is the selection of purchases, especially those to be offered outside the family circle. Here etiquette is rigorously explicit, the rules for receiving being as strictly laid down as those for giving. To persons occupying a decidedly superior rank, nothing must arrive on the occasion of the New Year, but game, flowers, or fruit are permissible later on. A man in the habit of lining at a friend’s house may offer his hostess flowers and her children bonbons, the classic tribute. Only relations and intimate friends are privileged to present folks with anything useful ; trinkets plate, furniture, or even millinery. Thus, one lady may say to another, ” Do help me out of a dilemma. I wish to send you a souvenir, but have not the least idea of what it should be. Mention something that you would find really useful.” This rule is admirably practical, and might very well be carried out here.

When a New Year’s gift is presented by the donor in person, it is the height of bad taste to lay aside the packet unopened. The offering must be looked at, admired, and, whether acceptable or no, rapturously acknowledged, so at least says a leading authority on the subject. And, adds the writer, the giver of a modest present should receive warmer thanks than those who have sent us some-thing really magnificent. The former may be ashamed of his offering, the latter is well aware that he has given liberal money’s worth.

We next come to visits, and here if possible etiquette is more stringent, more complicated than with regard to étrennes.

In observing French manners and customs, we must ever bear in mind that family feeling, like the mainspring • of a clock, regulates every movement of the social body. When our great brother poets wrote–

“The name of Friend is more than family Or all the world beside,”

they uttered a sentiment that might be applicable in classic Rhodes, but could have no appropriateness on the New Year’s Day to France. Here is a nice indication of this supremacy, the predominance of family feeling, over every other. New Year’s visits to parents and grandparents are paid on the last day of the old year. By such anticipation, respect and affection are emphasized. Le jour de tan indeed belongs to the home circle. Outside the official world ceremonial visits are relegated to a later day of the week or even month. A visit on New Year’s Day,” writes another authority, ” is only admissible officially among those persons nearly related to each other, or who are on terms of closest intimacy—in a word, who can ex-change heartfelt effusions, conventional commonplaces being inappropriate.

The family New Year’s dinner is a custom still very generally kept up, one or two intimate friends being also invited. Even during periods of mourning, when every other social reunion is out of the question, these dinners will take place, under such circumstances being melancholy enough. Unlike our own Christmas dinners, there is no statutory bill of fare. It is quite otherwise with the midnight supper of the Réveillon, or Watch Night, when a turkey stuffed with truffles or chestnuts, black pudding, fritters, and champagne are always forthcoming, and with Twelfth Day and its cake. The children’s festival may be celebrated any day before February, whilst private persons may also pay their New Year’s visits, so-called, throughout January, the official world is bound to strictest etiquette. From the highest functionary of the State to the lowest, alike civilians and soldiers must personally visit superiors on New Year’s Day. Then, with many a secret objurgation, we may be sure, hard-worked, over-tired officers have to don full military dress, order a carriage and drive to the Elysée and the Ministry of War. I say with many secret objurgations, because French officers, as a rule, do not care to wear uniform except when absolutely obliged, the ordinary attire of a gentleman being so much more comfortable. Then the modestly paid village schoolmaster screws out money for a pair of light kid gloves, and spick and span presents himself at Préfecture or Mairie. And then lady principals of lycées for girls have to sit in solemn state whilst parents and guardians pay grateful homage. Those poor lady principals ! I well remember a New Year’s afternoon spent with my friend, Mile. B— directrice of a public girls’ school at Nantes. For hours they streamed in, grandparents, fathers and mothers, uncles and aunts, all gracefully going through the arduous duty, a duty by no means to be shirked on either side. But habit is everything. Neither Mlle. B– nor her sisters, we may be sure, resented the obligation. From end to end of France the same kind of ceremonial was taking place, every member of the administrative body, like mediæval feudatories doing homage to his chief, in the official as in the domestic circle, bonds being thus tightened, fresh seals set upon mutual interdependence. As a stone thrown into water sends out wider and wider ripples, so the Presidential reception is the signal for similar manifestations throughout French dominions, New Year’s Day and its observance symbolizing and strengthening patriotism and devotion to the Republic.

We now come to visiting cards, a most important subject. The etiquette of the visiting card, indeed, demands a paper to itself. We will, however, strictly confine ourselves to its use on New Year’s Day, or, more properly speaking, during the first two or three weeks of the year.

The exchange of these missives is at this time imperative, not only among official ranks, but also among friends and acquaintances prevented by distance from making a personal call. Equally stringent are the rules concerning dispatch. Thus, as in the case of family visits, precedence indicates respect, whilst the merely social obligation may be fulfilled throughout the month of January, no such margin is allowed in the official world. Functionaries and administrative subordinates must on no account defer posting cards until December is out. Such marks of attention should be posted so is to reach their destination too soon rather than too late. And no matter how humble the position of the sender, his compliment is scrupulously returned. Omission of this duty would pot only betoken ill-breeding, but want of considerateness, and in certain cases would even constitute an affront.

Remembrances in the shape of New Year’s cards often take touching form. For instance, some years since I made the acquaintance of a weaver’s family in a little Champagne town, and before leaving added a trifle to the tire-lire or money-box of the youngest child, a boy at school. He is now doing his three years’ military service, and regularly sends me a New Year’s card dated from the barracks ; often, indeed, those who can ill afford it indulge in printed visiting cards expressly for this use. Heterogeneous is the collection deposited in my own letter-box during the month of January, and from remotest corners they come, each bearing the legalized greeting, The French post-office is the most amiable in the world, and relaxes its rules so that folks may greet each other at small expense. Ordinarily a visiting card having writing on it, instead of passing with a halfpenny stamp, would be charged as a letter. What are called mots impersonnels (” impersonal words “), five in number, are allowed on the occasion of the New Year. Here are one or two examples copied from last January’s budget : Voeux bien respectueux, bons souhaits, meilleurs souhaits et amitiés, souvenirs confraternels et bons voeux. (” Very respectful wishes, Good wishes, Best wishes and remembrances, Fraternal remembrances and good wishes.”)

The visiting card transmitted by halfpenny post may to some appear an insignificant and inadequate testimony alike of respect, consideration, and affection. But it is not so. Michelet described the beauty of Frenchwomen as made up of little nothings. So the charm and stability of French life, considered from the social aspect, may be described as a total of small, almost infinitesimal, gracious things.