French First Communions

Figure 1.--French boys by 1956 were wearing both long and short pants First Communion suits.Note the double breasted style and shoulder bows.

First Communion was a major step in a French's child's life. The French translation of First Communion is "Communion Solennelle", meaning "solemn" instead of "first" communion. We were not sure at what age French boys take their First Communion. Some of the available images suggest older boys than is now common in America. A French reader tells me that the common age is about 12 years old. This is quite a bit older than is the common practice in the United States. We are not sure when this coinvention was adopted in France.It was for many years a very important ceremony in this largely Catholic family. We do not have much informsgtion on the 19th century, but we know a great deal about the 20th century. With the changing public attitude toward religion in France, First Communion has become increasingly more of a social occassion rather than a religious event. French boys like American boys used to get dressed up in new suits or fancy outfits for their First Communion. The suits have changed over time. Some were simplly new suits. We note quite a variety of different outfits worn by the boys. The girls commonly wore junior wedding dresses, although the styles varied over time. .


The French translation of First Communion is "Communion Solennelle", meaning "solemn" instead of "first" communion.


We were not sure at what age French boys take their First Communion. Some of the available images suggest older boys than is now common in America. A French reader tells me that the common age is about 12 years old. This is quite a bit older than is the common practice in the United States. We are not sure when this coinvention was adopted in France.


The chronological age to receive the First Communion varied greatly since the beginning of Christianity. We have very little information about early First Communions. Until the 12th century, a child received communion when baptised. The Concilium of Latran IV (1215) decreeed the first Communion around 12 nd 14 years of age. No special ceremony accompanied this event. Changes took place after the Concilium of Trente where a solemn ceremony took place in the spirit of the Counter-Reform. The age stayed the same , something as a rite of passage between childhood and adulthood. More information becomes available for the 20th century. In "Quam singulari" in 1910. Pope Pius X asked for the admittance of children aged 7 years old at the Holy Table because at this age, a child is able of rational thinking. Then were distinguished the " private communion " as being First Communion and the " Solemn Communion " at 12 years old as a remaining of ancient rites as they exist yet in some oriental Churches. It is now a kind of solemn pledge of faith.


French children begin the catechist at 8-9 yaers old. It is taught for about 3 years. The child is thus ready for his or her First Communion at about age 11-12. We are unsure why there is such a difference between French and American practices.


The communion solennelle of First Communion is a beautifull ceremony. Just as the name indicated, the children take the sacrament of Communion for the first time. They thus become a full member of the Church. We do not yet have a detailed account of the actual ceremony. There are few images of the actual ceremony. Presumably it was not considered appropriate to disrupt the actual ceremony. There are individual portaits of the children in their outfits as well as portraits outside and inside the church before or after the ceremony. These provide some insights on the ceremony even though we do not have actual photographs.

Types of First Communion

Describing First Communion in France has proven a bit more complicated than I anticipated. One French reader tells us that there used to be two kinds of First Communions. These two types are still known today, but less common. Generally speaking the English term "First Communion" means what the French call "Communion solennelle". The literal translation "Première communion" was a more private ceremony that only a small number of children expeperienced. Another reader provides us a different assessment of French First Communions.

Figure 2.--This French boy is shown in his First Communion suit, probably in the 1910s. He wears a knee pants suit, with legs cut well below the knees. Photographa were not taken during the ceremony, but portraits were sometimes changed to replicate it.


HBC at this time has only limited chronolgical information on French First Communion suits. WE have no information on early First Communions. Some basic information becomes available beginninging in the 19th century. We have little information on the 19th century. Dressing boys up in suits for their First Communion presumably may have predated the 19th Century, but we have no information on this. Our knowledge on 19th century boys fashions in France is still limited so this inhibits our ability to assess the available First Communion images. Boys were having their photograph taken for First Communion as early as the 1870s. The few images we have show boys wearing uniforms. We have begun to acquire more information about the 20th century, especially after World War I. We have begun to collect information about French 20th century First Communion suits. We so far have very little information on early 20th Century French First Communion suits. The suit styles appear to have followed the fashion shifts from kneepants and stockings to short pants and kneesocks. Formal wear, however, sometimes is slow to accept modern trends.


The children in Catholic schools were prepared in school for their First Communnion. We are not sure about state schools. The French Revolution which had a strong anti-clerical strain may have ended this, but France at the time was only beginning to develop a national school system. The perogatives of the Church were regained both under Napoleon and ten during the Bourbon Restoration. Presumably during this era children were prepared for their First Communion in the schools. The Third Republic following France's defeat in the Franco-Prussian War (1870-71) brought major changes in the church-state relationship. Just when religion instruction and preparation for First Communion was ended in the schools we do not yet know.

Figure 3.--French boys by 1956 were wearing both long and short pants First Communion suits. This drawing shows an Eton suit that was worn by some boys for First Communion.


We have notice French boys wearing a wide variety of different suits and other outfits for First Communion. Uniforms including what look like school uniforms appear to have been popular in the 19th century. Boys have worn both single and double breasted suits. In some cases they are dark suits that the boy can wear for many other occassions. The suits are worn with knee pants, knickers, and short pants. Long pants were common in the 19th century until the 1870s when kneepants became more common. After World War I, short pants became more common, but some styles were worn with long pants. And many boys continued to wear long pants for the occassion even though they normally wore short pants. Some boys received their first pair of long pants for First Communion. Other boys continue wearing short pants for several years after First Communion. Some of the suits were white and worn only for First Communion or a few other formal events. Some boys wear a variety of sailor suits, especially in the 20th century. There are also tuxedo-like Eton suits, usually with long pants, but some have short pants. Some schools selected religious-looking white albs instead of suits.

First Communion Items

The portraits of French children taking their First Communions vary. The children are often pictured with a variety of thems. In the French portraits the three most common items are a rossary, a mass book, and a sleeve ribbon. The bokk is a book for the Mass and not a Bible, according the Catholic tradition. This book is writen in Latin and French concerning the prayers and the Mass. The white bow on the boy's sleeve symbolized the purity of his soul for recieving the body of God. These bows was embroidered with Catholic religious symbols.


While First Communion is the best known event, French boys also participated in another service to renew their vows. I'm not site if it was held the following years or a few years after the First Communion service. I'm also not sure how common this event was and if they wore their same First Communion suits, or had new suits.

First Communion in Modern France

The French people began to question the Church during the French Revolution. As the Revolution progressed, it turned highlt anti-clerical and religious. (This is one of many major differences with the American Revolution.) Liberals and Republicans during the 19th centruy struggle to limit the power if the Church. Actual atheism was promoted by Socialists and Communists in the late 19th century. This by the 20th century began to weaken the religious devotion of the working class. Here the support of the Church for conservative forces helped to alienate the Church from the working class. Today France might be called an esentially pagan country. Few French pdople attend church on Sunday. Many French will identify as being Catholic, but by this is meant culturally Catholics. Most French people do not take seriously the meraphysical principles of the Church. Many also do not accept Church trachings on issues like aborion. Even so, many French children including children from non-religious families will still do First Communion. We wonder just how children doing First Communion think when they know that their parents do not take religious seriously. The ceremony is becomong an essentially social event rather than a religious celebration.

Individual Experiences

Alain Paul: 1953


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Created: October 25, 1998
Last edited: 10:19 PM 10/6/2011