French people seem to like depriving themselves of sleep. I thought that it was common knowledge that a good night’s sleep was good for health, mental alertness and is a necessity. Missing sleep can lead to road accidents, irritability and headaches. Just a quick look at the internet tells us that lack of sleep can cause high blood pressure, heart problems and cholesterol increases. A good night’s sleep can help improve memory, decision making and creativity.
Why do so many French events require staying awake for much or all of the night? In the UK we have the tradition of ‘seeing in the New Year’ which means staying awake until midnight, watching fireworks and hearing Big Ben chime until the strike of midnight – then we can happily go to sleep having wished each other a ‘Happy New Year’.
In France the celebration is called the réveillon de la Saint-Sylvestre. ‘Réveillon’ from ‘se reveiller’ to be woken up. ‘Un réveil’ is an alarm clock. ‘Saint Sylvestre’ because it starts on the day dedicated to the Pope Sylvestre the first who seems to have been quite a good chap as he fought against the heretical teachings of Arius of Alexandria who was denying the divinity of Jesus. Anyway that was between 280 and 355 A.D.
Apparently Romans used to have a meal together on New Year’s Eve, and according to the wealth of the family, it could encompass many different dishes. It seems that the idea of eating a lengthy meal together came from that time. Typical dishes for a St Sylvestre celebration include oysters, foie gras, snails and thankfully smoked salmon! People assume that you will stay up all night and go home as the dawn breaks after being served a bowl of onion soup. Remember, dawn in winter is at breakfast time!
Weddings are also occasions for sleepless nights. Often the evening starts with aperitifs, small appetisers that go with a glass of champagne. About 2 hours later the sit-down meal begins with a starter. The long pauses between courses, sometimes filled with videos made by the couple’s friends and family, or songs sung by the parents and parents-in-law mean that it is well past midnight when the couple get to cut their cake and dancing begins. We have felt like terrible party-poopers when we are among the first to leave. Our friends asked us why we hadn’t returned to the venue to take part in the breakfast provided. But it hadn’t occurred to us that breakfast would be included in the festivities!
Paris offers a Nuit Blanche the first weekend of October when restaurants stay open all night and the theme of the city is illuminated Modern Art.
The 14 July, the anniversary of the French Revolution is also an occasion to stay up all night. In Epernay people are invited to dress entirely in white for the occasion. They can bring their own picnic and sit at one of the 230 tables set out on the avenue de Champagne and celebrate with the other 3,000 revellers all night long.
Unfortunately, we are usually tucked up in bed on these occasions, our brains being rejuvenated and refreshed, while our cholesterol is diminishing and our creativity is being enhanced!