Saturday, 26 December 2015

The twelve days of Christmas

I don't know if the Twelve Days of Christmas
are still a custom in the UK
(and perhaps Canada, New Zealand, Australia ... and the USA)
but I never heard of them in the Dordogne!

And yet, the omniscient Wikipedia tells me it is a French custom adopted by Britain and formalized as late as the beginning of the 20th century. ( ). There is something knocking in my mind about "La Perdriole" but it may well be associated with "La Périchole" by Jacques Offenbach, which has nothing at all to do with this. BUT, it seems that we used to make a chain with my cousins upon the same principle as the Twelve Days of Christmas, only it was for the months of the year. All this is very confused and meddled.

So, what do we find in these Twelve Days:
  • a Partridge in a Pear Tree
  • two Turtle Doves
  • three French Hens (nota: why French?)
  • four Calling Birds
  • five Gold Rings
  • six Geese a-Laying
  • seven Swans a-Swimming
  • eight Maids a-Milking
  • nine Ladies Dancing
  • ten Lords a-Leaping
  • eleven Pipers Piping
  • twelve Drummers Drumming.
I can see Mother smiling at the idea of the Drummers Drumming, and she would enjoy so much being the True Love to give twelve Cherubim or Seraphim-like little boys each his drum to entertain their respective parents...

Otherwise, when I close my eyes, I visualize twelve days during the reign of Henry VIII or, possibly, Elizabeth I, with loud and playful merrymaking although we know now that these times were dangerous for the "greats", with possible beheadings, and more than often famine and cold ridden for the poor. But TV and films have done their jobs and have idealized times long passed.

Should we be waiting for Shakespeare's "Twelfth Night"?

Or an English XVIIIth century is still a possible setting in my mind's eye. I look upon a rural Britain with the very beginnings of the Industrial Revolution but still in its swaddles. It is a pre-lapsarian England, and it is before the contamination of the French ideas of Revolution and Napoleonic Wars.

At home, the first day of Christmas would have been spent around the tree and playing with the new toys.

Or spending time in the kitchen. There were the aromas of cinnamon; dried slices of oranges and lemons, pommanders, fresh baking for family coming to tea, ham slowly cooked and glazed in honey, curry made with the remainings of the Christmas turkey, mince pies, lots of laugh. 

Yes, lots of laugh and movement, doors opened and closed, galloping in the corridors, loud voices, giggling, simpering, wailing when a toy was taken from the arms of a new mama (my sister and a doll), and the loudest voice from Father asking if, for goodness' sake, there could be a little quiet in this house in which he would hear himself think!

I would be found in the kitchen in my special corner, a small space with a straight wooden chair, totally uncomfortable, in between the large chimney place and the first fridge that had belonged to my grand-parents. I was reading, absorbing words and sentences as well as smells and conversations around me. All this had a taste of Christmas. People would come to make me go out and run and move and play. I sticked to my uncomfortable chair, with a stack of books at my feet. Why would I have had to run and move when I had such worlds at the tips of my fingers?

And that was the First Day of Christmas
Without a Partridge but with Pear Trees in the orchard.

Jingle Bells
Jesus College Choir (Cambridge - UK)

Friday, 25 December 2015

On Christmas Day

On Christmas Day,
there is no more window to open 
and eyes begin to turn away from the Advent Calendar,
although it seems too soon to discard it.

On Christmas Day,
having gone to all services,
having opened all presents and all cards,
having eaten lunch,

A treacherous sleep comes by
and it is difficult to choose
between looking properly at presents
 and falling into the arms of the chairs
lying luxuriously on the sofa.

Let's do like the skating minister!
We shall walk and run and move around,
coming back to the house with rosy cheeks 
and thirst to quench with a cup of tea!

While the minister will sedately
glide over the ice,poised over a leg
as a dark blue heron.

Thursday, 24 December 2015

On December, 24th

Nativité by Georges de La Tour

On December, 24th,
The Girls said with some disdain
that they knew 
what the last window, when opened, would reveal.

And there were right, of course! The last window was the doors of the church of our Victorian village chosen for Advent Calendar. What could there be behind the doors of the church but a Nativity? And a Nativity it was!

But what is the aim of an Advent Calendar? To help count down the days towards Christmas. And what is Christmas but the Festivity and reminder of the birth of Christ? Christ, Jesus, Emmanuel, Prince of Peace, God-with-Us: all these names for a baby in the arms of his mother and under the gaze of his father - foster father on Earth (Joseph) and Father in the Heavens (God) -. But let us not be trapped in controversy and theology. 

Christmas for Christians is the birth of a child who is both Man and God. Or the advent of God on Earth with all the attributes of Man.

There are very grand paintings of this scene of Jesus' birth. But I like the Nativité by La Tour. It is so close to what would it have been when a birth occurred in 17th century France. With the added mystery given by the famous light, which is hidden from us and yet illuminating the whole scene with the focus on the baby's head.

The child is a new-born one with his eyes tightly shut, a little snub nose, and the mouth open. He is also tightly swaddled and his mother holds him firmly while looking at him with wonder, a little fear, reverence, admiration. Yes, he is hers and he is a separate human being. I guess all mothers discover this when they hold - particularly - their first born. Issued from their cells, carried in their wombs during nine months, part of their body, theirs and when born, suddenly, separated from them: on their own.

The light is glowing but the hand of the other woman protects them for too much fierceness and the red dress, colour of blood, is softly blended with the darkness behind.

Red, colour of the blood of the birth of the child, of the blood of the death of the man he will become. And softly blended with the darkness as the woman will stay in the shadow except for the birth and the death where she  will stand at the foot of the cross.

Is this child God made Man? So fragile, so small, so devoid of strength and power. A baby like other babies. Is he really The One we have been waiting for during all these weeks and all those centuries? 

And what changes has he brought?

This year, it seems that things have changed for the worst. Bombings, wars, beheadings, loneliness, torture, hunger, homelessness, fright, cold, hatred, evil seemed let loose. And there are fools to believe there is a God who is omnipotent and goodness itself. Fools!

Yes, fools. 

This is what I think of myself when I roll into a tight ball of despair. What is good in my life and why should I believe God exists and comes to us: where is my brother? Where is Mother? Why am I stuck with The Girls in a place I don't particularly relish when it smells of feasts and we are alone? Why are The Girls disabled? Why couldn't I have a life of my own? Why do I have to fight to get enough to eat for the three of us and why is there usually not much left for me? Why these two minor brain accidents that have left me with disabilities?

Where is God when I cry towards Him? Does He exist?

The Church gives answers but one has to already believe in God to believe in the answers of the Church.


But what would be the meaning of Christmas without this birth? Let's call it Saturnalia or Solstice celebration or any other name. Why should we exchange presents? Why should we make it a special day?

Ancient beliefs? Foolishness?

But a child - any child - is a promise. It is a life that begins. It is Life that goes on. It is the life made of a father and a mother's lives. I have talked so much of my family during this Advent Calendar time. Mother. Father. Siblings. The Girls. Grand-parents. Great-grand-mother. Great-uncles and Great-aunts. Uncles and Aunts. Cousins. Godmothers and Godfathers. And these forefathers who lived to build the old fortified castle. And these who built the house we live in. We are their lives that go on, even disabled or lonely or depressed. This makes a long stream of life, starting with babies and children who were, each of them, promises.

Therefore there is something irrationaln deep within me, that makes me believe that this night "unto us a child is born", and that this child is a promise towards Peace on Earth and Life in the Heavens. It is Hope beyond all hope.

And here we are with all lights on. And the tree, and the stars, and the ornaments, and the candles, and the gifts. 

Thank you, you who have travelled with us through the time of the Advent Calendar. You have survived my ramblings and chatter about traditions in our family. Thank you for your support and your comments. Thank you to have read my daily rant.

The Girls and I wish you 
a very Happy and Merry Christmas!

Hark, The Herald Angels Sing
King's College Choir (Cabridge) 2011

Wednesday, 23 December 2015

On December, 23rd

On December, 23rd,
I rolled into a ball in my bed

Instead of rejoicing and being merry, I thought about all these memories I have written about, and all these past Christmases, and felt sad. 

They will be no more. And The Girls and I will be alone during the Christmas that comes. I felt suddenly tired as if a great weight had been falling on my shoulders. I was a mousefield lost in a great world of light and pleasures that were not mine anymore.

And so, after having taken care of The Girls, I went back to my bed, took some sleeping pills, rolled myself into a tight ball, and went to sleep.

Good night, friends

Tuesday, 22 December 2015

On December, 22nd

On December, 22nd,
carols and music reigned supreme

There is no carol singing in the streets in France. This is a tradition I discovered when I started reading English or British literature. We have concerts, mainly in churches, during Advent, and they have nothing to do with the traditional English/British concert of "Lessons and Carols". They are mostly French chants de Noël in the modest villages and towns. They are more "classy" when one goes to bigger towns like Périgueux, Bergerac and Sarlat, for instance, where an organ may be here and add instrumental music to the purely vocal efforts. And, of course, there are concerts aplenty when you live in cities like Paris, Lyon, Marseille, Bordeaux, Strasbourg, etc.

In The Village, a choir is born a few years ago under the tutelage of the only music teacher, who taught the piano to the middle-class children, before music classes were created in one of the Market Towns nearby. When she was too old and tired to go on, a British lady took her place as conductor and the choir is prospering. They sing in French, mostly traditional folk songs, a capella.

The Anglican community members who celebrate in a RC church they have been "lent" by the bishop, offer a concert of "Lessons and Carols" on the Third Sunday in Advent, with mince pies and tea and mulled wine afterwards. I have always wanted to go now that we live in the country but it is near Périgueux and my driving skills have been too impaired by health problem for me to drive such a distance without worrying. Perhaps it will be better in the years to come.

When we lived in Paris, there was no true Christmas without the Salvation Army and their music and singing.

I remember there was always a band in front of Le Bon Marché (this is the model of "The Ladies'Paradise" shop in the Zola eponymous novel), on the Left Bank, not far from home, and where we used to go shopping. Their appearance marked the beginning of Advent, and the special time before Christmas. I was attracted by the tunes and the bell that one member was ringing incessantly as soon as the band stopped playng or the singers singing. And the noise of the money jingling against the metal of the great basin held in the middle of a tripod. One could find other bands elsewhere in Paris but I considered this particular as the best and almost "ours" - probably because it was close to home.

We have always been a musical and vocal family with various success. Mother sang almost flat. When young, she had been curiously chosen for this "quality" to sing alto in the church choir. They thought she was able to produce such disharmonies that she was a right person to perform the sometimes difficult and quaint alto part. Father was barytone verging to bass. He always lots of success with us when he sang Bartolo's air of la calunnia  in Il Barbiere di Seviglia. The rest of the family was mostly composed of cracking voices going from child to adult or purely child voices. This produced a motley choir, but we enjoyed singing together: singing in intricate canons or different parts in the car while Father was driving was something we loved, especially if the windows could be opened!

During the time of Advent, CDs were playing French carols that we sang at the same time. Then we listened to the more elaborate English choirs from colleges - Cambridge and Oxford - and Westminster, Saint Paul and other British cathedrals. The Vienna Choir was announcing for us the New Year's Day Concert. They had almost nothing to do with it but they shared the magic name of "Vienna". And Mother had brought back a treasure from one her travels before being married: a LP bought in East Berlin with German Weinacht carols. It was so fragile tht she had recorded it on a tape (yes, there were tapes when she was young!) and made copies of the tape!

And when we were in France and spending Christmas in the country, there was a "midnight mass" preceded by a vigil to be prepared. 

We still had an ageing priest in The Village. On Christmas Eve, he said mass with the bishop at the jail house that had been built near The Village. It is still a big place where people convicted for drug and sexual offences mainly end their time before being released. I was in charge of the singing and there was almost always a prisoner or two who played the guitar. I went down from Paris some week-ends before the fateful date and, uder the supervision of our prist and  chaplain, trained volunteers to sing. They usually mad rather a nice little choir during the Christmas mass. Then the bishop and our priest came to lunch at home. And after lunch, Mother and I went to do the flowers with the volunteer ladies of our tiny village where the vigil would be at nine o'clocj and the midnight mass at nine thirty.

I was not much with the flowers but with the children. We were trying to have the church live again and some children and adolescents were willing to come and do something. Therefore I used to write the vigil and in the midst of the text, there were French Advent carols and lights to see to, flowers to be brought - a whole scenography for adults, adolescents and children. The afternoon of Christmas Eve was the last rehearsal as well as the first rehearsal where we were together!

We managed as the years passed by because we got used to. When I was coming from Paris on week-ends before Christmas, I had the rehearsal with the prisoners on the Saturday mornings, and the rehearsals with the little village parish on Saturday afternoons. I left on the Sunday afternoons. It was rather crazy and hurried but I loved it. Once I was ill and could not take the train as usual. So, I made an appointment with the children wo were singing and I conducted some kind of rehearsal on the phone from Paris, with the help of the piano. There were lots of laugh and some work done.

One of my little singers sang so flat that I had to explain that she had a very speial and precious voice that needed to be preserved. She would not sing but help me in the reading and organising of the vigil.

All this does not exist anymore. Our priest is dead as well as the bishop and parishes have been gathered in one big entity. There is one midnight mass at eight o'clock in the nearby Market Town, none in The Village and even less in our tiny little village. Less and less people from The Village and our little village are going. There is a new chaplain for the jail house but no one from the surroundings is admitted: one has to be a qualified and certified jail visitor. 

Well, the times they are a-changing! No need to dwell on the pat unless to rejoice at the good and nice and funny memories. At home now, we still have the CDs of carols in French, English and German - and Latin and Italian... And there are still our beloved and very classic Messiah and Weinachtsoratorium.

As to singing, since my little brain accident, I sometimes have difficulties with my voice and The Girls both sing flat. Better for us to listen to the Christmas carols and the angelicchoirs than singing!

Le Choeur d'Adultes de la Maîtrise Cathédrale Notre Dame de Paris chante "Les anges dans nos campagnes" (Noël du XIIIeme siècle, harmonisation de François-Auguste Gevaert).
Messe du soir de Noël 2011.

Monday, 21 December 2015

On December, 21st

On December, 21st,
a star was twinkling

Yes, a star was twinkling as when we opened the 21st window of the Advent Calendar this morning. It was a sure sign that we are closer to Christmas as Matthew tells us in his Gospel that there was a star over the stable where Christ was born. Now, is this true or is it a legend, I leave it to scientists and Biblists to discuss and quibble about: all I know is that for us there would not be any real Christmas without stars.

And there are many stars in our Christmas family story and in my own.

There is first the battered star that I have always seen crowning the Tree. It is more and more battered every year and makes a poor ornament. Its heart is made of glittering green tinsel, and, around it, the branches are bent and gnarled. It has travelled everywhere with us, and seen the whole family grow up. It must have been one of the first ornaments Father and Mother bought for their first Christmas together and their first child! So it should be retired by now but it would not be a true Christmas without it whatever the other decorations.

Then there is another star, a shooting star or a comet - it is difficult to say - that is almost as battered as the Tree's. It goes on the roof of the stable in our Nativity scene. This one changes every year: it may be in a grotto made with creased brown paper or it may stand by itself but there is always the very simple little wooden house made by Grand-Father: two walls, one floor a little raised, and a brick-red or Van Dyck brown (as you choose to call it) roof with one side longer and less steep than the other. No wall behind and no wall in front to leave space for the santons, but where the two sides of the roof meet skyline, a point to hang the comet with its long golden tail waving slightly in the air.

And a third star beneath the Nativity scene that could take as much space as a whole long and low table. Mother would always have her Christmas Star, a red poinsettia that she humoured carefully during the whole Christmas time and longer - in fact, as long as she could. She revelled in the waterfalls of poinsettias we encountered when we spent that famous Christmas in Florida even if she was as surprised as we were by the decorated palm trees. But poinsettias were her weak point and one should be as close as could be to the Nativity scene. Therefore we had to be careful not to put it too near to a chimney place or a radiator. Christmas can be very prosaic, indeed!

There were also the biscuit stars that we had taken back from Sweden or Paris - those ginger biscuits who were specially designed in a star shape for Christmas night and eaten along with mince pies when we were back from the midnight mass.

And the illuminations of the Christmas Tree crowned with stars in front of the church in The Village as well as the stars Mother wove in the garlands and the wreath welcoming guests on the main door.

And last, but not least, there were my "own" stars. You are certainly aware by now that a lot of my true life was lived in my imagination and in my mind. I was growing up in a big, loving family - a tribe or a clan - but I was jalously individualistic. I needed my privacy and my dreams. I needed to read and to write - all things you do by yourself, and that require silence. I learnt to go down my inner self and withdraw from the others, as much as I loved them, to find silence and my true self.

When we were on holidays in the Dordogne, we went to see our older relatives with punctuality: great-uncles and great-aunts that were more than eighty, Grand-Father and Grand-Mother if they were on holidays in the country as well, old cousins either widowed or bachelors and spinsters, and Great-Grand-Mother. 

Great-Grand-Mother lived with her younger girl - the one who had been born "by accident" in 1917 and of whom I have spoken on December, 13th ( Great-Aunt Lucy was entirely devoted to her mother who was bed-ridden during her last years. I was slightly frightened by Great-Grand-Mother and I did not understand all she said. In fact, she was living in a world that existed before WWI. She wondered and worried on how long it would take us to go back from our place to ours, which was only a handful of miles away. She was sometimes aware that we had a car - but like her own car during WWI - or sometimes she thought we still had a horse-drawn carriage of some sort. This was confusing and poetic at the same time. Add to this my love of abridged (at that time) 19th century literature and you will have the perfect picture of my twisted mind when we left and during the journey back home.

It was usually dark and night when we left. I always asked to be seated near a car window at the back. While Father was manoeuvering very slowly in the drive that led to the gates, I could see the stars through the window. They were winter stars in a clear night blue sky, very different from the velvety, soft sky of summer.

The car went slowly warm and I was slightly sleepy. Mother used to say: "There will be hoar frost tomorrow but the morning will be sunny and it will be nice for the children to run to the farm and get the milk and eggs." Father assented by a nod, careful of stray branches that would come across the drive, and sighing lightly with relief when he had reached the gates at least. My sister was already asleep in some lap - sometimes, mine. I looked at the sky and rejoiced at the luxury of being warm, comfortable with my family around me. It never happened to me that it could change. I thought we would always be all together at the same age and doing the same things. Time seemed to stretch infinitely before us in a long moment that stayed the same almost forever.

And time present, future and past became one. Dickens again. Why Dickens? I don't know. I have a blurred feeling that I thought Great-Grand-Mother belonged to his time and his stories - probably because of the horse drawn carriage - and I thought of all the travellers who walk on Dickens roads during the winter nights, whatever the weather, of all those who arrive at an inn where the fire is always roaring in the chimney place, of those who are jolly and merry in their dwellings, mostly the poor but pure ones. That was winter. That was Christmas. 

There were disturbing thoughts though: Andersen and his Little Match Girl, the dying children in Little Women, Joe the street-sweeper in Bleak House, and Tim Cratchit in A Christmas Carol who was disabled like my brother François. But of course, there was no reason why my brother should die. Had I but known...

The night was closing upon us and we were all content - or so I thought - in a warm cocoon that would last forever under the twinkling stars. That was childhood, that was innocence, and that was Christmas.

Today is winter solstice and "midwinter"
Chanticleer - In the Bleak Mid-Winter

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