Saturday, 19 December 2015

On December, 19th

On December, 19th,
a doll was smiling

I have already lightly touched upon presents and toys we had for Christmas. My sister and I had dolls but we were moderatly interested. I loved ... books of course. She had Nounours (I hope you remember Nounours!).

We had lots of presents for Christmas because we were an extended family. So, we received presents from our parents, Grand-Parents on both sides, Godmothers and Godfathers, Uncles and Aunts, Great-Uncles and Great-Aunts, spinster Cousins, relatives, etc. But they always were cheap little things. Our parents wanted them so. They decided early very wisely that too many presents were spoiling children, that we were a tribe in ourselves and that we might share what was offered, and that we needed to play with our toys, break them when they were to be broken as we were children, and therefore only cheap toys could be played with and broken without regret.

After "the enchanted week" between Christmas and New Year's Day, Mother saw with what we were playing most and took the other gifts. She put them in a special cupboard. After a while, we forgot about those toys and they arrived back to our utmost delight, all new and unbroken, when we were ill and wanted something clean to play with in bed, or for our name feast day, or in the middle of holidays during the year when we did not know what to do with ourselves. 

This way, we had new gifts all the year round. But we were and we still are a bookish family and toys were very quickly replaced by books under the tree. I think I have already told you that one year, I made a long list of books in very cheap editions and broke up the list among our differents members of family and relatives or acquaintances. I received a heap of books and there never was a better Christmas for me. I spent the next term reading my books and had utterly bad marks at school (according to my parents' standards). I was talked to and books were forbidden for a few days. I was glad to have notebooks as I passed the time writing stories unshamingly copied and plagiarized upon the books I had read. I even illustrated "my books", which was the worse idea I could have as I was a disaster with paint brushes and colour pencils in hand in spite of all the drawing lessons I was taught.

Lots of our toys were handmade. My Godfather and Father's Father were carpenters by hobby. So there were lots of trains, airplanes, railway stations and signals and villages, or dolls furniture made in wood by them both. Now that I am able to see them as an adult, I realise how beautiful they are and how much time it took to create them. It is a wonderful handicraft and their wives or other ladies of the family were involved to sew, embroider, and knit. There is love in them even if we did not find them fashionable at the time. No Barbie dolls for us and no bright plastic cars for the boys. Very disappointing when you are a child and want to be "like the others" (the others being your friends) but how much more lasting and rewarding when you become an adult!

One year, one of my friends received a doll that talked. I thought that was wonderful because I heard of the doll but did not see it. Instead of that, Mother and her Mother, Father and his Father made the kind of "crib on wheels" you may see above. The crib or craddle itself was made with a deep crate they had found at the market and that would have held vegetables. It was tastefully dressed in pink and white with a toile de jouy set and fine embroided bed linen. In fact my sister and I had one each - which means lots of work! - and each was a replica of our own crib. In each, there was a doll asleep. They still are little marvels and I wonder how much time was necessary to make them and how many confabulations there must have been among the different members of the family involved.

Anyway, at that time, I was terriby outraged. My friend has a doll who could speak and I had a crate covered with cloth! My doll was a small affair with hand-made clothes in a little cardboard suitcase. They were present for poor children. They were no presents at all. I showed all this to my sister who could not understand all I was saying and was playing happily with both crib and doll. But I persuaded her to go, show our presents and lift up the flying adornments of the crib. She went to Father and Mother, lifted up the cloth, and said what I had told her to say in her own distorted language that meant: "mended crates". 

Mother understood immediately and looked at me with reproach. Father never touched us but it was one time where he could have slapped me. I saw tears running on Mother's cheeks. 

I was deeply embarrassed and then shameful and then sad and then weeping as well. My sister started to weep to join us and it all ended in hugs, but I was lectured and scolded afterwards in private by Father. As I admired him immensely, it was worse than a slap.

I discovered a few days later that the doll that could talk was able to say the say ten or fifteen sentences and not at all to hold a converstaion as I had thought. I felt my presents gaining in weight and value in consequence.

A year or so ago, I met this friend in Dordogne and told her the part of the story about her doll. She had no memory of it. We still have craddles, dolls, cardboard suitcases and the handmade clothes. I think we were certainly the most fortunate!

Dormi Jesu
King's College Choir

Friday, 18 December 2015

On December, 18th

On December,18th,
I awoke tired and sad,
and felt that depression was coming back fast.
Nothing better then that a large number of cups of tea to cheer one up!

Depression is an illness and not a fancy that induces one into laziness as some members of my family believe. It is cumbersome and truly unpleasant, and is able to last years and years in spite of the medical treatment one is prescribed. There is but one solution: to soldier on and sometimes to relent and, as my best friend would say, indulge in comfort things: comfort food, comfort books, comfort, comfort, comfort...

When I awoke this morning, I felt it was one of these days for comfort. The sadness that was building up these past days was closing its black wings around me; I was exhausted before getting up; nerves were frayed, and I felt dangerously on edge. 

The first thing was to protect The Girls from this mood and its consequences. No frayed nerves. No sadness but a large smile. No weeping, no cries, no shouts or moves that would frighten them. 

First thing first, then: start the day with a mug of tea!

I tip-toed to the kitchen, put the kettle on and chose a tea bag of English tea, not one of those teas you find in France that taste like washing-up water. Some milk. No sugar. And choose a mug.

Now, I have a hidden passion for crockery. I just love wandering through The Supermarket aisle dedicated to plates, glasses, kitchen implements, but mostly cups and mugs. But it is small as The Supermarket is small. It is better as I would be tempted and do not know whether I would be able to resist. 

I am glad The House is full of disparate cups and saucers. Each generation of women who have lived here has left traces of wedding presents or ordinary tableware. There are also the fancy things bought for pleasure, on a whim. And this gives a curious collection of crockery.

Of course, these being for the time of Christmas, red, green, white and gold prevail, which is a pity as I do prefer white and blue china. 

Mother added to this motley collection by giving me my birthday month cup, saucer and dessert plate: they are December as well. No chance for blue but there is not too much aggressive red.

In Anglo-Saxon countries, what could be more "cosy" that drinking tea while reading a book, all shutters closed, curtains drawn, in a warm house, while it is cold or rainy outside? Perhaps the same remedy would not be applied here, but I make it mine today. And as it comes close to five o'clock, The Girls will ask for the same with a slice of fruit cake. Depression should go away before such well-being.

And what was in the little window of the Advent Calendar, will you ask? A soldier made of wood. But, please, no more soldiers in this time where "Prince of Peace" is one of the names of the Son of God.

"For Unto Us a Child is Born" - Händel - "Messiah"
Sir Colin Davis conducts the London Symphony Orchestra, Susan Gritton, Sara Mingardo, Mark Padmore, Alastair Miles and the Tenebrae choir 

Thursday, 17 December 2015

On December, 17th

On December, 17th,
in spite of teary eyes and running noses
Christmas crackers crackled

The Girls are feeling better! There is no more fever, temperature is back to normal, and everybody was up for breakfast and to open today Advent Calendar window that showed a Christmas cracker.

This is really not a French tradition: it was even a curiosity until they appeared very shyly in some send-everything-and- anything shops during the last few years. But they are not truly popular as they are in the UK.

We never adopted them during our travels and they were not imported with my craziness about Britain. We had one Christmas with them in England at some friends'. They are nice but there is something about them - I cannot say what - that did not attract us.

One thing alone makes them enjoyable: their paper wrapping. Some are really goegeous and they can make very lovely place settings or centre-of-the-table with the other Christmas ornaments.

I have discovered lately, in reading a blog, the story of the cracker. Here it is:
Crackers were first made in about 1845-1850 by a London sweet maker called Tom Smith. He had seen the French 'bon bon' sweets (almonds wrapped in pretty paper). He came back to London and tried selling sweets like that in England and also included a small motto or riddle in with the sweet. But they didn't sell very well.
However, one night, while he was sitting in front of his log fire, he became very interested by the sparks and cracks coming from the fire. Suddenly, he thought what a fun idea it would be, if his sweets and toys could be opened with a crack when their fancy wrappers were pulled in half.
Crackers were originally called 'cosaques' and were thought to be named after the 'Cossack' soldiers who had a reputation for riding on their horses and firing guns into the air!
When Tom died, his expanding cracker business was taken over by his three sons, Tom, Walter and Henry. Walter introduced the hats into crackers and he also travelled around the world looking for new ideas for gifts to put in the crackers.
The company built up a big range of 'themed' crackers. There were ones for bachelors and spinsters (single men and women), where the gifts were things like false teeth and wedding rings! There were also crackers for Suffragettes (women who campaigned to get women the vote), war heroes and even Charlie Chaplain! Crackers were also made for special occasions like Coronations. The British Royal Family still has special crackers made for them today!
Very expensive crackers were made such as the 'Millionaire's Crackers' which contained a solid silver box with a piece of gold and silver jewerly inside it!
Cracker manufacturers also made large displays, such as horse drawn carriages and sleighs, for the big shops in London.
The Christmas Crackers that are used today are short cardboard tubes wrapped in colourful paper. There is normally a Cracker next to each plate on the Christmas dinner table. When the crackers are pulled - with a bang! - a colourful party hat, a toy or gift and a festive joke falls out! The party hats look like crowns and it is thought that they symbolise the crowns that might have been worn by the Wise Men.


This made me think about Christmas in the Victorian era where most of our European traditions (North- Western Europe and North American) are rooted. And about Dickens once more.

When I first read A Christmas Carol, I did not catch the relation with the ghost stories that are usual in Anglo-Saxon traditions. Since then, I have read Mrs Oliphant's and Edith Wharton's ghost stories, for instance. And I have learnt that Christmas night is reputed being the night during which animals can talk, and when the border between the quick and the dead is the thinnest. These customs relate to the Scandinavian, German, and the Celtic ones. Of course, all have to do with the winter solstice as we have seen with other traditions and myths of this Advent Calendar. Remember the 13th of December and Sankta Lucia? They were brushed with Christianism, and, in the XIXth century, Queen Victoria and, mostly, Albert Prince Consort added a new layer of paint: sentimentality, sugar, and chocolate lid box illustrations and literature. This could be discussed with the emergence of the child as a child and not as an adult-to-be, of the new sense of the family, the improvement of the economic well-being of the rising middle-class, the growth of the cities and the parallel impoverishment of the countryside  folks, of the Biedermeier style imported by the Prince Consort and turned into British sauce, etc. But this would then be an essay and not the story of an Advent Calendar little window.

Nonetheless, these few elements allow us to address Dickens with new eyes and to address his works both on the deep, hidden, sense of it, and with the candid eyes of the common reader (pace Virginia Woolf) and of the child I was when I discovered his short stories and his novels.

The gothic element of the ghost left aside, A Christmas Carol keeps the ghost as a trigger to make Scrooge better, and to show us what is a "good" Victorian Christmas. Crackers are not yet present, but the Christmas dinner is here, both at the Cratchit's and at Scrooge's nephew. The Christmas goose (no turkey) has been baked in the baker's oven, there are festivities and rejoicings in both houses, and we see the difference between the middle-class nephew's house and the more humble Cratchit's home. We may note the use of the disabled child (Little Tim) who will become almost a "must" in Victorian literature. Disabled characters are often used to enhance the sugary sentimentality of the times, even more if they are children. On Christmas only: do not forget what was the real condition of most children during the Victorian era!

Dinner cooked at the baker's

The Cratchit's dinner
Scrooge at his nephew's

Scrooge and Bob Cratchit

The other, more potent memory, I have of Victorian Christmas that partly moulded my own expectations of Christmas, is the Christmas Mr Pickwick spends at Dingley Dell. I know I have already spoken of this but it was really a revelation: the cold outside and the warmth of the hearth and home inside, the revels outdoors and the merry making indoors - these contrasts were striking for the child I was when I first read them (before I read A Christmas Carol) and "prejudiced" me towards a cosy family Christmas. What was surprising for this child, was the absence of Christian references: there was no Christmas service, no God, nothing related to the Christian faith and rituals except for a gentle push towards Christian values that have become humanist values. But a lot did weight in matters of food and eating. The original illustrations of The Papers of Mr Pickwick show victuals hanging from the ceiling and the centre of the house is not "the parlour" but the kitchen in all these stories.

All this rambling is taking us away from the cracker and the little window we opened in the Advent Calendar this morning, and yet, all (including the cracker) were invented in the same period. As is the Christmas card. Alors "Vivent les Victoriens"? Definitely, yes: "Hurray for the Victorians!"

God Bless Us Everyone performed by Andrea Bocelli
From the album A Christmas Carol

Wednesday, 16 December 2015

On December, 16th

On December, 16th
there were severe colds in The House

Part of The Litlle Family is down with severe colds today. Sniffs, cough, running noses, red hot cheeks, weeping eyes, damp foreheads, feverish little hands, uneasy sleep: this is no time to open the Advent Calendar window. 

Running with hot water bottles, herbal teas, warm broth, holding hands, smoothing bed linen and duvets, I have no time to write. 

Fortunately, I had something ready about detective novels. It will break the Advent Calendar but will be posted later, when I have time.

And I hope, the windows will be open tomorrow!

Johannes Brahms - Op.49 No.4 Wiegenlied / Lullaby (original composition)
Das Slovakische Kammerorchester

Tuesday, 15 December 2015

Bookish ramblings about past whodunnits and present thrillers

I am in the middle of the Advent Calendar but I am still reading as my occupations are not all absorbed by Christmas. And for once I feel I may write something that might be interesting and worthwhile about my readings.

It all started with looking through stacks of books in my bedroom. I was disgruntled and not able to find something that would hold my attention. I needed something easy to read before going to sleep and during night if I were to awake. I have classic whodunnits in English but I found some Scandinavian noir thrillers in French and thought it would make a change.

I started with the three fat volumes of Millenium by the Swede Stieg Larsson. I had read the first opus a year or so ago but had only dipped into the second and left the third unread without no good reason as I had liked the style and the rythm of the first one. The second volume was interesting but more violent. I hesitated but took the third one, and was rewarded as the story turned into some sort of spy novel or novel including secret services activities. It was less bloody, more complicated in its structure, which was more fragmentary and therefore more interesting: my mind had to play with the jigsaw puzzle elements of the plot that were given drop by drop, and it was an engrossing exercise. The verisimilitude of the slices of society described - the press and the secret services - was plausible. All in all, it was an enthralling reading.

When I had finished with Millenium, I felt I was hooked for a series of thrillers in the same French collection/edition. Searching through the stacks, I found one book I had left unread Snow White Must Die, by Nele Neuhaus. It is translated from German this time and located in Frankfurt and  its surroundings.

Most of the action of the plot is lived in a little village near Frankfurt. A young man is released from jail after ten years spent there for the murder of two adolescent girls, when he was himself an adolescent or very young man. The corpses have never been found. The young man has always told he was innocent. And yet, all proofs were against him. When he comes back to his birthplace where he lived all his youth, he finds that the village community has so ostracized his family that his parents have divorced. His mother lives in Frankfurt. His father has kept the old inn but had to close it for lack of patrons. The farm is but derelict old buildings. The land has been sold to a neighbour who played Good Samaritan and bought it less than its real price to build his new enterprise upon it. All that remains, the inn, the farm buildings and the house are mortgaged and will be taken by the same Good Samaritan neighbour soon enough. 

To put it in a nutshell, the family is dismantled, the father a wreck, and there is complete ruin ahead. The fact that the young man, Thobias, comes back to the village arouses a new wave of hatred, venomenous gossip and acts of violence from the villagers.

At the same time, the police discovers the corpse of a young girl, adolescent, in an undergroung fuel tank of a disused airport neither far from Frankfurt nor from the village. The DCI and one of the DIs (their German equivalents) make a tentative link with the murders of the adolescent girls of the village and, of course and fortunately for the novel, their link is proved the right one. The investigations may begin.

I shall not tell you about these investigations or about the plot. You will have to find by yourselves if you wish.

But I was interested by the fact that it was mostly located in a village.

My detective or thriller readings are limited - and limited mostly (but not entirely) to classic whodunnits by the Queens of Crime: Agatha Christie, N'gaio Marsh, Margery Allingham, Josephine Tey, Dorothy L Sayers, and al. Some by men like Michael Innes and his Inspector Appleby's books because they were translated in French and in cheap paperbacks editions when my parents were young and students and had not much money to spend on fancy books. So I found them on the shelves of the library.

These novels are almost always located in closed  areas: locked rooms, country houses cut from the rest of the world by snow, floods or other catastrophy, colleges, villages, etc. This is mostly true with the Miss Marple novels and stories by Agatha Christie to limit myself to one example. Which is not the case of the modern thriller or detective story. 

Unconsciously then, I began to compare Snow White with Agatha Christie's Miss Marple - for instance Murder at the Vicarage or A Murder is Announced.

All three books - let us limit ourselves to these three books but let us keep in mind that the list might be extended -, all three books take place in a village. The cast is composed of inhabitants of these villages. Only the investigators are "foreigners" and there is no reason to suspect any of them for the murderer. The Frankfurt police in action has nothing to do with the plot. Nobody would suspect the detectives helped by Miss Marple and nobody would suspect Miss Marple herself.

The scene is the village. True for the Agatha Christie novels. We do not move much from Saint Mary Mead or Chipping Cleghorn. There are some travels to London or to the nearing town but they are not really intriguing and may rather promptly be swept off. Untrue for the Neuhaus novel. People move to Frankfurt. Some of the action is spent there. It goes even further to Hamburg and to the Alps. It is easier to move. It would seem strange that people be confined into a village. Nowadays, communications are easier and anybody will drive, take a plane, change places, and most of all uses his or her mobile phone and the net. We cannot have an enclosed community during the time of an investigation with total plausibility.

In Murder at the Vicarage, although it was published in 1930, there are some "unknown" characters: people who have come to live in the village more or less recently and whose past is to be discovered by the older inhabitants. But most characters must be traced back to living in Saint Mary Mead during their whole life, sometimes for generations. In A Murder is Announced, published in 1950, Miss Marple deplores the mobilty that followed WWII. No one knows his or her neighbour. All pasts are more or less in the shade and shady. New people have come to live in Chipping Cleghorn and have destroyed the stability and the social order of the village. The notion of social order is important. Who knows the real status and the real place of the newcomers on the social scale? Without this knowledge, can they be trusted? What is really behind their façade? Is it an appearance or the truth? What is their past? This is one thing that must be discovered by the clever Miss Marple who does not stop to facts only.

In Snow White must die, there is a collusion of the villagers: they know their past. Few have moved from the place. Few have come. Those who have moved are more or less suspected by those who have stayed as they have dissociated themselves from the community. Those who have come are not to be trusted as they threaten the closely woven inter-relationships. They investigate. They collude with the police. They ask questions. They make themselves allies to the outcasts: the newly released from jail Thobias and the autist Thies. It could be said that it is pardoxically closer to the 1930 Murder at the Vicarage than to the 1950 A Murder is announced in that it is a study of the relationships in a rather closed community and its interaction with the outside and outsiders. But there is still more mobility.

As to the cast proper (now that we have seen the stage), it is clearly linked to social status.

In Murder at the Vicarage, there are the Vicar and his young wife, a retired colonel, his second wife and his daughter by the first marriage, an unknown woman who is clearly a lady with personal revenues, the local GP, the curate and his landlady, the vicarage maid and her brother (who are utilities), a painter (artist), the chorus of single and more or less impoverished gentlewomen not unlike Mrs and Miss Bates of Emma or the gentlewomen of Cranford, the police investigators (from chiefs to local PC), and Miss Marple. Shopkeepers may be incidentally mentioned but they play no part in the drama.

In A Murder is Announced, the society is more mixed. We find the vicar and his wife (again), the local GP and his maiden sister, a lady of private means, retired from being secretary from an industrial tycoon, a friend of hers from childhood, a widow who has everything of a lady, two students (brother and sister, nephew and niece to the retired secretary), the maid, a gentlewoman and her son who plays marxist, a retired colonel, a solicitor and his family (wife, daughter by a first marriage, two sons and their governess, a maid and her sweetheart), two youngish ladies living together who may be supposed to be lesbians, a crook, spinsters and widows in the background (all gentlewomen), the police crew, and Miss Marple. The problem here is to disentangle who is truly who. Are the newcomers really who they say they are?

But, in both novels, the leads of the cast are definitely middle-class. No shopkeepers, no factory workers, no craftsmen.

In Snow White Must Die, the protagonist is the son of an innkeeper. Then, the main characters are the innkeeper and his wife, a doctor with psychiatric knowledge, her husband who is the minister of education of the Land, an industrial, his wife, his two sons (one who is autist and painter, and one who has been a stokebroker and is now the director of a Swiss bank, but who wanted to study theology), and his sister-in-law, a carpenter and his wife, an employee of the industrial and his wife, another innkeeper, his wife, inn servers, the grocer, a TV star who was born in the village, various villagers, the police crew, the procedural crew ... and their families.

No particular middle-class characters centre-stage this time: the village as a community and the village as a place are the main protagonists. Whoever lives in there has a part to play. And the other great difference with the classic whodunnit is the entrance of the police crew with their own lives. We follow them not only in their offices but in their homes as well; we know even more about their personal lives than about the lives of the villagers. And policemen may also be villagers, which gives them a double status.

Nonetheless, if the community is depicted, mostly at the inn's or at the grocer's as they are the place where we are able to see them gathered, there is the emergence of the minister of education, the doctor and the industrial as main pillars of the community: once their alliance and support are broken, the community unravels. Their status gives them money and power to sustain the village together. The only ones who rebel against them are the first innkeeper and his family, one inn server, and, in a way, the TV star. But it is a story about a community, its secrets, its life, its death, more than lives and deaths of individuals as in the whodunnits.

I have not read Martin Edwards' The Golden Age of Murder but I read several of his reviews and participate in the online groups about the topic of the Golden Age Mystery. They do not like books like Millenium or Snow White Must Die. There are not real mysteries for them.

The real mysteries have begun with The Mystery of the Rue Morgue and live until the end of the 1950s. They do hardly include the American "hard-boilers", with Philip Marlowe and al. They cover the classics re-printed by the British library and, of course, Agatha Christie falls in their lap. The Golden Age mystery is born with the crossword puzzle and is a distraction written by the middle-class writer for the middle-class reader. It is then normal that the main characters are those who are known to the reader: middle-class protagonists without exception.

There is a funny example of such an instance in a book that has been reissued by Persephone Press, Greenery Street by Dennis Mackail (Angela Thirkell's brother), himself from the middle-class.

The newly married Felicity goes to the library to change her weekly books and chooses some for herself and some for her husband. There is a hilarious exchange between the librarian and the poor Felicity, but the husband's choice is almost always satisfied by mystery books, even if not those wanted. And, later, we see said husband engrossed in the reading of his weekly booty, half listening to his wife as he does when doing the newspaper crossword puzzle. Now, search your mind and try to remember how many times, in books of the 1930s to the 1950s (at least), people are looking for clues to the Times crossword puzzle.

The very nature of the mystery or whodunnit novel is of the same essence. It is a game. There is no need to have a too true-to-life setting and characters. All these can be compared to "The Clue" or "The Cluedo".

One needs a closed place (room, country house, village) and a set of characters without much distinctive traits from one book to another, but to whom the reader can relate. You may have noticed the recurrence of vicars, curates, retired colonels, spinsters, widows, gentlewomen, ladies, professional gentlemen and their wives. But they are mainly cardboard characters. Then the writer and the reader begin to play together. The detective has no great importance. What do we truly know of Hercule Poirot or Jane Marple? And tenants of the Golden Age mystery criticized and still critic the TV or film adaptation that want to give some consistance to Poirot or Miss Marple in devising a past for them, for instance.

Some writers have made the tour de force of living through the years and of transcending the genre. Agatha Chritie is a good example.

As we have seen, there are differences between Murder at The Vicarage and A Murder is Announced. In the second book, WWII has occurred and times have changed. Villages are not any more those communities where everybody knew the forefathers of the inhabitants. The fact that lesbians may exist is lighly touched. The problem of restrictions is spoken of. Girls may be students. Women may work without being scandalous. There is a flexibility in Christie's story-telling to adapt it to the times. And they witness their times in such a way that nowadays they are used by cultural studies as literary sources.

But books like Snow White Must Die go further. The style is important in the writing. The game and the red herrings must fit a wider readership or a more sophisticated readership who has read more detective novels and seen them more often in films or on TV. What Christie sketched in The Murder of Roger Ackroyd is now the rule: the murderer can be the detective or the person helping the detective. The detective has a life of one's own. He or she has a home, colleagues, problems, a family, a love story or love stories that may mirror the story or be utterly distinct.

I do not pass judgement: I love both genres. And I like hard boiled crime novels. But I think that Snow White Must Die makes a happy contrast with Murder at the Vicarage and A Murder is Announced. Same small community and a mystery to disentangle through roots deep in the past. Similarities and differences.

I told you I have the E.M. Forster Syndrome: I always want to connect! 

On December, 15th

On December, 15th, we found
Christmas socks ready for presents

In fact, my sister is the only one to own a Christmas sock. This is an Anglo-Saxon tradition that we did not fully adopt during our globe trotter years. We remained faithful to the French custom of putting our shoes under the Christmas tree. Why did my sister have a sock then? 

At some point of my life, I became quite crazy about everything British. I read books in English (mostly Trollope at the beginning of the craze), I ate British food (bought at Marks and Spencer's in Paris), I tried to find British clothes (at Marks and Spencer's but also at some very expensive shops always in Paris - these were my years with some money!), I lived British, I slept British, I wrote British, I thought British. I was British crazy.

In the midst of my craziness, I dicovered that the Christmas socks I had my eye on were truly expensive. So, always crazy but practical, I bought one pair of ordinary woollen cream socks, threaded needle and wool for embroidery, applied myself to embroider one sock for my sister. I have already mentioned that I have two left-hands and am very awkward. You may imagine that the result was not une oeuvre d'art. There was a star, a sprig of  holly, my sister's name, and a garland going down the leg of the sock until the toe. Lots of colours: gold yellow, bright red, deep green, and variations around these basic colouring. Quite frankly it was a bit of a mess. It was only redeemed by the brightness of the tints and shadings, and the love with which the mess had been done. I cannot say that my sister was impressed and, as all people with Down Syndrome, she did not hide it! 

Anyway! The idea did germinate, and the year after I bought the real thing well in advance, during a visit to friends near London, at a very reasonable price, and the replacement sock was received gracefully by my sister on Christmas Eve to be put in use immediately. Since then, she has travelled with her sock and has disdained the French shoes under the tree. As to my pitiful try, it has been mercifully lost.

In the Dordogne as in all the countryside, most of the time, people were not rich and it was clogs that were put before the chimney place when coming back from the Midnight Mass. One of the local writers who achieved a national success in the XIXth century, Eugène LeRoy, describes it very well in what is considered as one of his masterpieces, Jacquou le Croquant. The title only would need a long digression to explain the meaning of the name. Let's say shortly that a "croquant" was the scornful way to call a countryman - a peasant - and that a "Jacques" was a rebellious "croquant". "Jacquou" is a diminutive for Jacques (James) in local dialect of the Dordogne. The book is a long painful story of the fight of "Jacquou" and other rebellious peasants against their master, le comte de Nansac. The novel opens with a Christmas scene in which the child Jacquou and his mother go to the Midnight Mass in the chapel of the castle, and come back through  the woods and the coldness of the night. There is a story of broken clog and of clogs let before the chimney place. But do not think that Santa Claus or "Saint Nicolas" will come and are believed in. Jesus is the focus and the parents try to give something to their son.

Clogs were worn with thin felt slippers inside well into the 20th century but, in more fortunate families, shoes were left before the chimney place. I have already told that in Father's family the main presents were given on December, 6th, by Saint Nicolas and the parents. In Mother's family, there was no nonsense and the presents were given in celebration of the Nativity by the parents, aunts, uncles, family, and the children. Later, this same attitude was adopted towards us. That was a very good idea as my sister could not be told legends, and then that they were only legends but the truth was different: that would have been too confusing for her.

As there was not always chimney places where we spent our Christmases, we put our shoes under or near the Christmas Tree, and my sister hooked her sock to the arm of a chair or a sofa.

We had one adventure with shoes and Tree in Paris once.

I had made friends with a young priest in my Godmother's parish, which was a parish of intellectuals and quietly living middle-class and upper-middle-class professionals and "ordinary" people, comprising influential politicians. Jean-Marie was from Rwanda, and had survived the genocide as well as the temptation to become a soldier child thanks to a Serbian Franciscan missionary priest, who was killed at the end of the civil war because he helped both Hutus and Tootsies: they were all human beings in his eyes. Jean-Marie told me that his youth was then rather chaotic but that he went to school, to the RC seminary, hesitated about leaving it and decided to stay. He was sent by his bishop to France to learn and gain a doctorate in philosophy. He was doing pastoral work in Godmother's parish and learning for a master in economy on the side. He was, and still is, brilliant. And humble.

Came Christmas. I realised that none of the well-thinking parishioners was going to invite him, that his fellow priests were going to their families or friends, and therefore that he would be alone on Christmas Day after the last service.

I asked Mother if he could spend the day with us and invited him.

We went  to Midnight Mass in his parish, spent the evening after the service  half with him and half among ourselves. But when I was at home, I realised that I had not told him to bring his shoe to put under the Chrismas Tree as we had little presents for him. So I rung him up before he could have been asleep and told him about his shoe. He seemed puzzled. I insisted. He seemed more puzzled. I insisted even more until he said, half jokingly, and half desperately: "Camille, I know I come from Africa and a poor country but I have shoes, not ONE shoe but SHOES. I have at least one pair of shoes that I shall wear to come to you, and a pair of trainers. But why do you want me to do with ONE shoe? Do you think I cannot buy a pair or that I walk bare-footed?" I felt like a fool and explained it was a French tradition for Christmas - among others. And he retorted: "But am I not to come for lunch and spend part of the afternoon? What are you going to do?" "Nothing very special, and you will have lunch, but if you want to participate in a French Christmas, then bring your guitar with you."

He arrived after the last morning mass, and was surprised by the Christmas fir tree. We told him to put his shoe under it, and to wait. Then my sister came in with heavy treads, a plastic bag on her shoulder, trying to mimick an old man. She has the red cloth cap of Santa on her head and was saying: "Je suis le Père Noël. Poum, poum, poum. Laissez-moi passer. Je suis le Père Noël". She put the little presents on the shoe and did not forget to add the nuts and the orange IN the shoe.

We had to explain all items. He was listening to us carefully and looking at everything with curiosity and surprise bordering to wonderment. After a while, he simply said: "I have never had a Christmas. In my family, we go to mass and then it is a day like any other day. There are no presents and no special food. You, Europeans, cannot understand what our cooking can be, and that our traditons are still mingled with Christianism or your mythology." He was shaking his head in disbelief.

We had our Christmas lunch, and some music in the afternoon. He played the guitar. We sung. It was cosy at home and grey outside. We  learnt about Christmas in Rwanda, about his life - what he wanted to say. We were joined by more friends - one with a violin. They improvised a duet violin and guitar. We spoke more and it was time for him to leave well before we thought it was the right time. We were sorry the day was ended. 

Later in the evening, when we were putting out the light, we saw that my sister's sock was firmly hooked to the arm of a chair and that Jean-Marie's shoe was still under the Tree.

Dangling sock or waiting shoe,
I am grateful we live in a country (almost) at peace
and in comfort

O Tannenbaum
Vienna Boys Choir

Monday, 14 December 2015

On December, 14th: great event for me!

I have been invited to participate into another Advent Calendar hosted by Solveig Werner, where bloggers talk about their memories of Christmas or events that are happening this year.

I was surprised to be invited as I thought my blog was not that interesting and my English rather poor without the help of my co-author and editor, Liz (there is much to edit so I call her my co-author!). And sometimes the advice and help of friends like John and Geoff.

But I was invited. I wrote in a hurry as there was a blank for the 9th of December and we were already on the 6th. So I thought my text could stop up the gap. But someone had stepped forward before me and my text was kept for today.

Therefore here is the link to it. This is a geat step in my blogging life!

Please, read it and make comments as usual. And if you have time, go and see Solveig's blog from time to time: it is worth reading.

Sunday, 13 December 2015

On December, 13th - and Third Sunday in the time of Advent

Carl Larsson

On the 13th of December, whatever the day, it is the feast of
Sainte Lucie

I should better say it is the feast of Sankta Lucia because this is no special feast or festivity in France. It is one for my family because we adopted it when we were in Sverige (Sweden).

Yes, I am sorry but I shall speak again of Scandinavia and of Sweden. Those years in Stockholm are among the happiest ones I have lived and the memories I have of them are like a light or, more exactly, like the candles of Lucia/Lucie/Lucy: they bright in the darkness through which I may go and they are warm in the cold I feel sometimes. People have all been kind to us there - very kind.

We adopted Sankta Lucia Festival the more easily that we had a great-aunt whose name was Lucie-Marie-Noëlie. She had been born on the 27th of December 1917, and was the only great-aunt that remained to us. She had been an "accident baby". My great-grand-mother had been very worried when she thought she had a fibroma, and after her husband had gone back to the trenches after a short permission to see his wife and his two adolescent children. My great-grand-mother phoned her gynecologist in Périgueux (the capital town of the département), and the chauffeur drove her to her appointment. She was very surprised when the doctor told her with a large smile that there was nothing to worry about: she was pregnant and she would have a baby by Christmas. That came as a thunder clap  ... or a miracle - I don't know which. What I have been told again and again is that it was utterly unexpected and mildly outrageous in my great-grand-mother's mind! (I hope -tongue in cheek- that you notice how modern and decisive my great-grand-mother was! Somebody like Maggie Smith in "Downton Abbey"...)

My great-aunt was born then just after Christmas and had been Marie, Noëlie for Noël/Christmas, and Lucie. She was not very lucky as far as presents were concerned as her feast day, Christmas, her birthday, and New Year's Day were all gathered in about the same fortnight.

We always rung her up or wrote on the 13th of December, went to see her with presents on her birthday (when we were in the Dordogne), and wrote again for New Year's Day. All very dutifully but with love as well. She was known to us as  "Aunt Sweet" after I had christened her so, for she had gicen me sweets when Mother and Father were always reticent about these items for the well-being of our teeth.

One might say then that we were ready to celebrate with ardour the Sankta Lucia Festival when we arrived in Sweden.

Carl Larsson

Saint Lucy of Syracuse, in Sicily, came through the Légende Dorée by Jacques de Voragines with the missionaries who wanted to christianize Scandinavia. She met great success as there was already a pagan celebration about a Lussi and a festival about light in these dark countries. According to the legend, she had been martyred and had had her eyes torn out of her sockets. Therefore she was reputed afterwards to cure all illnesses linked with eyes. But it is her association with light through the Latin root lux that was decisive. In the old Julian calendar, she was feasted as the days began to move forward: the sun was on its raise again, giving more light to people. 

You will find all about Lucy in this link:, and Lucia in Sweden in this one:

What we loved was of course the tradition of the maid in white with her crown of candles and her attendants wearing white as well, and the ginger and cinnamon buns:

and the mulled wine or coffee to drink with them.

We loved the processions and the celebrations in churches with the choirs:

All this was in the cold city, adorned with myriads of lights, with the covered markets where one could buy smoked reindeer, salmon, piglets or hams as the tradition is pork for Christmas with apples, and the overpowering scent of spices. And there were the Christmas markets as well. 

I still feel the sense of warmth I found in the streets, in the old town, in the markets, although it was so cold really. I cannot reasonably explain this sense of warmth. I felt it and have never found it anywhere else. I felt welcome and at ease, and, as I wrote at the beginning of this entry, there was a true kindness that I met again in the Swedish community in Paris when we came back to France.

It would be too long to tell the story of one of my birthdays in Stockholm when one of Father's colleagues, who was one of the administrators of the Vasa Museum, had it open for me and organised a special visit of the Vasa ship where I was able to go aboard the venerable XVIIth century boat by special permission as it is strictly prohibited, and then a birthday party in one of the reception rooms of the museum overlooking the sea and the brackish water that bathe the city. 

Perhaps it was a city where I felt I was loved. One is not loved, liked or welcome everywhere...

Therefore, in between the celebration of the feast day of my miraculous great-aunt and the celebration of Sankta Lucia, the 13th of December has always been a special day for my family. More lights appear on this day, and more ornaments as it is an important step towards Christmas.

And today, this year, it is all the more important that it is the Third Sunday in the time of Advent, which is also called "Pink Sunday" in the Roman Catholic liturgy. The priests may wear pink vestments instead of the purple/violet ones that are the rule during Advent. In fact, very few do as liturgical garments are too expensive. It is the sign that the dawn of Christmas is nearer. And this Sunday is called "Gaudete" - Rejoice.

Whatever our life and its difficulties and sorrows, let us rejoice then and light candles or fairy lights. Let us think that days - spiritual and material - will be longer soon (at least in the Northern hemisphere). 

I wish you a peaceful and serene happiness. 

"Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion"
G. F. Händel - Messiah
Joan Sutherland