In most places of the world, the foreigner who brings or sends an appropriate gift is always appreciated. However, French custom, etiquette, and tradition all play important parts in the choice of a gift, its value, and the manner in which the gift is given. Before giving a gift to a French person, ask someone, (preferably a French person), if your gift, and the giving thereof, is appropriate for the situation. The following list is a guideline for different gift-giving situations: birthdays, marriages, funerals, dinner parties and other events in France.
As a way of saying “Congratulations”, it is common for a friend to send flowers to the mother while she is in the hospital, or to buy an inexpensive gift (a small toy or article of clothing) for the baby. An expensive gift would make the parents feel uncomfortable.
A baptismal invitation is usually extended to family and close friends only. Normally, the godparents buy a gift of gold (for example: a gold chain). Invited friends would give a gift of less importance than that of the godparents. Giving gifts such as silver or glass would be appropriate. If you receive an announcement, (not an invitation) no gift is expected.
You might not be aware of an individual’s birthday, as the French are reluctant to speak about their age. However, for a birthday party, the hostess giving the party may set a limit on the price of the gift. Close friends will often buy a gift together. If there is no party, you may want to send a card although the exchanging of birthday cards is not a common practice.
Christmas Day is traditionally for the family only, although close friends who are “like family” may be invited. If you receive an invitation, bring a small, moderately-priced gift, and expect to receive the same. If you are invited for dinner, you should bring a dinner gift (see below). Except in certain business situations, the French only send Christmas cards to close family members. A card would be appreciated, but don’t expect one in return.
During the Christmas holiday period your mail delivery person may offer you a calendar in return for a donation (customarily 3-5€). If many packages were delivered to your house, it would be appropriate to give a larger tip. Personnel from other services, such as sanitation workers or firemen, may sell calendars during the holiday season as well, and again a small tip would be appreciated.
If you’re invited, you may want to bring a good bottle of wine, chocolates or flowers (see below). Children invited to a friend’s home would bring a small gift, if they do not know the family well. Close friends, who get together often, usually bring a bottle of wine, or they might offer to bring dessert. In some cases, depending upon the specific situation, bringing nothing at all would be perfectly acceptable. You are expected to return a dinner invitation, at some future date.
Red roses are for sweethearts. Carnations are considered bad luck. Chrysanthemums are for funerals ONLY. However, there’s a tolerance for the long spidery ones, the tokyos, which may be offered to people you know well. Flowers are always given in odd numbers, (for example, seven instead of a half dozen and eleven instead of a dozen) but NEVER thirteen! For a very formal dinner party, you can call the florist and have flowers delivered beforehand. In this event, the bouquet should be rather expensive (equivalent to the cost of a dinner, had you eaten out). For a less formal dinner, a hand-carried bouquet is appropriate. To send flowers beyond the region of Toulouse, look for a florist displaying the Interflora symbol.
You are expected to send a hand-written condolence note. If you are close to the family, you may want to send Chrysanthemums to the church (not to the family’s house) . Normally you would be told if the church service is limited to family and close friends only (dans l’intimité). The cemetery service is always for family and close friends.
GOING AWAY (départ)
A going away gift is not normally expected, unless there is a party for the person or family leaving. Close friends can always give gifts to one another, for whatever reason.
GRADUATION (fin d’études, diplôme)
Young graduates seem to prefer money, in the form of a check. If you are close to the family, you might ask what would be appropriate, a gift or money. No gifts are given for graduation from primary grades. Graduation ceremonies are not very common.
HOUSE WARMING (pendre la cremaillère)
If there is a specific house-warming party, you should bring a gift for the house. Otherwise, no gift is expected.
Usually invitations are sent for formal occasions. For informal occasions, a simple phone call will do. If an invitation reads tenue de ville, men are expected to wear suits.
NEW YEAR (le Nouvel An)
The French often send New Year’s cards, in the same way that Christmas cards are sent in America, the UK, Canada or Australia, as late as January 31st. If you are invited for dinner on New
Year's Eve, you should bring a dinner gift. Often inexpensive gifts (less than 10 euros) will be exchanged.
THANK YOU NOTES (cartes de remerciement)
For wedding gifts and other formal events, a thank you note is expected. For the receipt of a less formal gift, some people will send a note. However, a simple phone call or a verbal “thank you” upon receipt of the gift will suffice. A phone call of “thanks” for a dinner is always appreciated, but not expected.
If you receive an announcement of a marriage (faire-part), you are not expected to send a gift, although a note of congratulations would certainly be appreciated. You may be invited to the marriage ceremony, cocktail party (apéritif), and reception, or JUST to the ceremony and apéritif, with the reception being reserved for the closest friends and family. If you receive an invitation to the wedding you are expected to send or bring a gift. If you would like to send a piece of china or other household item, you can call the person sending the invitation and ask if there’s a store with a wedding list in the bride/groom’s name. This is usually the case. You can then call the store, tell them how much you want to spend, and they will put that amount of money towards the couple’s selection. You are not obliged to purchase a specific piece. If you go to the store and choose to buy a piece, the store can/should deliver it. For formal weddings, the guests wear often two sets of clothes: a nice outfit for the ceremony and something very dressy for the reception. It’s best to ask if guests are going to change for the reception, so that you are prepared for such a situation.
WEDDING ANNIVERSARY (anniversaire de mariage)
Usually gifts are exchanged only between husband and wife, and/or their children. French people are not accustomed to sending cards or buying gifts for the wedding anniversary of friends.
If you are not knowledgeable about French wines, you may want to buy a bottle from a wine store (cave) where you can ask the shopkeeper for a recommendation. He will ask you for a price range and recommend something appropriate. Any type of Champagne is usually appreciated. Often at dinner parties, the host will have opened wine for dinner before your arrival, so don’t be offended if they do not open the bottle you have brought.
Here is a general guide for bringing wine: Buy the oldest red wine of a well known type, area, and château that will fit your budget. If your budget is below 10€, you may want to think of a different gift. Be aware that there are many French white wines that are sweet.