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Monday, December 5, 2011

French Christmas, Part 2

Crèche, Take 1

The word “crèche” comes from the German word Krippe. These appeared in France around the 12th century. The earliest mention of a crèche, however, is one from Bethlehem in 248 C.E. One of the oldest Church-sponsored crèche of the kind we are talking about, a small tabletop scene as opposed to a full recreation (see December 9), was from Prague in 1562. Small crèches began to appear regularly in Italy between the 15th and 16th centuries.

A peculiarly French invention was the “berceaux,” which were small framed scenes of a wax Christ-child on a field of flowers and later lace. The first ones appeared in the 18th century. There were figurines and paper borders, and the object was an “image de devotion.” By the late 18th century, these became more elaborate, diorama-like scenes. The crèche Provençale was described in 1683, a larger-sized crèche, but there are no physical traces left, unlike the smaller berceaux of which many remain. The famous santons of Provence (small colloquial figurines made of clay) began to be seen at the end of the 18th century.

Minuit, Chrétiens!

Known in English as “O Holy Night,” the lyrics for this 19th century carol were written by Placide Cappeau of Roquemaure in southern France. He was asked to write the hymn by his parish priest, Abbé Eugène Nicolas, shortly before a business trip to Paris (he was a wine commissar and occasional poet). On December 3rd, 1847, somewhere between Mâcon and Dijon, he got his inspiration for “Minuit, Chrétiens!” In Paris, Cappeau took the poem to Adolphe Adam. Cappeau knew Adam through the wife of his friend M. Laurey. Adam, a considerably successful composer of light opera music, quickly composed the melody within a few days, and the carol made its debut in Roquemaure on Christmas Eve midnight Mass, sung by Cappeau’s friend Emily Laurey. Although the song was an instant hit, Adam died in 1856 and did not live to see the great, enduring success of the carol. Unfortunately, the popularity of the carol in some ways soured its creators to the public, who later attacked Cappeau for socialist convictions and Adam for (unfounded) anti-Semitic smears. By 1855, it was published in London and received its English translation by John Sullivan Dwight.

“Les anges dans nos campagnes”

This carol appears to be from the 18th century and possibly the Lorraine region. One source says that in French legend, shepherds in the southern hills would call to each other on Christmas Eve, “gloria in excelsis deo.” This source also suggests that the Latin refrain sung by the shepherds was joined to the tune and text of “Les anges dans nos campagnes” in 1855. There are many English translations and others that simply use the tune. The first certain English translation is from 1860 by Bishop James Chadwick in his collection Holy Family Hymns. This is the version we known as “Angels We Have Heard on High.” It appeared twice more that decade in different translations and collections. Some people believe that the first translation was in 1816 in the poem “Nativity,” written by James Montgomery and published in The Sheffield Iris. It was later known by the title “Angels in the Realms of Glory.” Anderson remains unconvinced, due to the later publication in French Québec of the text. (Ian Bradley, meanwhile, puts the lyrics firmly at Montgomery’s door and highlights this carol-writer’s sympathy with the French Revolution for which he was imprisoned in the 1790s.) The “Gloria” is an anonymous tune arranged by Edward Shippen Barnes at some unknown date in the 20th century.

Christmas in France

We have a glimpse of popular Christmas celebrations in France from two periods in the 19th century. The first is from a letter from Elizabeth Hancock, Comtesse de Feuillide. Her mother Philadelphia was Jane Austen’s aunt. When her husband was guillotined in 1794, the Comtesse went on to marry Jane’s brother Henry. She was so busy in 1782, the year of this letter, that she didn’t write about Christmas until March 27th!

As for me, I have danced more this winter than in all the rest of my life put together. Indeed I am almost ashamed to say what a racketing life I have led, but it was really almost unavoidable, Paris has been remarkably gay this year on account of the birth of the Dauphin. This event was celebrated by fireworks, illuminations, balls etc. The entertainment of the latter kind given at court was amazingly fine. The Court of France is at all times brilliant, but on the occasion the magnificence was beyond conception. The ball was given in a most notable saloon, adorned with paintings, sculptures, etc etc.

We also have a record of one of the more unique French Christmases, the menu for the Christmas Day dinner at the Café Voisin, 261 rue Saint-Honoré in Paris in 1870. Because the city was in the thrall to the Franco-Prussian War and was surrounded, the Zoo animals had been slaughtered for the rich to eat while poor people made do on rats and cats. Here is the menu:

Butter radishes
Stuffed donkey’s head

Puree of red beans with croutons
Elephant Consommé

Fried gudgeons
Roast camel English style
Jugged kangaroo
Roast bear chops au poivre

Haunch of wolf, venison sauce
Cat flanked by rats
Watercress salad
Antelope terrine with truffles
Mushroom bordelaise
Buttered green peas

Rice cake with jam
Gruyere cheese

Latour Blance 1861

Mouton Rothschild 1846
Château Palmer 1864

Romanée Conti 1858
Grand Porto 1827

Evening Hérault.
French Ministry.

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