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Why is Ascension Day a public holiday in France?

Thursday May 18th marks the Christian feast of Ascension - which means a day off work and a chance to 'faire le pont'. But why is it a public holiday in France?

Why is Ascension Day a public holiday in France?

This year Thursday, May 18th marks Ascension, making this a three-day week for the many workers in France who take the opportunity to ‘do the bridge’ and create a nice long weekend.

The festival, which Christians believe marks the day that Jesus ascended into heaven, is always 40 days after Easter Sunday, which means that its exact date varies from year to year.

READ ALSO Why 2023 (especially May) is a very good year for holidays in France

But why does France give people a day off work on this day?

Ascension is actually a holiday in quite a few European countries – Germany, Belgium, Switzerland and the Nordic countries get a day off, although Spain, Italy and the UK do not.

This is one of France’s oldest public holidays, stretching all the way back to the Ancien régime – the period before the revolution of 1792 – when it would be widely celebrated as a Christian holiday in the French countryside.

After the Revolution, the new government tried to do away with all religious holidays and replace them with secular ones. As well as their most famous act of toppling the monarchy, France’s first revolutionary government introduced all sorts of changes to everyday life. Some of these – like the switch to metric measurements – stuck, while others (like renaming the months of the year and introducing a new calendar) were swiftly abandoned.

The idea of losing a day’s holiday went down about as well as you would expect and in 1801 Napoleon signed a Concordat which re-instated the biggest festivals of the Christian calendar as public holidays; Christmas, Easter, Ascension, All Saints Day and Assumption (the August 25th festival which marks the day that the Virgin Mary died and ascended into heaven).

Since then the holiday calendar has been regularly reorganised and altered by the ‘big five’ of the Christian festivals remain holidays. Several secular holidays have also been added to the calendar – including the Fête nationale on July 14th, marking the storming of the Bastille and the beginning of the French revolution, plus days to make the end of WWI (November 11th) and WWII in Europe (May 8th).   

READ ALSO Will May 8th remain a public holiday in France?

Although there are church services dedicated to Ascension, you won’t see religious parades or other big events, and all in all this is one of the more low-key holidays of the year. 

The question of why France, as a legally secular country that has a strict separation between religion and government, marks Christian holidays is one often asked by foreigners. The answer seems to be simple pragmatism – no government has been willing to risk the wrath of the French by telling them they must forgo their days off work. 

Reader question: Why does secular France have Catholic holidays?

Member comments

  1. 15 August is also the Birthday of Napoleon Bonaparte, almost certainly making it mandatory to include the Feast of the Assumption in the French National Holidays decreed by his government.

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