There is an art of gift-giving in France, faire un cadeau is an exquisite art built in the French lifestyle, etiquette, and savoir-vivre. For example, it is still considered lacking manners to show up at someone’s house as a guest “Les mains vides” or empty-handed without a little something to bring for the hostess: a bouquet of flowers (avoid chrysanthemums which are for funerals, red roses for lovers, and carnations considered bad luck) a good bottle of wine, liquor or champagne, a box of fancy chocolates, or some bonbons or pâtes de fruits for the children of the house.
BYOB is maybe accepted with the younger generations for a BBQ for example, but I have yet to see a guest bring his own bottle of his or her favorite drink to consume as a guest in a French home. That would be plain rude and would surely raise a few disapproving eyebrows. A good bottle of wine or champagne to share at apéritif is always a good idea.
The French customs of offering gifts or purchasing gifts has an old school and modern approach. I personally think that the French art of gift-giving is more subtle and thoughtful than the casual gift-giving in the US. For example, a gift from a close friend is usually a well thought out gift, often time a little treasure that will be cherished and kept for a long time, like a pair of unique artisanal earrings, or a keepsake like a leather Paris Agenda (like the one I received from one of my Belgian friend living in Paris.) I also fondly remember that little red leather manicure set which my best childhood friend offered to me when I was ten years old as a farewell gift on the eve of the trip to America.
Overall, gifts in France have a very personal and traditional connotation unless it’s business work-related or for a specific function. A gift is a gesture of appreciation, love, and comes from the heart to please the other person. *** Attention, SVP do not give your sweetheart perfumed soap as a gift as this is an item that the French consider more generic and for older members like your sweet auntie. (of course, Savon de Marseille has become quite a fancy popular go to luxurious item now in the US)
In general, in France there is not a specific ritual of gift-giving, and gifts are not always expected aside from traditional events such as a graduation, a promotion, a thank you gift, a baptism, a wedding, or an end of year gift. The holiday season is such an occasion to be more gift oriented than other times of the year but I have noticed that French gifts are mostly filled with sentimental value compared to the monetary value. For instance, a son may give his mother as a special gift her traditional expensive French Perfume, or his dad his favorite old aged Armagnac but most gifts are more practical and thoughtful of the person’s likes and personality.
I’ll always remember how one Christmas as a little girl, our adoptive US grandma came to spend the holidays at our apartment. She was quite wealthy and I remember fantasizing about all the gifts we would probably receive. Instead, I learned and was reminded of an important lesson. It is not about the value of the gift but the thought! That year Grandma Lynne gave both my sister and me a red stocking filled with mandarins and nuts, a memory I will always treasure and a tradition now in our home.
French elegance and lifestyle are in the details, and I remember how for Christmas Eve or Le Réveillon de Noel, for example, we would place a little token gift wrapped with gold or silver ribbons in the guests’ plates en cadeau d’assiette , or how we would leave our slippers or chaussons the French version of the Christmas stockings under the tree for Saint Nicolas our French Père Noel. (But more to come on these traditions in an upcoming post.)
If you’re looking for some inspiration for a last-minute French-inspired gift idea you may want to check out The Ultimate French-Inspired Gift Guide
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French Culture & Lifestyle in the USA