French New Year’s etiquette was one practice that Frenchmen observed in the late 1800s, although they may have also observed some of these same practices during the times of the Princesse de Lamballe, Napoleon Bonaparte, or Madame Récamier. Observing these New Year’s etiquette visits meant making calls to relatives and certain officials. In fact, according to Matilda Betham-Edwards, a twentieth-century etiquette expert, “Not to receive a New Year’s call, or, if distance prevents, a visiting card, is the indisputable, the recognized indication that sender and addresses are henceforth to be strangers.”
In general, visits for the New Year occurred over the month of January. People called on their grandparents and superiors on New Year’s Eve. On New Year’s Day, they visited their parents and immediate family members. The first week of the New Year was devoted to visiting other family members, the second week to visiting intimate friends, and the remainder of the month was used to call on acquaintances.
Betham-Edwards noted that French New Year’s etiquette could be divided into three parts: étrennes (gifts), visits, and cards. Moreover, when it came to giving gifts to friends, acquaintances, and relatives, all three required considerable thought. She also noted:
“Custom has … 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 (£4) on New Year’s Day, larger incomes being proportionately mulcted.”
When it came to selecting gifts, French New Year’s etiquette was “rigorously explicit,” No ordinary gift would do. Gift givers were to think long and hard and select a thoughtful gift.
“To persons occupying a decidedly superior rank, nothing must arrive on the occasion of the New Year, but game, flowers or fruit. … A man in the habit of dining at a friend’s house may offer his hostess flowers and her children bonbons, the classic tribute. Only relation and intimate friends are privileged to present folks with anything useful; trinkets, plate, furniture, or even millinery.”
When the gift was presented, it was considered bad taste for the receiver not to immediately open it. In fact, the gift was also to be acknowledged, examined, and admired.
“And, … the giver of the modest present should receive warmer thanks than those who have sent us something really magnificent. The former may be ashamed of his offering, the latter is well aware that he has given liberal money’s worth.”
Visiting cards were another important aspect of the French New Year’s etiquette protocol:
“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.”
Rules concerning the dispatch of visiting cards were also stringent. Cards were to reach the intended person “too soon rather than too late.” Moreover, it was considered the height of ill-breeding to omit these cards or to send them out after December had passed.
There were some other customs related to French New Year’s etiquette. Dinner was associated with the New Year and occurred even during periods of mourning. Oftentimes these New Year’s dinners included one or two intimate friends. Unlike Christmas dinner, however, there was no statutory or expected bill of fare.
When making New Year’s call, it was considered bad form to wish anyone with whom the caller was not intimate a “Happy New Year.” It was said to be “a genteel indifference as to the happiness or unhappiness of the coming twelve months, so far as your acquaintances are concerned.” Moreover, instead of wishing someone a “Happy New Year,” according to one 1861 book, the French greeted each other with, “The new year to mistletoe plant.”
“In Burgundy and other provinces in France, the children, who have a custom on the first day in the year of asking their New Year’s gift, make use of the same cry. There was even established in many places, a quest, or a kind of begging on the first day in the year, where they made use of the same phrase – The new year to mistletoe – in asking people for alms.”
-  Matilda Betham-Edwards, Home Life in France (Chicago: A. C. McClurg & Company, 1905), p. 285.
-  Ibid., p. 286.
-  Ibid.
-  Ibid., p. 287.
-  Ibid., p. 289.
-  Ibid.
-  Dundee Evening Telegraph, “Cream of Current Literature,” May 10, 1877, p. 4.
-  Methodist Episcopal Church. General Conference, The Ladies’ Repository v. 21; v. 28 (Cincinnati: J.F. Wright and L. Swormstedt, 1861), p. 212.
-  Ibid.