February 2nd is a special day in France, as it marks the official end of the Christmas festivities, in other words, the day when you’re not supposed to gorge yourself full of Epiphany cakes. I was actually not completely aware of the connection until recently, although I’ve celebrated February 2nd on most years since I was a child. It’s also known as one of the two days in late winter when you make a big meal of crepes, the other being Mardi Gras (which is really mostly ‘crepe day’ now, as I haven’t ever met anyone who fasted in March). We call it ‘Chandleur’, from its Latin name ‘Candelaria’, or Candle Days (I’m not sure what the Romans did on Candelaria, although I suppose they lighted candles to ward off winter, wish for prosperity or fertility or something like that). As far as I know, it’s about the only Roman holiday that has retained its name, although of course the others are still there, under a new, Christian pretext. I think there’s a Christian explanation for Chandleur as well, I’m just not certain what exactly it is.
As it happens, Chandleur is not a thing in Québec. Neither are Epiphany cakes, actually (those are delicious cakes in which you hide a broad bean and a porcelain figurine, and whoever finds the bean is king or queen, with the discoverer of the porcelain figurine being their happy consort or heir or whatever strikes your fancy). So after making my own cakes–which turned out quite well aside from the colossal mess the almond cream made in the oven–I decided to have a big crepe night. And it’s moment like that that teach you not to take your own traditions for granted. As it turned out, even the notion of a ‘crepe night’ was something quite new. A crepe dinner, in France, is an evening where you put all sorts of savoury and sweet fillings and sauces on the table, and you fill up on savoury or sweet crepes until your belly explodes. As I was discussing the organisation with my roommate, she suddenly said:
‘I have a great idea! Why not make a kind a buffet with all the fillings and everyone can make their own crepes with what they like inside?’
‘Er… Of course? Yes? I mean, isn’t that what you normally do?’
‘Uh. No we don’t. We just put maple syrup on the table and eat the crepes for dessert.’
Turned out explaining the notion to the guests apparently confused everyone for a while. One of them was worried everybody would bring the same thing he did (we reassured him that we would call everyone and tell them not to bring more fruit and custard, which was a good idea in the end, as he had brought enough fruit and custard for a small village), another was embarrassed at the thought of having to choose something unusual to bring. In the end, as those things happen, the table was overloaded with food, I made far too many crepes and we got a generous breakfast off them the next morning, we played games, people argued over how the name of that day was supposed to be spelled, and everything was perfect.
Carnival started about at the same time. My friends took me to see the parade, feet slowly freezing in the snow (that’s what happens when you’ve brought all the right clothes for once, and then left them at home because of a glitch in your organisation). It was dark already, and the cariages were decorated with lights and not always recognisable glowing things. That’s where I met Bonhomme Carnaval, a personnage I had not been acquainted with before, who looks like a giant snowman with a huge smile and a red hat and sash, parading around in a carriage made of ice shards. He was greeted with shouts and applause when he arrived. Strange to think that such an illustrious character was a complete stranger to me until I came here.
Coming back to work yesterday, we saw that our colleague had left us some heart-shaped Valentine sweets on the table. Apparently, celebrating Velentine’s day with friends here must be a thing? Funnily enough, I had no idea, and I was actually afraid that I would embarrass my friends when I offered them to go have a Valentine evening out together (it’s a purely romantic celebration in France). They weren’t embarrassed at all, especially since, in their own words, ‘it’s much better than watching a rom-com by yourself with a box of chocolate and a handkerchief’.
And on that we definitely agree: anything is better than watching rom-coms.