Sunday 20 December 2015

On December, 20th - and Fourth Sunday in the time of Advent

On December, 20th,
bells were ringing.

We  were stirred with joy this morning when we heard the bells ringing a quarter of hour before mass, this morning. They seemed to clang differently from the other Sundays, already announcing Christmas. And the little widow of our Advent Calendar went in unison as there were tiny bells as well in the church tower of the Christmas scene.

Bells are important in the country. They have all been electrified and there are no bell ringers as they may still be found in Britain. But bells are a reminder of time that passes during the day and during life.

When France went dechristianized in the 1950s-1960s, the town (or, mainly, the village) councils did not bother anymore about their churches. But I must explain a point of law. In France, since 1905, all things religious are free and protected by the State - all things religious means all religions. There may be no discrimination because of religious appurtenance. But it means that all religions are equal and different from the State. The State belongs to the public sphere with no reference to any religion or god; religions belong the private sphere and are celebrated by those who believe in them and their god(s). This had difficult implications in 1905 with Roman Catholicism, and this has new difficult implcations nowadays with Muslim religion. In each case, only fanatics are implied and not the whole population of the faithfuls.

According to the 1905 law, churches and religious buildings built before that fateful date are in the care of the State - which means different levels of the State from the government till the town/village councils. All religious buildings built after 1905 are in the care of the religious organisation that has made it. With exceptions: mosques re sometimes built with the help of publlic funding. There is a real need for them and Muslims are not rich enough (until they call for foreign help) to gather the money necessary for their edification.

But in the country, RC churches are the centres of each little village. And they were expensive to maintain. So the village councils let them deteriorate. Until the day where they discovered that the villages themselves were dying. That they had no centre and no market square around the church anymore. That there were no more weddings celebrated, no funerals, no christenings, no festivities anymore. And the number of inhabitants was dwindling dramatically. Most of them decided to rehabilitate their church with the help of the département, the région, and the State funding. Churches were a building to visit and to attract tourists. Churches had a good acoustics and concerts could be held in them with permission of the local priest in charge. Churches could be opened for special exhibitions, for flower shows. Churches were useful.

And bells were useful.

Country people used to rely on the bells to know the time of day. There was the Angelus thrice a day: 7 am, noon, and 7 pm: that was the rythm of the work in the fields. Country people used to rely on the bells to know who was dead with the ringing of the toll, to know that there was a wedding, that there was a christening, that it was time for mass, that it was a Church festival. Country people measured the time in terms of bells and bells were chanting the rythm of life.

The style of the Dordogne churches varies greatly from one point of the département to the other but their function is the same and the interest they arouse is the same as well.

Of course, there are less and less country men that rely on church bells. Some people are even irritated by their sound. But I had to discuss the use of the church in our own little village (not The Village) with the mayor who was a "fierce Red", which means a fierce Communist and against anything religious. In fact, he told me that he would be glad that the church would be used again and the bells rung regularly as they were the heart and life of the village life. I was given all the help I needed and as I was talking about a child choir and reunions we wanted to make to prepare the important masses like Christmas and Easter, the "fierce Red" mayor offered to lend us a room in the mairie so that we would not be cold. And he told me of the church heating system. He was here for the first midnight mass we organised after years of disused with his village councillors - some of them having helped us deck the church with flowers! This is life in rural France...

And so the bells ring again in our little village

as they have kept ringing in The Village (where there is the market, the shops and The Supermarket)

Of course, for a beautiful peal of bells, one would have to listen what is played as with a music instrument in Périgueux and the cathedral. It is one of the highlights of summer time for tourists ad of Christmas time for locals. There have even been recordings (LPs and CDs) of we which we are all inordinately proud!

Meanwhile, no decent Christmas tree or Christmas decoration in shopwindows or houses would be complete without its set of jingling bells.

And this morning, in beween the bells calling to mass (sign that the wind was telling us it should be a sunny day) and the bells of the Advent Calendar, we knew that decidedly Christmas was coming fast! We are on the Fourth and last Sunday in the time of Advent.

Ding! Dong! Merrily on High

The words by G R Woodward (1848-1934) are from the 20th century, while the tune is a 16th century French dance. The carol first appeared in 1924.
The highly entertaining arrangement is by Dr Mack Wilberg, Director of Music of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir.

Performed by King's College Choir in 2007

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