Learn from the French: how Christmas étrennes gifts work

While étrennes are not an obligation, our French writer says it could be considered rude not to give anything but who should you give to and how much?

Some people believe it is rude to give loose change during ‘étrennes’ while others feel there is no minimum amount you can give
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From mid-December to early January France enters the ‘étrennes’ period when residents reward firefighters, post delivery workers and rubbish collectors among others for their work throughout the year.

While the term has traditionally had many meanings, most people associate it with this period of the year and while étrennes are more a custom than an obligation, it could be considered rude not to give anything.

I spoke to people and organisations to whom étrennes are given, such as La Poste and apartment block concierges as well as family members, friends and acquaintances about the custom.

Postman and firefighters often pass by homes

Postal workers and local firefighters are the professionals who most commonly pass by people’s homes around Christmas time.

La Poste press spokeswoman Mélanie Jeambeau said that postal workers will always invite residents to buy a calendar before January 1. However, the initiative is private and postal workers are free to choose whether or not they want to take part.

Firefighters also usually offer calendars and are always dressed up when they call at homes but The Connexion was not immediately able to confirm whether it was part of a protocol such as with La Poste.

Three people interviewed said they give from €10 to €20, the same amount to both and most often in notes. Ms Jeambeau said donations range from €1 to €20 but occasionally larger amounts. The amount to give is up to each individual.

“There is no comparison over the profession which provides the most to the community when choosing how much to give,” my mother told me, casting away the suggestion that people would give more to firefighters because they save lives when postmen ‘only’ deliver mail. My mother usually gives €10.

My father, however, said that a hierarchy emerges between their postman and firefighters or rubbish collectors because he has built a closer relationship with the postman, who has been more accommodating at times.

“I give to reward the profession more than the person itself,” said my aunt, who gives €20 to each.

While my aunt said she would give coins only if she does not have bills, my mother would rather give nothing than coins, interpreting it as the somewhat patronising gesture of giving loose change.

Neither my mother nor my aunt, who both live in highly-populated urban areas, invite postal workers or firefighters to come by the house for a drink or a coffee.

This is the main difference between people living in villages or small towns and people living in larger cities.

This was exemplified in the hit film comedy Bienvenue chez les Ch’tis – though not during étrennes – ‘where two rural postmen end their shift drunk from having accepted too many drinks from people.

The custom is also more entrenched outside of cities since people tend to know their postman or firefighters personally, while in many French cities they do not. It could also be because in larger cities residents are more likely to have issues with scammers calling at homes posing as postal workers or firefighters to ask for money.

“You should ask which distribution centre they are connected to,” said Ms Jeambeau, giving a tip to identify a real La Poste worker.

Read more: Beware the Christmas firefighter calendar scam, say French police

Part of the culture among concierges

Being a concierge is another profession which receives étrennes from people living in the building. Similarly, the custom is not mandatory but is appreciated. The amount of money given greatly depends on the location, socioeconomic setting and individual generosity.

My grandmother used to tell my mother that étrennes given to concierges were calculated depending on the number of square metres in properties. While it may have been a custom among wealthy people, this idea has mostly lost its meaning and become dated.

“It has become part of the culture to expect étrennes almost in the same way as a wage, when in reality it is a potential bonus,” said Cyril Roger, a 30-year-old IT engineer and former concierge who covered shifts for his concierge parents for four years in the 17th arrondissement of Paris.

“Not giving étrennes is viewed negatively in our industry,” said Mr Roger, adding that this could lead the concierge to believe that they had done a bad job, when in reality it could suggest many other possibilities.

Mr Roger said he saw the amount of money collected during étrennes gradually decline from two months’ wages to one month’s over the 25 years his parents were receiving them, as the custom was being passed on less and less from generation to generation.

He broke apartment block residents down into four categories: young owners, aged from 25 to 45, who give little to no money, older generations who give more, people who have been taught to feel a moral obligation and the rare case of older people who give nothing or very little.

Some 75% of the year’s étrennes are collected during the two weeks leading up to Christmas, he said, while a small percentage of people give theirs at the beginning of December or January.

Etrennes for concierges are usually given in envelopes. However, bottles of wine and champagne or boxes of chocolate are also sometimes given.

For the first time in his life, Mr Roger will be the one offering étrennes rather than being the recipient this year.

“I think I am going to give my concierge €50,” He said, an important sum of money considering his wage. “It is a moral obligation,” he added.

While étrennes are not taxed, the administration has the right to investigate where any large sums of money have come from.

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