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The Christmas Kalends of Provence
And Some Other Provençal Festivals
Thomas A. Janvier
The Christmas Kalends of Provence
A Feast-Day on the Rhône
The Comédie Française at Orange
"'TO THE HEALTH OF THE COUNT!'"
Fancy you've journeyed down the Rhône,
Fancy you've passed Vienne, Valence,
Fancy you've skirted Avignon—
And so are come en pleine Provence.
Fancy a mistral cutting keen
Across the sunlit wintry fields,
Fancy brown vines, and olives green,
And blustered, swaying, cypress shields.
Fancy a widely opened door,
Fancy an eager outstretched hand,
Fancy—nor need you ask for more—
A heart-sped welcome to our land.
Fancy the peal of Christmas chimes,
Fancy that some long-buried year
Is born again of ancient times—
And in Provence take Christmas cheer!
In my own case, this journey and this welcome were not fancies but realities. I had come to keep Christmas with my old friend Monsieur de Vièlmur according to the traditional Provençal rites and ceremonies in his own entirely Provençal home: an ancient dwelling which stands high up on the westward slope of the Alpilles, overlooking Arles and Tarascon and within sight of Avignon, near the Rhône margin of Provence.
The Vidame—such is Monsieur de Vièlmur's ancient title: dating from the vigorous days when every proper bishop, himself not averse to taking a breather with sword and battle-axe should fighting matters become serious, had his vice dominus to lead his forces in the field—is an old-school country gentleman who is amiably at odds with modern times. While tolerant of those who have yielded to the new order, he himself is a great stickler for the preservation of antique forms and ceremonies: sometimes, indeed, pushing his fancies to lengths that fairly would lay him open to the charge of whimsicality, were not even the most extravagant of his crotchets touched and mellowed by his natural goodness of heart. In the earlier stages of our acquaintance I was disposed to regard him as an eccentric; but a wider knowledge of Provençal matters has convinced me that he is a type. Under his genial guidance it has been my privilege to see much of the inner life of the Provençaux, and his explanations have enabled me to understand what I have seen: the Vidame being of an antiquarian and bookish temper, and never better pleased than when I set him to rummaging in his memory or his library for the information which I require to make clear to me some curious phase of Provençal manners or ways.
The Château de Vièlmur has remained so intimately a part of the Middle Ages that the subtle essence of that romantic period still pervades it, and gives to all that goes on there a quaintly archaic tone. The donjon, a prodigiously strong square tower dating from the twelfth century, partly is surrounded by a dwelling in the florid style of two hundred years back—the architectural flippancies of which have been so tousled by time and weather as to give it the look of an old beau caught unawares by age and grizzled in the midst of his affected youth.
In the rear of these oddly coupled structures is a farm-house with a dependent rambling collection of farm-buildings; the whole enclosing a large open court to which access is had by a vaulted passage-way, that on occasion may be closed by a double set of ancient iron-clamped doors. As the few exterior windows of the farm-house are grated heavily, and as from each of the rear corners of the square there projects a crusty tourelle from which a raking fire could be kept up along the walls, the place has quite the air of a testy little fortress—and a fortress it was meant to be when it was built three hundred years and more ago (the date, 1561, is carved on the keystone of the arched entrance) in the time of the religious wars.
But now the iron-clamped doors stand open on rusty hinges, and the court-yard has that look of placid cheerfulness which goes with the varied peaceful activities of farm labour and farm life. Chickens and ducks wander about it chattering complacently, an aged goat of a melancholy humour stands usually in one corner lost in misanthropic thought, and a great flock of extraordinarily tame pigeons flutters back and forth between the stone dove-cote rising in a square tower above the farm-house and the farm well.
AT THE WELL
This well—enclosed in a stone well-house surmounted by a very ancient crucifix—is in the centre of the court-yard, and it also is the centre of a little domestic world. To its kerb come the farm animals three times daily; while as frequently, though less regularly, most of the members of the two households come there too; and there do the humans—notably, I have observed, if they be of different sexes—find it convenient to rest for a while together and take a dish of friendly talk. From the low-toned chattering and the soft laughter that I have heard now and then of an evening I have inferred that these nominally chance encounters are not confined wholly to the day.
By simple machinery (of which the motive-power is an aged patient horse, who is started and left then to his own devices; and who works quite honestly, save that now and then he stops in his round and indulges himself in a little doze) the well-water is raised continuously into a long stone trough. Thence the overflow is led away to irrigate the garden of the Château: an old-fashioned garden, on a slope declining southward and westward, abounding in balustraded terraces and stone benches stiffly ornate, and having here and there stone nymphs and goddesses over which in summer climbing roses kindly (and discreetly) throw a blushing veil.
The dependent estate is a large one: lying partly on the flanks of the Alpilles, and extending far outward from the base of the range over the level region where the Rhône valley widens and merges into the valley of the Durance. On its highest slopes are straggling rows of almond trees, which in the early spring time belt the grey mountains with a broad girdle of delicate pink blossoms; a little lower are terraced olive-orchards, a pale shimmering green the year round—the olive continuously casting and renewing its leaves; and the lowest level, the wide fertile plain, is given over to vineyards and wheat-fields and fields of vegetables (grown for the Paris market), broken by plantations of fruit-trees and by the long lines of green-black cypress which run due east and west across the landscape and shield the tender growing things from the north wind, the mistral.
The Château stands, as I have said, well up on the mountain-side; and on the very spot (I must observe that I am here quoting its owner) where was the camp in which Marius lay with his legions until the time was ripe for him to strike the blow that secured Southern Gaul to Rome. This matter of Marius is a ticklish subject to touch on with the Vidame: since the fact must be admitted that other antiquaries are not less firm in their convictions, nor less hot in presenting them, that the camp of the Roman general was variously elsewhere—and all of them, I regret to add, display a lamentable acerbity of temper in scouting each other's views. Indeed, the subject is of so irritating a complexion that the mere mention of it almost surely will throw my old friend—who in matters not antiquarian has a sweetness of nature rarely equalled—into a veritable fuming rage.
But even the antiquaries are agreed that, long before the coming of the Romans, many earlier races successively made on this mountain promontory overlooking the Rhône delta their fortified home: for here, as on scores of other defensible heights throughout Provence, the merest scratching of the soil brings to light flints and potshards which tell of varied human occupancy in very far back times. And the antiquaries still farther are agreed that precisely as these material relics (only a little hidden beneath the present surface of the soil) tell of diverse ancient dwellers here, so do the surviving fragments of creeds and customs (only a little hidden beneath the surface of Provençal daily life) tell in a more sublimate fashion of those same vanished races which marched on into Eternity in the shadowy morning of Time.
For this is an old land, where many peoples have lived their spans out and gone onward—yet have not passed utterly away. Far down in the popular heart remnants of the beliefs and of the habits of those ancients survive, entranced: yet not so numbed but that, on occasion, they may be aroused into a life that still in part is real. Even now, when the touch-stone is applied—when the thrilling of some nerve of memory or of instinct brings the present into close association with the past—there will flash into view still quick particles of seemingly long-dead creeds or customs rooted in a deep antiquity: the faiths and usages which of old were cherished by the Kelto-Ligurians, Phœnicians, Grecians, Romans, Goths, Saracens, whose blood and whose beliefs are blended in the Christian race which inhabits Provence to-day.
In the dominion of Vièlmur there is an inner empire. Nominally, the Vidame is the reigning sovereign; but the power behind his throne is Misè Fougueiroun. The term "Misè" is an old-fashioned Provençal title of respect for women of the little bourgeoisie—tradesmen's and shopkeepers' wives and the like—that has become obsolescent since the Revolution and very generally has given place to the fine-ladyish "Madamo." With a little stretching, it may be rendered by our English old-fashioned title of "mistress"; and Misè Fougueiroun, who is the Vidame's housekeeper, is mistress over his household in a truly masterful way.
This personage is a little round woman, still plumply pleasing although she is rising sixty, who is arrayed always with an exquisite neatness in the dress—the sober black-and-white of the elder women, not the gay colours worn by the young girls—of the Pays d'Arles; and—although shortness and plumpness are at odds with majesty of deportment—she has, at least, the peremptory manner of one long accustomed to command. As is apt to be the way with little round women, her temper is of a brittle cast and her hasty rulings sometimes smack of injustice; but her nature (and this also is characteristic of her type) is so warmly generous that her heart easily can be caught into kindness on the rebound. The Vidame, who in spite of his antiquarian testiness is something of a philosopher, takes advantage of her peculiarities to compass such of his wishes as happen to run counter to her laws. His Machiavellian policy is to draw her fire by a demand of an extravagant nature; and then, when her lively refusal has set her a little in the wrong, handsomely to ask of her as a favour what he really requires—a method that never fails of success.
By my obviously sincere admiration of the Château and its surroundings, and by a discreet word or two implying a more personal admiration—a tribute which no woman of the Pays d'Arles ever is too old to accept graciously—I was so fortunate as to win Misè Fougueiroun's favour at the outset; a fact of which I was apprised on the evening of my arrival—it was at dinner, and the housekeeper herself had brought in a bottle of precious Châteauneuf-du-Pape—by the cordiality with which she joined forces with the Vidame in reprobating my belated coming to the Château. Actually, I was near a fortnight behind the time named in my invitation: which had stated expressly that Christmas began in Provence on the Feast of Saint Barbara, and that I was expected not later than that day—December 4th.
"Monsieur should have been here," said the housekeeper with decision, "when we planted the blessed Saint Barbara's grain. And now it is grown a full span. Monsieur will not see Christmas at all!"
But my apologetic explanation that I never even had heard of Saint Barbara's grain only made my case the more deplorable.
"Mai!" exclaimed Misè Fougueiroun, in the tone of one who faces suddenly a real calamity. "Can it be that there are no Christians in monsieur's America? Is it possible that down there they do not keep the Christmas feast at all?"
To cover my confusion, the Vidame intervened with an explanation which made America appear in a light less heathenish. "The planting of Saint Barbara's grain," he said, "is a custom that I think is peculiar to the South of France. In almost every household in Provence, and over in Languedoc too, on Saint Barbara's day the women fill two, sometimes three, plates with wheat or lentils which they set afloat in water and then stand in the warm ashes of the fire-place or on a sunny window ledge to germinate. This is done in order to foretell the harvest of the coming year, for as Saint Barbara's grain grows well or ill so will the harvest of the coming year be good or bad; and also that there may be on the table when the Great Supper is served on Christmas Eve—that is to say, on the feast of the Winter Solstice—green growing grain in symbol or in earnest of the harvest of the new year that then begins.
PLANTING SAINT BARBARA'S GRAIN
"The association of the Trinitarian Saint Barbara with this custom," the Vidame continued, "I fear is a bit of a makeshift. Were three plates of grain the rule, something of a case would be made out in her favour. But the rule, so far as one can be found, is for only two. The custom must be of Pagan origin, and therefore dates from far back of the time when Saint Barbara lived in her three-windowed tower at Heliopolis. Probably her name was tagged to it because of old these votive and prophetic grain-fields were sown on what in Christian times became her dedicated day. But whatever light-mannered goddess may have been their patroness then, she is their patroness now; and from their sowing we date the beginning of our Christmas feast."
It was obvious that this explanation of the custom went much too far for Misè Fougueiroun. At the mention of its foundation in Paganism she sniffed audibly, and upon the Vidame's reference to the light-mannered goddess she drew her ample skirts primly about her and left the room.
The Vidame smiled. "I have scandalized Misè, and to-morrow I shall have to listen to a lecture," he said; and in a moment continued: "It is not easy to make our Provençaux realize how closely we are linked to older peoples and to older times. The very name for Christmas in Provençal, Calèndo, tells how this Christian festival lives on from the Roman festival of the Winter Solstice, the January Kalends; and the beliefs and customs which go with its celebration still more plainly mark its origin. Our farmers believe, for instance, that these days which now are passing—the twelve days, called coumtié, immediately preceding Christmas—are foretellers of the weather for the new twelve months to come; each in its turn, by rain or sunshine or by heat or cold, showing the character of the correspondingly numbered month of the new year. That the twelve prophetic days are those which immediately precede the solstice puts their endowment with prophetic power very far back into antiquity. Our farmers, too, have the saying, 'When Christmas falls on a Friday you may sow in ashes'—meaning that the harvest of the ensuing year surely will be so bountiful that seed sown anywhere will grow; and in this saying there is a strong trace of Venus worship, for Friday—Divèndre in Provençal—is the day sacred to the goddess of fertility and bears her name. That belief comes to us from the time when the statue of Aphrodite, dug up not long since at Marseille, was worshipped here. Our Pater de Calèndo—our curious Christmas prayer for abundance during the coming year—clearly is a Pagan supplication that in part has been diverted into Christian ways; and in like manner comes to us from Paganism the whole of our yule-log ceremonial."
The Vidame rose from the table. "Our coffee will be served in the library," he said. He spoke with a perceptible hesitation, and there was anxiety in his tone as he added: "Misè makes superb coffee; but sometimes, when I have offended her, it is not good at all." And he visibly fidgeted until the coffee arrived, and proved by its excellence that the housekeeper had been too noble to take revenge.
In the early morning a lively clatter rising from the farm-yard came through my open window, along with the sunshine and the crisp freshness of the morning air. My apartment was in the southeast angle of the Château, and my bedroom windows—overlooking the inner court—commanded the view along the range of the Alpilles to the Luberoun and Mont-Ventour, a pale great opal afloat in waves of clouds; while from the windows of my sitting-room I saw over Mont-Majour and Arles far across the level Camargue to the hazy horizon below which lay the Mediterrænean.
In the court-yard there was more than the ordinary morning commotion of farm life, and the buzz of talk going on at the well and the racing and shouting of a parcel of children all had in it a touch of eagerness and expectancy. While I still was drinking my coffee—in the excellence and delicate service of which I recognized the friendly hand of Misè Fougueiroun—there came a knock at my door; and, upon my answer, the Vidame entered—looking so elate and wearing so blithe an air that he easily might have been mistaken for a frolicsome middle-aged sunbeam.
"Hurry! Hurry!" he cried, while still shaking both my hands. "This is a day of days—we are going now to bring home the cacho-fiò, the yule-log! Put on a pair of heavy shoes—the walking is rough on the mountain-side. But be quick, and come down the moment that you are ready. Now I must be off. There is a world for me to do!" And the old gentleman bustled out of the room while he still was speaking, and in a few moments I heard him giving orders to some one with great animation on the terrace below.
When I went down stairs, five minutes later, I found him standing in the hall by the open doorway: through which I saw, bright in the morning light across the level landscape, King René's castle and the church of Sainte-Marthe in Tarascon; and over beyond Tarascon, high on the farther bank of the Rhône, Count Raymond's castle of Beaucaire; and in the far distance, faintly, the jagged peaks of the Cévennes.
But that was no time for looking at landscapes. "Come along!" he cried. "They all are waiting for us at the Mazet," and he hurried me down the steps to the terrace and so around to the rear of the Château, talking away eagerly as we walked.
"It is a most important matter," he said, "this bringing home of the cacho-fiò. The whole family must take part in it. The head of the family—the grandfather, the father, or the eldest son—must cut the tree; all the others must share in carrying home the log that is to make the Christmas fire. And the tree must be a fruit-bearing tree. With us it usually is an almond or an olive. The olive especially is sacred. Our people, getting their faith from their Greek ancestors, believe that lightning never strikes it. But an apple-tree or a pear-tree will serve the purpose, and up in the Alp region they burn the acorn-bearing oak. What we shall do to-day is an echo of Druidical ceremonial—of the time when the Druid priests cut the yule-oak and with their golden sickles reaped the sacred mistletoe; but old Jan here, who is so stiff for preserving ancient customs, does not know that this custom, like many others that he stands for, is the survival of a rite."
While the Vidame was speaking we had turned from the terrace and were nearing the Mazet—which diminutive of the Provençal word mas, meaning farm-house, is applied to the farm establishment at Vièlmur partly in friendliness and partly in indication of its dependence upon the great house, the Château. At the arched entrance we found the farm family awaiting us: Old Jan, the steward of the estate, and his wife Elizo; Marius, their elder son, a man over forty, who is the active manager of affairs; their younger son, Esperit, and their daughter Nanoun; and the wife of Marius, Janetoun, to whose skirts a small child was clinging while three or four larger children scampered about her in a whir of excitement over the imminent event by which Christmas really would be ushered in.
When my presentation had been accomplished—a matter a little complicated in the case of old Jan, who, in common with most of the old men hereabouts, speaks only Provençal—we set off across the home vineyard, and thence went upward through the olive-orchards, to the high region on the mountain-side where grew the almond-tree which the Vidame and his steward in counsel together had selected for the Christmas sacrifice.
Nanoun, a strapping red-cheeked black-haired bounce of twenty, ran back into the Mazet as we started; and joined us again, while we were crossing the vineyard, bringing with her a gentle-faced fair girl of her own age who came shyly. The Vidame, calling her Magali, had a cordial word for this new-comer; and nudged me to bid me mark how promptly Esperit was by her side. "It is as good as settled," he whispered. "They have been lovers since they were children. Magali is the daughter of Elizo's foster-sister, who died when the child was born. Then Elizo brought her home to the Mazet, and there she has lived her whole lifelong. Esperit is waiting only until he shall be established in the world to speak the word. And the scamp is in a hurry. Actually, he is pestering me to put him at the head of the Lower Farm!"
The Vidame gave this last piece of information in a tone of severity; but there was a twinkle in his kind old eyes as he spoke which led me to infer that Master Esperit's chances for the stewardship of the Lower Farm were anything but desperate, and I noticed that from time to time he cast very friendly glances toward these young lovers—as our little procession, mounting the successive terraces, went through the olive-orchards along the hill-side upward.
Presently we were grouped around the devoted almond-tree: a gnarled old personage, of a great age and girth, having that pathetic look of sorrowful dignity which I find always in superannuated trees—and now and then in humans of gentle natures who are conscious that their days of usefulness are gone. Esperit, who was beside me, felt called upon to explain that the old tree was almost past bearing and so was worthless. His explanation seemed to me a bit of needless cruelty; and I was glad when Magali, evidently moved by the same feeling, intervened softly with: "Hush, the poor tree may understand!" And then added, aloud: "The old almond must know that it is a very great honour for any tree to be chosen for the Christmas fire!"
This little touch of pure poetry charmed me. But I was not surprised by it—for pure poetry, both in thought and in expression, is found often among the peasants of Provence.
Even the children were quiet as old Jan took his place beside the tree, and there was a touch of solemnity in his manner as he swung his heavy axe and gave the first strong blow—that sent a shiver through all the branches, as though the tree realized that death had overtaken it at last. When he had slashed a dozen times into the trunk, making a deep gash in the pale red wood beneath the brown bark, he handed the axe to Marius; and stood watching silently with the rest of us while his son finished the work that he had begun. In a few minutes the tree tottered; and then fell with a growling death-cry, as its brittle old branches crashed upon the ground.
Whatever there had been of unconscious reverence in the silence that attended the felling was at an end. As the tree came down everybody shouted. Instantly the children were swarming all over it. In a moment our little company burst into the flood of loud and lively talk that is inseparable in Provence from gay occasions—and that is ill held in check even at funerals and in church. They are the merriest people in the world, the Provençaux.
Marius completed his work by cutting through the trunk again, making a noble cacho-fiò near five feet long—big enough to burn, according to the Provençal rule, from Christmas Eve until the evening of New Year's Day.
It is not expected, of course, that the log shall burn continuously. Each night it is smothered in ashes and is not set a-blazing again until the following evening. But even when thus husbanded the log must be a big one to last the week out, and it is only in rich households that the rule can be observed. Persons of modest means are satisfied if they can keep burning the sacred fire over Christmas Day; and as to the very poor, their cacho-fiò is no more than a bit of a fruit-tree's branch—that barely, by cautious guarding, will burn until the midnight of Christmas Eve. Yet this suffices: and it seems to me that there is something very tenderly touching about these thin yule-twigs which make, with all the loving ceremonial and rejoicing that might go with a whole tree-trunk, the poor man's Christmas fire. In the country, the poorest man is sure of his cacho-fiò. The Provençaux are a kindly race, and the well-to-do farmers are not forgetful of their poorer neighbors at Christmas time. An almond-branch always may be had for the asking; and often, along with other friendly gifts toward the feast, without any asking at all. Indeed, as I understood from the Vidame's orders, the remainder of our old almond was to be cut up and distributed over the estate and about the neighborhood—and so the life went out from it finally in a Christmas blaze that brightened many homes. In the cities, of course, the case is different; and, no doubt, on many a chill hearth no yule-fire burns. But even in the cities this kindly usage is not unknown. Among the boat-builders and ship-wrights of the coast towns the custom long has obtained—being in force even in the Government dock-yard at Toulon—of permitting each workman to carry away a cacho-fiò from the refuse oak timber; and an equivalent present frequently is given at Christmas time to the labourers in other trades.
While the Vidame talked to me of these genial matters we were returning homeward, moving in a mildly triumphal procession that I felt to be a little tinctured with ceremonial practices come down from forgotten times. Old Jan and Marius marching in front, Esperit and the sturdy Nanoun marching behind, carried between them the yule-log slung to shoulder-poles. Immediately in their wake, as chief rejoicers, the Vidame and I walked arm in arm. Behind us came Elizo and Janetoun and Magali—save that the last (manifesting a most needless solicitude for Nanoun, who almost could have carried the log alone on her own strapping shoulders) managed to be frequently near Esperit's side. The children, waving olive-branches, careered about us; now and then going through the form of helping to carry the cacho-fiò, and all the while shouting and singing and dancing—after the fashion of small dryads who also were partly imps of joy. So we came down through the sun-swept, terraced olive-orchards in a spirit of rejoicing that had its beginning very far back in the world's history and yet was freshly new that day.
Our procession took on grand proportions, I should explain, because our yule-log was of extraordinary size. But always the yule-log is brought home in triumph. If it is small, it is carried on the shoulder of the father or the eldest son; if it is a goodly size, those two carry it together; or a young husband and wife may bear it between them—as we actually saw a thick branch of our almond borne away that afternoon—while the children caracole around them or lend little helping hands.