Festivals of Western Europe, by Dorothy Gladys Spicer, , at sacred-texts.com
LE JOUR DE L'AN (New Year's Day) January 1
The first day of the year is characterized by family reunions, visiting and the exchange of presents and greeting cards The name Jour des Etrennes, Day of New Year's Presents, is often given to January first because of the widespread custom of gift giving.
Early in the morning children give their fathers and mothers little handmade articles and wish them "Bonne Annee." Tradesfolk send their errand boys or girls to patrons with the season's compliments and something characteristic of their trade. The fish merchant, for example, may offer oysters, the baker a brioche, the butcher a chicken, the dairyman a dozen eggs, and so on. It is customary to give wine and etrennes of money to those who bring the presents. Servants and clerks generally are allowed a double month's pay as a New Year's gift. Bonbonnieres filled with chocolates or other sweets, flowers, and all kinds of fruits confits et marrons glaces (preserved fruit and candied chestnuts) are the customary gifts exchanged among family and friends.
The New Year's dinner is an elaborate affair, attended by relatives from far and near. In the afternoon men call on their women friends and younger people on their elders. The streets present a festive air, with their brilliantly-lighted shop windows and crowds of eager holiday folk--laughing, exchanging greetings and hurrying to meet friends.
In the evening a dinner party usually is held at the home of the "head of the house"--the eldest member of the family. As the French "family" means all the relatives, whether close or several times removed, these reunions are large affairs which are greatly enjoyed by both old and young.
LE JOUR DES ROIS (Day of the Kings) January 6
On le Jour des Rois, or sometimes on the Eve, it is customary to give to the parish poor. In Alsace children go about from door to door, begging for eggs, bacon and cakes. Three of the youngsters represent the Three Kings by dressing in long robes and wearing gold paper crowns; a fourth carries a pole topped by a paper star. In Normandy bands of boys and girls make neighborhood rounds with lighted lanterns and empty baskets. The children sing traditional verses in which they ask the rich to share bounty with the destitute. Householders give the young visitors gifts of food and drink, money, or clothes.
In some parts of Brittany a beggar leads through the streets a horse, gaily bedecked with mistletoe and ribbon. From the saddle hang empty baskets which soon bulge with donations of food and wearing apparel.
Le Jour des Rois is celebrated with parties for both children and adults. The galette des rois, or cake of the Kings, traditionally brings an elaborate feast to an exciting climax. The cake, which is round and flat, often is cut in the pantry, covered with a white napkin and carried into the dining room on a small table. The galette always is cut into one more piece than the number of guests. The extra portion, intended for the first poor person who comes to the door, is called la part a Dieu, God's share. The youngest member of the party, who sometimes hides under the table, is asked to name the person for whom the piece of cake is intended. Great Suspense prevails during the distribution ceremony because a bean (in some places a tiny gift or a china doll) is baked in the cake.
The person finding the token becomes king or queen for the evening. The monarch chooses a consort and together they rule the party. Whenever they drink the guests shout, "Le roi boit! La reine boit!" "The king drinks! The queen drinks!" The entire company similarly comments upon and imitates with mock ceremony every move the royal couple makes.
MARDI GRAS (Shrove Tuesday) The Tuesday preceding Ash Wednesday
Mardi Gras is the last day of Carnival, the three-day-period of boisterous hilarity preceding Lent. Festivities are especially colorful in Nice, Cannes, Menton, Grasse and other southern cities, where people go out into the streets in costume and indulge in all sorts of noisy pranks, such as parading, tooting tin horns, singing and pelting passers-by with confetti and flowers. Each town has its own bataille de fleurs (battle of flowers) preceding Lent. Flower-decked cars and floats drive for hours along the streets and boulevards. As friends and acquaintances pass and repass they pelt one another with missiles of flowers.
In Nice, where festivities assume more picturesque proportions than elsewhere, an enormous effigy of His Majesty King Carnival, surrounded by a train of clowns and buffoons, is formally presented with the keys of the city. King Carnival is seated on a throne from which he rules the scene. On Shrove Tuesday night, following a brief but merry reign and a torchlight procession, King Carnival is burned at the stake.
In Paris and some other cities butchers observe the Carnival with the fete of the Boeuf Gras, or Fat Ox. An ox decked with garlands, flowers, ribbons and festoons of green, is led through the streets in procession. The beast is followed by a triumphal cart bearing a little boy known as the "King of the Butchers." The crowd pays tribute to the small king by blowing horns and throwing confetti, flowers and sweets.
Brilliant parties, balls and other festivities mark the end of the pre-Lenten gaieties.
LE PREMIER AVRIL (April First) April 1
Poisson d'avril, April fish, is the name French people apply to one who is fooled or mocked on April first. Confectioners' windows display chocolate fish on this day and many friends anonymously send each other humorous postcards imprinted with pictures of fish.
Nobody knows the real origin of the custom. Many think it dates back to the time when France adopted the reformed calendar in 1582 and with it the change of the beginning of the New Year from March 25 to January first. People began sending fake gifts on April first (which originally culminated the New Year feast), as a joke on those who previously had received their etrennes, or New Year's gifts, on that day. It is thought that, since the first of April falls within the zodiacal sign of Pisces, the fishes, the term recevoir un Poisson d'avril, to be made an April fish, or fool, came into popular usage.
MI-CAREME (Mid-Lent) The fourth Sunday in Lent
In many parts of France the gloom of the Lenten season is broken by the mid-Lent festivities.
In Paris the day is celebrated by the fete of the blanchisseuses, or laundresses. Washerwomen from each of the various metropolitan districts select a queen. Later a "queen of queens" is chosen and she elects a king, who sits beside her as she rides through the streets on a float. Then come the district queens, each with her own brilliant retinue of courtiers and ladies-in-waiting.
In the evening the laundresses attend a colorful ball, presided over by their queen of queens.
Church bells are silent from Good Friday until Easter in token of mourning for the crucified Christ. Mothers and nurses tell the children that "the bells have flown away to Rome."
Early on Easter morning the children rush into the garden to watch the bells "fly back from Rome." As the small folk scan the sky for a glimpse of the returning bells their elders hide chocolate eggs, Jordan almonds, almond-paste candies and all sorts of other good things where the boys and girls can find them. "You are too late to see the bells," declare the grown-ups. "See, they have already passed this way! They have dropped sweets under your very noses."
The tradition of the Easter bells is told in an old lullaby which goes something like this:
They have gone to Rome,
Down there, down there, far away, you see,
To visit the Pope, a saintly man,
An old man, dressed in white is he.
The bell of each church
To him secretly speaks
Of all the good little ones,
And he himself le Bon Dieu tells
The name of each good child.
Do-do-ding, ding dong, sleep little man.
Easter is probably the one Sunday in the year when almost everyone goes to church. Candles blessed at the Easter service are carried home and lighted only on special festivals, for an Easter taper must last until the following Paques.
It is as traditional to eat omelet for Easter morning breakfast as for everyone to wear something new. Eggs play an important part in all festivities. Children receive gifts of candy eggs and, in parts of western France, it is customary for village choir boys to go from farm to farm the day before Easter, begging for eggs for their holiday cakes. As the boys make rounds they sing threatening ditties such as this:
LE PREMIER MAI (The First of May) May 1
In many places people rise at dawn and go to the woods to search for the first muguets, or lilies-of-the-valley. Sprays of the pressed flowers, accompanied by messages of love and affection, are sent to distant friends as portes-bonheurs (charms). Street corners resound with shrill cries of muguets vendors, who hawk their fragrant wares and urge passers-by to purchase lilies-of-the-valley for friends. Everywhere people declare the flowers are lucky; that any wish one makes while wearing lilles-of-the-valley is bound to come true, and that it is especially good fortune to receive them from one who loves you.
LA FETE DE SAINT GENS (Festival of Saint Gens), in Monteux, region of Provence Sunday following May 15
Saint Gens, patron of the fever-afflicted and intercessor in time of drought, was born in Monteux where he is said to have averted a great drought in the twelfth century. He is honored twice annually in his native Provence--first, at Monteux on the Sunday following May 15, and again, at Beaucet, the first Saturday and Sunday in September. On both occasions ceremonies for the saint are similar, consisting of processions with his image at the hermitage of Saint Gens, prayers for the sick and supplications for rain.
Saint Gens is pictured as ploughing a furrow with an ox and a wolf. Legend says the holy man retired to a desert place near Mont Ventoux, where he worked the land with a team of stout oxen. One day a wolf attacked and ate one of the oxen. Saint Gens made the wolf do penance by hitching him with the remaining animal and ploughing in the place of the devoured beast.
LA FETE DES SAINTES MARIES (Festival of the Holy Maries), in Les Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer, region of Provence May 24, 25
Thousands of gypsies from all over the world annually pour into the little fishing town of Les Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer to honor Sara, their patron saint, on May 24, and Saints Marie Jacobe and Marie Salome, on May 25.
For days before the pilgrimage gypsies from France, Italy, Spain, Portugal and many other countries travel in steady procession across the marshy Camargue. On horseback and afoot they come, in thundering motor trucks and expensive trailers, in limousines and dilapidated cars. The dark-skinned pilgrims pitch camp on the outskirts of Les Saintes and soon a noisy, humming community arises. Horses are tethered to trees, pots set boiling. Washlines sag with colorful garments. Youngsters, wrapped in gaudy comfortables, nap on trailer roofs. Groups gather about to eat or sing, to dance or play haunting melodies on harmonica or guitar. All classes of gypsies are represented, all occupations.
Regardless of widely differing economic status and social position these nomads from every land have one common interest: all are pilgrims. All come to kneel at the shrine of black-faced Sara the Egyptian, founder of their race. At least once in his lifetime every gypsy hopes to pray at her shrine, to burn an enormous candle before her image, to leave an offering for her to bless.
Throughout the centuries countless legends have sprung up concerning Sara and how she became the gypsies' guardian. Possibly the best known version is that Sara was the handmaid of Marie Jacobe, sister of the Blessed Virgin, and Marie Salome, mother of the Apostles James and John. After the Crucifixion, in the attempt to destroy Jesus' followers, the two Maries were cast adrift in a frail bark, without rudder, sails, or provisions. The holy women were accompanied by Lazarus, who was raised from the dead, his sisters Martha and Mary Magdalene, Joseph of Arimathea, who eventually carried the Holy Grail to Glastonbury, Maximin and others.
Legend says that Sara, the Maries' devoted servant, was left behind on the Palestinian shore. An old Provencal song tells how:
Marie Salome, moved by Sara's entreaties, reputedly threw her mantle on the turbulent waters. Sara caught it and was drawn to her mistress' arms. The tiny craft, guided by an angel and Sara the gypsy, miraculously reached Provence, close to the spot where Les Saintes now stands. There the two Maries, served by Sara to the end, worked and preached, while other members of the company spread out over Provence-Martha to Tarascon, Miximin to the town that bears his name, the Magdalene to continued penance at La Sainte Baume.
The legend many gypsies prefer is that Sara was a tribal queen of the Camargue. Miraculously learning of the Maries' arrival in their little skiff, she welcomed the holy women, was baptized by them and then led them to the temple of the sun, where her tribe had assembled. Tradition affirms that the two Maries converted the gypsies and that their pagan altar became France's first Christian shrine.
Sara, the gypsy queen, worked with the saints and helped them. At their death she buried them. Above their tomb an oratory was built and later, the twelfth century fortress church of Notre Dame de la Mer, where thousands gather today for the annual festival. Sara's bones (since she is not a canonized Christian saint) lie in the crypt close to her pagan altar, while those of the Maries--in a blue ark-like reliquary painted with scenes from their lives--rest in an upper chapel, above the church choir.
On May 24, the first day of the pilgrimage, the statue of Sara is brought up from the dark crypt, where she stays throughout the year, and placed in the church before the congregation. At morning mass the ark of the Maries is slowly lowered from the upper chapel window by means of creaking, flower decorated cables. "Vivent les Saintes Maries! Vive Sainte Sara!" shout the frenzied gypsies. Hundreds of dark hands reach up eagerly to touch the descending reliquary. Parents hold children up to implant resounding kisses on the battered box. The old and infirm pass their hands over it "for health."
At last the casket, is settled into place on a trestle before the altar and the traditional canticles to "Nos Saintes Marie et Jacobe" echo sonorously through the ancient church.
After Mass the gypsies carry the image of their patron in colorful procession for the ceremony of blessing the sea. By night Saint Sara is back in the crypt, but no longer alone, because her tribespeople keep vigil with her. Hundreds of tapers burn before the image, the brow crowned with pale roses, the black painted face worn by kisses of the faithful. Each year the gypsies give Sara a new robe, which is put on over the worn garments of previous years. Beside her hangs a clothesline filled with handkerchiefs, neckties, head scarves, and socks, left by the gypsies who seek their patron's special blessing. There are photographs, also, and an offering box, bursting with gold earrings, chains, bracelets and other valuables--all left with thanks for past favors and petitions for future benefits.
On May 25, the second day of the festival, the gypsies bear the images of the two Maries from the church to the sea, just as they took out Sara on the previous day. Preceding the gypsies and the Maries, comes a group of local girls, dressed in traditional Arlesienne costume. The long silk dresses of gray, blue, orange, yellow and rose, have ruffled lace fichus crossed over the ample bosoms. Little embroidered ribbon caps perch like trembling butterflies on the graceful dark heads, with hair parted behind and swept up on either side. No fete in this part of France is complete without a procession of girls in these regional costumes, many of which have been handed down from mother to daughter for generations.
Following the Arlesiennes the gypsies proudly carry the heavy platform with the images of the Saints, standing erect in a little blue, tinsel-trimmed boat. The Maries--one in pink satin mantle, the other in blue--wear chaplets of flowers. A mounted honor escort of gardiens, or cowboys, riding the evil-eyed wild ponies of the Camargue and carrying the iron-tipped tridents used for prodding bulls, attend the Maries.
The Archbishop of Aix, with miter and staff and a silver armshaped reliquary, follows. Then come clergy with crosses and banners, and a throng of chanting gypsies and visitors. The procession is more gay than solemn, for the singing is noisy, the colors bright, and the Maries' pink and blue satin robes billow mischievously in the brisk sea breeze.
Through the long straggling village and out across the sands the procession advances. The gardiens, raising their tridents in salute, ride swiftly into the sea. Then the horsemen turn, forming a semicircle about the Saints as the gypsies carry them into the waves. The Archbishop, meanwhile, enters a boat decorated with multicolored pennants. Raising the silver arm so all can see, he solemnly blesses the waters which traditionally brought the Maries to these shores nineteen centuries ago.
At afternoon vespers in the church the gypsy pilgrims chant a final petition:
Two swarthy men, standing in the upper chapel window pull on the creaking cables and slowly elevate the reliquary of the Maries. As on the previous day, hysterical shouts of "Vivent les Saintes Maries! Vive Sainte Sara! Vivent les Saintes Maries! Vive Sainte Sara!" resound through the sanctuary. Gypsies with outstretched arms vie with each other to be last in touching the ascending casket. Finally the ark reaches the chapel window, where it remains suspended until the festival ends.
At the conclusion of religious ceremonies the congregation rapidly disperses for the horse races or bull ring. Some pilgrims, however, linger about the well in the center of the church and start lowering empty wine bottles by strings into the waters below. Centuries ago, when parishioners fled to this fortress church at sight of enemy ships, the same well enabled them to resist siege for indefinite periods. Today the waters are thought to possess miraculous curative powers. "They will cure the headache," according to one gypsy informant who was corking up his bottle, "but only," he amended, "if drawn on le Jour de fete."
LA PENTECOTE (Pentecost) (Whitsun) The fortieth day after Easter
All city people try to spend this two-day spring holiday in the country. Picnics, excursions and outings of all kinds are planned at this time.
LA FETE-DIEU (Corpus Christi) The Thursday following Trinity Sunday
This great church festival, celebrated in honor of the Blessed Sacrament, is observed throughout France. Gorgeously robed priests, followed by choir and laymen, carry the Eucharist through the streets under canopies that are richly embroidered in gold.
In some towns and villages the path of the Eucharist procession is covered with a thick carpet of rose petals. Prizes are offered for the most beautifully decorated houses. Often people pin flowers to sheets which they hang against walls or the sides of buildings. One of the most picturesque aspects of the festival are the reposoirs, or small altars, which villagers set up out-of-doors-often at the crossroads. These shrines are covered with hand-embroidered or lace-trimmed altar cloths and decorated with candles, images, flowers, or garlands of green. Canopies of interwoven green branches give the altars the appearance of woodland chapels. The priest gives his benediction to these places of worship as he makes the village rounds.
LA VEILLE DE LA SAINT JEAN (Saint John's Eve) June 3
The widespread custom of lighting bonfires on the Veille de la Saint Jean originated with the ancient Druids who built fires at the summer solstice in honor of the sun god.
In many larger places midsummer festivities begin with a dinner at the hotel de ville (town hall) for distinguished guests. Later visitors and townsfolk gather with fanfare and music about the bonfire to which everyone--from the oldest man or woman to the youngest child--has contributed fuel--a log, a stout branch, perhaps only a bundle of slender faggots or a single twig.
In many parts of Brittany the bonfire ceremony is observed with religious solemnity. In Finistere, people try to build their bonfires near chapels dedicated to Saint Jean and the priest kindles the pile at the close of vespers. After singing hymns and chanting prayers the young folk dance about the fires.
La Saint Jean is also the night of love. According to one favorite song:
It is usual to sing old folk songs and dance traditional rounds as the flames blaze toward the sky. As they die down young couples frequently leap over the embers. In some places the wish is made that crops will grow as high as the young people jump. In Bearn, vaulting nine times across the fire is said to ensure a prosperous year, while in Berry the act is thought to prevent illness during the next twelve months. People gather up the ashes from the Saint John's fires and strew them over the fields with prayers for a good harvest.
Customs vary from region to region. In Upper Brittany it is usual to build fires about tall poles erected on hilltops. A boy named Jean or a girl named Jeanne provides a bouquet or garland for the pole and kindles the bonfire. The young people of the village dance and sing about the great fire as it burns.
In the sheep-raising Jura district La Saint Jean is a shepherds' feast. Shepherds drive flower-crowned animals in procession and later nail the wreaths to stable doors, as a protection against the forces of evil.
LA FETE DE LA TARASQUE (Festival of the Tarasque), in Tarascon, region of Provence Last Sunday in June
In 1469 King Rene instituted two colorful annual processions to commemorate Saint Martha's capture of la Tarasque, a voracious man-eating monster whose lair was on the wooded banks of the Rhone. The first procession occurs on the last Sunday in June (approximately Whitsuntide); the second on July 29, Saint Martha's Day. Although the processions differ widely in character, both celebrate the same event. La fete de la Tarasque lapsed a few years ago. It is described, nevertheless, because local groups are hoping to revive it.
Provencal tradition tells how a monster with a lion's head and dragon's tail periodically appeared, ravaging the entire countryside and feeding on both flocks and men. Tarascon's citizens lived in fear. One day sixteen of the town's armed youths went out to stay the beast. Eight returned unharmed; eight the monster grabbed and crunched to death as the victims' legs dangled from bloody jaws.
At this point the saintly Martha (sister of Lazarus and the Magdalene and one of the holy pilgrims to reach Provence with Les Saintes Maries) set forth alone for the monster's den. The creature was noisily devouring its meal as the saint approached, armed only with holy water and a cross. She quickly sprinkled the monster with the sacred water, knotted the end of her girdle about its neck, and led it, subdued and docile into Tarascon. There the townsfolk stoned the monster to death and, impressed by their miraculous deliverance, adopted the Christian faith.
In the first procession of la Tarasque eight men, representing the eight devoured youths, walk inside the hideous-looking spiked body and manipulate the slashing tail and snapping jaws. Eight other men--the lucky ones who escaped--walk as guards beside the monster, which charges into the crowd and snaps furiously at spectators.
On July 29 la Tarasque, tamed by Saint Martha's power, trots along behind a young girl who represents the saint. She is dressed in white and leads the fearful creature leashed on her slender crimson ribbon belt.
LA FETE DE LA MADELEINE (Festival of the Magdalene), in Sainte Baume, region of Provence July 22
"on Saint Magdalene's Day the walnuts are full grown," is an old folk saying which refers to the day when young girls visit the reputed grotto of the Magdalene in the forest of Sainte Baume.
Mary Magdalene, the sister of Lazarus and Martha of Bethany, was one of the little company to set out from Palestine in a frail boat and miraculously to arrive on the shores of Provence. Legend says she wandered eastward from Les Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer until she came to la foret de la Baume, the forest of the Cave. There she resolved to do further penance for her sins. Angels took her to a grotto high in the rocks. Clothed only by her long reddish tresses, with psalm book and crucifix in hand, the Magdalene reputedly spent thirty-three years' living on wild roots and berries and suffering from torturing thirst. Local artists have pictured her lying alone in the cave, angels hovering above her head and wild animals coming near. Sometimes her tearful eyes look upon a vision of the Virgin. The saint's usual attributes are a staff, a skull and a jar of ointment. After long years of fasting, prayer and meditation, it was time for the Magdalene to die. Her friends, the angels, tenderly transported her to th
oratory of Saint Maximin, who administered the last rites. And when the Magdalene died people said that her purified soul, in the form of a dove, flew straight to Heaven's gates.
Ever since the thirteenth century thousands of pilgrims have visited la Sainte Baume, the holy cave. The grotto is hewn out of the solid rock on the rugged wooded hillside. Although the favorite pilgrimage comes on July 22, the saint's reputed death day, the shrine is visited at all times of year. Formerly, a journey to the grotto was especially important to betrothed couples, who sought the saint's help and built up little piles of stones at the wayside to ensure fruitful unions. Today hundreds of young girls scramble up the rocky ascent to the grotto to pay honor to the Magdalene and implore her to furnish husbands.
LE PARDON DE SAINTE ANNE D'AURAY (Pardon of Saint Anne d'Auray), in Auray, region of Brittany July 25, 26
Auray's famous Pardon is celebrated in honor of Saint Anne, mother of the Virgin Mary. Legend claims that Saint Anne appeared in 1623 in a vision to a peasant, Yves Nicolazie, and commanded him to interest the faithful in rebuilding her ruined chapel. The peasant reported what he had seen to the bishop, who believed him. Soon afterward, a mutilated wooden image of the saint was unearthed in a neighboring field. This event attracted worshippers from far and near, who brought offerings so the effigy might be enshrined. The church of Auray was built. Later it became a place of pilgrimage for pious believers from many parts of France.
Annually thousands of devout Christians fast and ascend on their knees the scala santa, or sacred stairway, which leads to the chapel enclosing Saint Anne's statue. Breton peasants believe that if they burn their candles at the shrine, Saint Anne will bless their homes, crops, and ships at sea.
The Pardon of Saint Anne is one of the most picturesque of all French religious festivals, since Breton peasants--both men and women--attend in the rich and beautiful costumes for which their region is famed. The procession of male pilgrims, on the second day of the Pardon, is particularly colorful. The clergy, in striking embroidered vestments, lead the group with gleaming crosses and magnificent church standards. Bands and banners, acolytes swinging censers, choir boys in feast day robes, and earnest-faced peasants carrying their village emblems--all give contrast and variety to homes, crops, and ships at sea.
L'ASSOMPTION (Assumption) August 15
This church festival commemorates the Virgin's ascent into heaven. The holiday serves as an occasion for going to the country for picnics, outings and all sorts of excursions.
LA TOUSSAINT and LE JOUR DES MORTS (All Saints' Day and All Souls' Day) November 1, 2
These two legal, as well as church holidays are widely observed. On La Toussaint, All Saints' Day, there are joyous services in memory of all the saints who are glorified. Le lour des Morts, or All Souls' Day, is dedicated to prayers for the dead who are not yet glorified. During the week before, women in mourning visit the cemeteries to clean the family graves and decorate them with artificial flowers and wreaths of immortelles. On the day of the festival there are church services, followed by visits to the churchyard. Relatives gather to hold family reunions and pay honor to the dead.
In Brittany, where many fofktales warn of evils likely to befall those who tamper with the bones of the dead, children delight in playing gruesome practical jokes in the cemeteries. They frighten visitors, for example, by rattling bones in empty pails, or by putting lighted candles inside skulls and setting them up in dark corners of the graveyard.
LA SAINT MARTIN (Saint Martin's Day) November 11
Foire de la Saint Martin, "Saint Martin's fair," is the term the French gives to feasting at this season, while mal de Saint Martin, "Saint Martin's sickness," is what they call the upset stomachs that result from over indulgence. November 11 honors Saint Martin of Tours, fourth-century patron of the city and special guardian of vine growers, tavern keepers and beggars. Saint Martin is the presiding genius of harvest foods and festivities. He is a gay add jovial saint, popularly associated with robust autumn fare such as roast goose and the first new wine.
Saint Martin's Day, which marks the anniversary of the translation of the saint's relics, is observed with impressive ceremonies at his shrine in Tours Cathedral. Many legends about the saint have come down through the centuries. The one which associates him with beggars is possibly the best known. Once, when a soldier--for Martin was first a soldier, then a saint--he saw a naked beggar shivering at the gates of Amiens. Without hesitation the young man divided his cape with his sword, gave half the garment to the beggar and kept half for himself.
LA SAINTE CATHERINE (Saint Catherine's Day), in Paris November 25
The midinettes, girls of the Parisian fashion industry who still are unmarried at twenty-five, coiffent la Sainte Catherine--don amusing little white paper caps called Catherinettes--in honor of Saint Catherine, and pay gay tribute to the patroness of old maids.
Employers give the girls the afternoon off, often allowing them to use their workrooms for celebrating the occasion with a buffet supper and dancing. The girls choose a queen who, like her followers, also wears a cap, and escort her through the streets of Paris. Often a group of girls will mischievously surround and kiss some handsome young man.
Coiffer la Sainte Catherine, "to don Saint Catherine's bonnet," is an expression used to warn girls they are likely to become spinsters.
LA SAINTE BARBE (Saint Barbara's Day) December 4
In some parts of France Saint Barbara's Day marks the opening of the Christmas season. On Saint Barbara's Eve in southern France, especially in Provence, wheat grains are soaked in water, placed in dishes and set to germinate in a warm chimney corner or sunny window.
According to old folk belief, if the Saint Barbara's grain grows fast, crops will do well in the coming year. If, on the contrary, it withers and dies, crops will be ruined. The "Barbara's grain" is carefully tended by the children, who on Christmas Eve place it--a living symbol of the coming harvest--beside the creche, or miniature representation of the manger scene.
LA SAINT NICOLAS (Saint Nicholas' Day) December 6
According to ancient French tradition the Virgin once gave Lorraine to Saint Nicholas as a reward. Consequently, the good saint became the special patron of that region, which he visits each year. Of course, Saint Nicholas does not confine his activities to Lorraine alone, for with his feast day, on December 6, children's Christmas festivities really begin.
In Lorraine, where la Saint Nicolas is very important, representatives of the saint, dressed in bishop's regalia, walk through the streets followed by le Pere Fouettard, with a bundle of switches. Then comes a cart containing a salt barrel and figures of three young lads. According to legend the saint miraculously resuscitated three boys after an avaricious inn keeper murdered them and put their bodies in a keg of brine, intending to serve the flesh to hungry customers.
On Saint Nicholas' Eve children place their shoes near the fireplace and retire with a prayer that the saint will remember them.
is an old French rhyme. The good things children anticipate are sweets and candies; the bad they fear, especially if they have been naughty during the year, are whippings from le Pere Fouettard, Saint Nicholas' companion. He is a stern disciplinarian, and he remembers how children have behaved during the past twelve months. As a reminder of his watchfulness, small ribbon-tied bunches of birch twigs accompany even the gifts Saint Nicholas leaves for good boys and girls.
LA VEILLE DE NOEL (Christmas Eve) December 24
French families prepare for Christmas Eve with the creche, or miniature nativity scene, which is made with small figures representing the Christ Child, Joseph and Mary, the Magi, the animals and shepherds, set against a charming background of moss, stones, and small branches. The creche, which exists in a great variety of forms--simple in many homes and elaborate in the churches--survives from medieval times, when miracle plays were enacted from small stages set up in the street or market place.
In Provence the creche is characterized by little gaily-colored clay figures called santons. These small figures represent not only the Holy Family, but all sorts of familiar village characters--the butcher, the baker, the spinner, basket maker and flute player, all of whom, like the Magi and shepherds, come to adore the Infant Jesus and present him with their simple gifts. Sometimes tricolored candles, symbols of the Trinity, light the nativity scene. Shortly before Christmas, Marseilles holds a santons fair which is attended by people from all over Provence. Here they purchase the traditional figures which are made by a score of families living between Nice and Marseilles. The molds for the santons, which depict with loving accuracy the costumes and occupations of the Provencal peasant, have been handed down in these families from father to son for approximately three hundred years.
At midnight the church bells joyously anounce the birth of Christ and the hour of Christmas Mass. In Paris cathedrals the service is magnificent, while in rural districts the ceremony is observed more simply. The beautiful church cr&che, dramatically lighted with burning tapers, the singing of old provincial carols, incense, the pealing of many bells--all combine to make this service the most colorful of the year.
At Les Baux, in Provence, a celebrated Christmas Mass called the Fete des Bergers, Festival of the Shepherds, is annually performed. Shepherds and shepherdesses, dressed in regional costume, make symbolic offering of a new-born lamb to the Christ Child on the anniversary of his birth.
The shepherds place a lamb in a small two-wheeled wagon, which is drawn by a rain and elaborately decorated with flowers, lighted candles, and tinkling bells. The spokes of the wheels are wound with flowers, while the cart's bent-twig canopy is gay as a Christmas tree with lighted tapers, garlands, and pretty ornaments. The lamb is drawn about the church in joyous procession. The shepherds, carrying burning candles and offerings of fruit, sing ancient Provencal carols to the traditional accompaniment of flute and drum. The procession stops at the altar where a young shepherd lifts up the lamb and presents it to the officiating priest. Later shepherds and shepherdesses take communion.
Similar shepherds' Masses are held elsewhere in Provence, one of the most beautiful being at the Abbaye de Saint-Michel de Frigolet, not far from Les Baux.
After attending Midnight Mass it is customary throughout France to hold family parties at which the reveillon, or late supper is served. Traditional foods for this repast vary from place to place. In Paris and the Ile-de-France, for example, there are oysters, pate de foie gras, blood sausage, pancakes, many varieties of sweets and white wine. The following day the newspapers always report the number of kilometers of blood sausage people have eaten at reveillon!
Goose is served in many areas. In Provence people say that the reason for eating this favorite food is that the goose welcomed the Wise Men with its quacking as they approached the Christ Child's stable. Snails an--' mullets are as traditional to the Provencal reveillon as oysters to the Parisian. Pike, celery, and chard are essential in the main course, which custom dictates should be followed by eleven different desserts. These include such delicacies as roast chestnuts, hazelnuts, figs, dates, raisins, apples, pears and nougat.
After supper the grandfather or oldest member of the household, surrounded by the family and farm servants, always used to pour a little wine on the Yule log while uttering a traditional toast:
Among the Bretons buckwheat cakes and sour cream are important Christmas Eve fare, while roasted chestnuts with milk are eaten in some parts of Auvergne. In other places the chestnuts must always be served with wine. Pancakes are traditional to Franche-Comte, turkey and chestnuts to Burgundy. In other words, each region boasts its own reveillon specialty, prepared and served in its own special way.
On Christmas Eve children carefully set out their shoes near the fireplace since they believe that le Pere Noel, Father Christmas, or, in Alsace, le petit Jesus, will stop before dawn and fill them with nuts and sweets, sometimes even with coveted toys.
In some places carol singers with lighted tapers and a small creche, go from house to house singing old carols of Jesus' birth and receiving small money gifts in return. In southern France, there are charming puppet shows of the Christmas story, as well as village processions representing Joseph, with Mary and the Child on a donkey. A chorus accompanies the little group and sings songs of the Holy Birth.
NOEL (Christmas) December 25
Christmas is a time for family dinners, reunions and parties, rather than merrymaking and exchanging gifts. Oysters, roast goose, or turkey with chestnut and pork filling, bombe glacee, and an abundance of fine wine are a few of the delicacies which characterize the Christmas feast in many city homes.