My Parisian Year (How Paris Changes from Season to Season)

Paris has 4 distinct seasons: winter, spring, summer, fall – but each month has so many features that make it stand out, that it’s often difficult to divide the year into such large portions. 

I’m not the only Parisian (native or otherwise) to think this.  Les Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry, the famous early 15th century book of hours, for example, features peasants and servants of the duke doing activities typical to each month of the year.  Many of the scenes take place in and near Paris – you can spot several of the city’s medieval monuments.

Just as illustrators like the Limbourg Brothers could find activities typical of each month, seven hundred years later, I, too, find my Parisian months easy to define.

January, February and March in Paris

galette des rois

In January, everyone heads back to work after taking time off for the holidays. But not too easily; some are already planning vacations for the end of the month or February. Galettes des rois are available everywhere, which makes me very happy.

And the winter sales (Les Soldes) are in full swing.  Many Parisian fashionistas get their clothes and shoes during this time, since ordinarily these items would be way too expensive.

In Februarygalettes are still abundant.  Advertisements in the Metro go tropical, luring people with five to six paid weeks off to come spend a little of that time in the warm weather. Parisians’ thoughts also turn to ski trips, especially when the kids are off for the two-week school break.

I’d find it hard to believe if I hadn’t experienced it myself, but in less than ten years, climate change has altered a few of the months in Paris.  March used to be a prolongation of winter, but now, it’s hard to predict what it will be like.  This year, for example, we had an unexpected heatwave that made flowers bloom, followed by snowfall (a somewhat rare phenomenon here, even in the dead of winter).  

April, May and June in Paris

easter chocolate

April used to be when springtime began, with trees and flowers on the boulevards and in the parks beginning to bloom. Nowadays, by April this could have already happened, or maybe won’t occur till May. Still, generally speaking, April is a fairly mild month with springtime in the air.  It may be one of the most beautiful times of the year to come to Paris. 

But there’s something most people don’t know:  While we romanticize Paris in the springtime, many of us full-time Parisians are sneezing and rubbing our eyes.

Still, there are some consolations, including chocolate. The coming of Easter is heralded by chocolates in very interesting shapes – mainly variations on chickens, bunnies, and bells (the French “Easter Bunny” is a bell that flies from Rome and scatters candy over the land…sigh). You’ll also see chocolate fish at the beginning of the month, since April Fool’s Day in France involves sticking a paper fish to someone’s back. However you feel about poissons d’avril, I think most of us would agree that their chocolate incarnations are pretty great.

May is still spring, but thoughts have already turned to summer. The weather is (usually) warmer, although there can be some chilly days, too (much to my relief, since I hate being hot).   On the warmest days, most Parisians officially take out their light clothes – before that, even if it’s as hot as the surface of the sun outside, you will not see an actual Parisian wearing, say, shorts or a sundress.  They dress for the season here, not for the temperature. 

Television takes on a lighter tone, with the Eurovision singing contest (a delightfully unintentionally cheese-filled event where EU countries’ appointed musical acts try to garner votes from other countries) and the glamorous Cannes Film Festival making us viewers feel like we’re on vacation.  This latter is not only our way to see big international stars gathered on French turf; it also seems to be an excuse for just about every well-known journalist to head down to the Côte d’Azure to enjoy sea, sun, and schmoozing – hey, it’s their job!  

There are several holidays in May, and people use those to build long weekends or simply long weeks.  Everything slows down, as if the whole world is sitting at a café terrace, sipping a cool drink. The collective heat in most apartment buildings is turned off.  Seasonal ice cream shops reopen.  

The days become longer – Parisian longer.  Nowhere in this part of the world have I heard about such long days; in Paris, night doesn’t fall in May until about 9:30pm, and that will continue to be pushed back until August, when twilight gets here between 10 and 10:30!

In June, most of the city takes a collective breath and buckles down to get work done, and not just because of all the days they missed in May; July and August are almost here, which means summer vacation!  Still, June does have its more relaxed moments, including the Fête de la Musique (Music Day), where anyone can perform music in the streets, and people go out and stroll around appreciating (or wryly critiquing!) the melodies.

July in Paris

Eiffel Tower firework on Bastille day
Eiffel Tower firework on Bastille day.

By early July, schools are out, and a significant portion of the population of all ages has left Paris for their summer vacations.  The Metro is a bit emptier, the streets calmer.  It’s a nice break.  There just two crowded places: tourist attractions and shops (this is the month of the summer sales (Les Soldes)). 

The only hard thing about Paris in July is that most apartments (including my own) aren’t air conditioned.  Electric fans come out, and many of us go to strange lengths to keep the heat away: shutters are permanently closed, rooms kept in darkness.  Stores quickly run out of cool mozzarella cheese and ice cream, even though they sometimes raise the prices on them.  

Parisians don’t celebrate Bastille Day (which they refer to as simply le 14 juillet (July 14th)) with the same fervor as Americans do the 4th of July – but there is the famous military parade down the Champs-Elysées (I always smirk when the tanks run over the poop left over from the mounted troops – what poor organization). And there are fireworks, beautiful ones just behind the Eiffel Tower.  The only problem is the crowds.  One year, I viewed the entire spectacle from just in front of the Ecole Militaire on tip-toes, sandwiched between fellow onlookers and a bike someone had ill-advisedly brought along.

August in Paris

August is traditionally vacation month in France.  A few decades ago, most of the country just shut down during this time.  Besides the tourists, Paris was a ghost town.  But the global economy has forced the French into working – at least at half-capacity.  Then again, those at work don’t usually have it so bad. As my husband says when asked why he never takes off in August, “My boss and most of my co-workers are away, so going to work now is like a vacation.”  Like many others, he wiles away the hours mostly alone in an air-conditioned building doing the minimum amount of work necessary and spending the rest of the time online.  

At home, we continue to live in the heat.  August is about the time where I’ve started to take it for granted that I’ll need to take a cold shower at least three times a day – and not for the fun reason people mostly talk about when they mention cold showers.  

September in Paris

Kids Going to School
La rentrée: when Parisian kids go back to school in September.

September is the month most Parisians dread.  It’s called “la rentrée”, meaning, “the return”, since so many people come back from vacation, and school begins as well.  People try to be upbeat during la rentrée, and many are still rested from their long vacations – or just from not having been annoyed by their co-workers for the last month.  Some people who managed to hold out all summer beat la rentrée by choosing to take a vacation now.  These people are geniuses. The rest of us grumble and try to carry on.

The rentrée littéraire is a good thing, though – it’s when new books come out to great fanfare and literary prizes are awarded.  It always amazes me how enthusiastic many Parisians are about reading (and makes me very happy, since I’m a fellow rat de bibliothèque (bookworm)). 

September used to be a month when the hot weather quickly became milder. But lately I find myself hoping this is still true, while being bitterly disappointed for at least the first half of the month. Lately, summers have been tenacious in Paris.

October in Paris

Just a few years ago, I would also have told you that October brought a bitterly cold wind with it. This wind was somehow more chilling than anything you’d feel in winter.  I say “was,” though, because lately October has been a sort of half and half month. The first half is often still pretty warm, much to my annoyance. I may not like that icy wind, but I do like cooler days in general. It starts to get a bit chilly towards the middle of the month. But then, these days, nothing is predictable. Maybe next October will be cold again. I’m keeping my fingers crossed. One thing that has stayed the same is that the sun goes down noticeably earlier. 

There are no major holidays now, but there is a school vacation (a good time to get cheaper tickets to the US) and the annual FIAC (International Contemporary Art Festival), which puts a bit of fun weirdness into an otherwise monotonous month. We also celebrate Halloween in our own little way at my house, carving winter squash into jack o’lanterns and letting my son dress up and get candy at the local grocery store.

November in Paris

November is colder and dreary, but at least the month starts with La Toussaint (All Saints’ Day), a national holiday.  Time off – and a possible long weekend somewhere sunnier for some.  Holiday shopping also starts becoming a distraction – though if this is a good or bad thing, depends on who you are.  

Towards the end of the month, there’s no turkey to be found, since most American expats have bought them up to celebrate Thanksgiving (unlike me – I hate Thanksgiving food).  You won’t see turkey meat in most stores, but you will probably start to see signs of the winter holidays. Decorations and toy catalogues come out of the woodwork. The grands magasins (department stores) put on their famous holiday vitrines (window displays), and lately, there’s even been a Santa in residence at Galéries Lafayette. Like many Paris-dwellers, seeing the vitrines is a holiday tradition for me and my family.  But what I like most is the Galéries Lafayette’s huge, magnificent Christmas tree, whose theme and look changes every year. 

December in Paris

Christmas market on the Champs Elysees in Paris at night
Christmas market on the Champs Elysees in Paris at night.

By December, avenues and boulevards of most neighborhoods are decorated with tastefully exuberant holiday lights, and there’s a big tree in front of Notre Dame. Hanukkah celebrations take place in Jewish neighborhoods – but always quietly; it’s not as important a holiday here as it is in places like the US, and the French Jewish community is pretty discreet. There is an exception: Vans with enormous menorahs on top drive around Jewish neighborhoods, playing music. It’s delightful. 

Most Parisians are thinking about the upcoming holiday break – and, regardless of what they celebrate, food.  Visions of oysters, champagne, and foie gras dance in their heads, and on tons of TV commercials.  Boxes of chocolate are on sale everywhere – this is a standard gift to give to co-workers, teachers, neighbors and friends.  Most people who celebrate Christmas go home – “home” often being the countryside – where they eat traditional French meals fait maison (homemade) and rest and watch movies on television.  

Although a few will be aired, Christmas movies aren’t particularly popular — with the exception of Le Père Noel est une ordure (Santa Claus is trash), a 1980’s classic that I have to confess I find ugly and mean-spirited (and not in a funny way). But I am in the minority.  Most French people I know adore it. Other movies on TV during the holidays tend to be recent family fare (a few years ago, a channel played each one of the Harry Potter movies on a different night, for example) or traditional favorites that don’t seems to have much to do with the holidays at all but are always aired at this time, like Sissi impératrice.  News programs also feature segments about different kinds of holiday foods. As you might be guessing, December is the time of year when the French love of good eating is most evident. 

In the spirit of equality, one of the founding principles of the French republic (of which we’re currently in the 5th incarnation; the French are perpetually unsatisfied), New Year’s is THE big holiday, since people of all beliefs can celebrate it.  It’s not a family holiday, though, so normally we head to parties with friends.  At the stroke of midnight, you know there’s a good chance that the phone networks will be overloaded and all your “Bonne Année!” text messages will be blocked for hours, but you send them anyway. The next morning it will be January, and you’ll start the year reading those texts messages that were sent to you and appeared on your phone in the wee hours of the morning.

This is my Parisian year, but while there are some details that just about any Parisian would agree with, of course everyone’s experience is different.  If you’ve lived in Paris for a while, what was your year like?  If you’re dreaming of living in Paris, what do you think a typical year here will be like for you?

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Alysa Salzberg

Alysa Salzberg is an American writer, worrier, teacher, and cookie enthusiast who has lived in Paris, France, for more than a decade. She has taught English and French for more than ten years, most notably as an assistante de langue vivante for L'Education Nationale. She recently published her first novel, Hearts at Dawn, a "Beauty and the Beast" retelling that takes place during the 1870 Siege of Paris. You can read about her adventures here, or feel free to stop by her website.