Les étrennes (layz ay-trenh) are a New Year’s custom in France. It refers to a gift of cash to those who provide a service all year long, such as the concierge in an apartment building, the mail man or woman, or the firefighters. Sometimes you are expected to remember, others will ring your door and offer you a calendar for which they will expect a cash donation. Occasionally the expression is used more casually to refer to cash gifts at Christmas as well.
The tradition is ancient, dating back to Roman times. On the first day of the year, King Tatius Sabinus (d. 748 B.C.) was given verbena branches that grew around a temple devoted to Strenia, goddess of health and strength. The word strena became étrenne, a gift given to someone important. Romans expanded the custom to exchanging honey, figs, dates, or coins accompanied by wishes for health and happiness.
In 587 A.D., the Church tried to ban the practice as it was tied to animal sacrifices and prayers to pagan deities in front of sacred trees. References to “estraines” in 1362 show that the custom was still alive and well. The government abolished gifts to agents of the state, considering them to be a form of corruption. But old habits die hard. If you’re in France, get some cash ready for les étrennes.