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French expressions explained: “sur son 31”

As the New Year’s Eve celebrations draw near, I want to spare a thought for all non-French speakers who will celebrate at their new Gallic friends’ house, and puzzle over the fine prints on the invitation. In particular, you may have been asked to come “sur votre 31” (“on one’s 31”). What does this mean?

Well, this is a very old and beloved tradition, stemming from the very cold weather our ancestors had to endure around the New Year. To avoid freezing to death on their way to their friends’, people would pile up as many warm clothes as they could, and disrobe only when they were back inside.

Besides, as everyone who has ever sat in front of a fire knows, it takes time to for a hearth to warm up a room. First the fire needs to catch, then the walls need to absorb the heat, and finally when the log breaks down into multiple pieces, the temperature climbs another level. Add to this the body heat from all the persons gathered, and this explains why guests typically shed more of their clothes as the evening drags on.

This gave rise to this lovely French tradition, by which people would come dressed in exactly 31 pieces of clothing — for the 31st of December — then remove them one by one over the course of the evening, until they had only 1 left — for the 1st of January. In some regions, this last piece of clothing also needed to be brand new (for the New Year), i.e. never worn before the New Year (not even on NY’s eve — you cannot wear it as you come in). This of course leads to many good-humored moments as the clock strikes midnight and everyone reaches for their spare underpants like synchronized Clark Kents — a perfect illustration of the French bonhomie and art de vivre that the World envies us.

This is what “venir sur son 31” means: you need to come dressed in exactly 31 pieces of clothing (this includes your coat, scarf and hat — you will also be glad to learn that each glove and sock count), and be ready to have only one left at midnight. Exactly which item you keep to your appreciation — discovering what each guest has decided to wear last is a large part of the fun, so please don’t spoil the surprise for the others. (In case your hosts are traditionalists, you may also want to keep a spare article in a bag close to hand, so you can avoid a faux-pas by keeping pre-worn clothes into the New Year, or worse: have to sit stark naked for the remainder of the party.)

And for you French speakers and connoisseurs who have already taken part to a “sur son 31” party, please do share your best memories in the comment section below!

Have a lovely réveillon, and a happy new year 2019!

One Comment

  1. Tesh Tesh

    It will be a sock for me. A very nice sock, black with silver sparkles. I wish I could post a photo, but I’m reserving the discovery of this upper nice piece of clothing for my guests. Have a lovely NY’s eve, Jérome !

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