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December 2013

Celebratory Customs Could Reveal Your Roots


New Year Celebration


The fête of Saint Sylvestre is upon us again and, as you prepare to frolic til dawn, consider if a family tradition on how to do so may not be the key to unlocking your French origins. Our own family has traditions that go no further back than the 1940s but then, we are a troupe of bridge-burners of great skill and determination. However, you, Dear Readers, regularly write to us to describe customs and traditions that your families have celebrated for centuries! Thus, details of more -- this time surrounding the New Year -- and of their localities of origin, in the hopes that one may lead you to the place of your French ancestor's origins.

Our favourite was a custom of the court long ago, when aristocrats would send round to the homes of friends a servant, a formal and unsmiling man dressed all in black -- le gentilhomme -- who would knock on the door and dourly convey his employer's wishes for a good New Year. How we should have loved a string of knockings at the door from such fellows, for each stiff, sour face would have made us laugh all the more. (Have we discovered the secret to French humour here?) 

That was up to the reign of Louis XIV. By the time Louis XVI was struggling to stay on his rickety throne, the custom of sending one's visiting cards to one's friends on the first day of the new year had replaced the gentilhomme. This was banned as aristocratic recidivism during the years of the Republican Calendar (1793-1806), which had the New Year occurring on the Spring Equinox, but continues today in the modified form of sending decorated cards of good wishes for the New Year to one's friends (one does not send Christmas cards in France). 

In Alsace, there was a custom of carolling from house to house on New Year's Eve, singing the following:

Nous souhaitons tous à Madame

L'or d'une couronne d'amour,

Et, pour l'an prochain, jour pour jour,

Le jeune héritier qu'on réclame.

A Monsieur, qui déjà sourit,

Nous souhaitons meilleure chère.

In the regions of Poitou and Saintonge, the following song was sung, again door-to-door, any time from New Year's Eve to the sixth of January: 

Messieurs et Mesdames de cette maison,

Ouvrez-nous la porte, nous vous saluerons.

Notre guillaneu nous vous demandons...

Guiettez dans la nappe, guiettez tout au long.

Donnez-nous la miche et gardez l'grison:

Notre guillaneu nous vous demanderons.

In Limousin, the carollers first shouted in Occitan: Arribas! Son Arribas! They also asked for a guillaneu, which was a basket of apples, pears, chestnuts, walnuts and hazelnuts. In return they gave a thousand good wishes for the New Year to each and every member of the household, including servants and pig-keepers, thus truly earning that guillaneu.

The custom in the Breton city of Saint-Malo was for the singing to go on all night. Children formed gangs of well-wishers and ran all over town banging on doors shrieking "Bonne année!". They had to be given a coin each.

If your family's tradition is to kneel before a statue of the Virgin Mary at the stroke of midnight on New Year's Eve, you may have an ancestor from Le Havre. If they have the misogynistic superstition that the year to come will be good if the first person encountered on the first of January be male, and a bad year will result if the first encounter be with a female, your ancestor may have hailed from Champagne or Burgundy. If from Corsica, they may teach the children to shout: "Barrabo, barrabo, nous voulons des abricots, des figues et des noix!"

We sincerely hope that you may have read something here that will help you to make 2014 a year of glorious French genealogical revelations. 

Bonne année à tous!

©2013 Anne Morddel

French Genealogy


More Lost English - In French Spas


Marseille-Alexandrie 2

Further to our previous post on where in France those English in bad health chose to seek a cure, we give here the spas visited by those who could not afford the recuperative pleasures of the French Riviera. These would be those voyagers who would say they were going to the "south of France" -- meaning anything south of Paris -- hoping to give the impression to others that they were going to the Riviera. As with the stations of the Riviera, each spa had certain characteristics which  might, if you know just enough about your ancestor, help you to find him or her in the local civil registrations.

Those who were suspected of hypochondria were considered highly strung and nervous; at no time should they be sent to the Riviera, for its thrills would over-excite them. They were sent to the southwestern coast, to towns that did not become exciting until the twentieth century:

  • Arcachon - valued for its pine forests which gave extra ozone to the air, considered very good for the lungs and its ability to destroy injurious gases. It was considered, along with Davos in Switzerland, to ensure a cure for tuberculosis, bronchitis and laryngitis.
  • Biarritz - being similar to Arcachon, was good for the same diseases, but not tuberculosis. It was windy and so, "more bracing". This made it good for cases of nervous exhaustion.
  • St. Jean de Luz - had less wind and so was thought better for those with lung trouble. This was for those who were really with empty pockets, for its hotels were considered shabby and the town dull.
  • Pau - being very sunny can also be stifling. This was thought to be excellent for curing asthma.
  • Dax - had the same climate and benefits as Pau, with the addition of thermal springs, so it was good for those who needed a cure for their asthma as well as their rheumatism or arthritis.

Another more affordable area was the Auvergne, one less pleasant because its people were "a singularly uninteresting race" to the English.  However, if your ancestor boasted of having met Napoleon III, who favoured the two below, look here.

  • Vichy - was much valued for its waters (though termed "a simple soda spring"), still known in bottles today, which were much warmer than at many other spas. It was considered the poor invalid's Homburg for,though the waters were good, the surrounding countryside was tedious. If your family has tales of someone having been put into a cage of shower jets, the victim most probably went to Vichy.
  • Royat - If your ancestor died of suspected arsenic poisoning, this may have been where it happened, for the waters contain rather a lot of it.

The Pyrénées also had a number of stations

  • Bagnères-de-Luchon - not for the delicate, since it was known for its "loud, noisy gaiety" and its general atmosphere of hedonism. Also not for the keen walker -- as all excursions required horses or carriages -- or for the poor -- as the guides for those excursions were known to be extortionists. Here were some of the best sulphur baths in Europe. People came here for their rheumatism and for chronic diseases of the skin, especially eczema and, mysteriously, for cures for their gunshot wounds.
  • Bagnères-de-Bigorre - tepid waters with little by way of minerals or sulphur, the baths of this boring town were thought perfect for hysterics.
  • Canterets - close to Lourdes, unfashionable, it was for those who took a serious view of their ailment. It was a place where the doctors insisted that they could cure tuberculosis and other diseases of the lungs, as well as throat troubles.
  • Saint Sauveur - near to Luz, was for the nervous.
  • Barèges - also near to Luz, was "hideous", but excellent for the treatment of battle wounds, diseases of bones and joints, and paralysis.
  • Eaux Bonnes - Had good waters from the time of François I, when they were good for wounds, to the nineteenth century, when they were good for throat and respiratory troubles.

If, however, what was sought was sun, warmth and dryness, the invalid who could endure the long journey went to Egypt for the winter. They usually went through Italy, but also by way of France (indicated by the poster above), where they may have stopped.

As the shortest, darkest day of the year is upon us, one that may also be cold and wet, give a thought to your sickly ancestor and perhaps, by way of the affliction, you will find that poor soul in the civil registrations of one of the above towns.

©2013 Anne Morddel

French Genealogy

Lost English Ancestors on the French Riviera


Antibes 2

Monsieur B has been hunting an English lady among his French ancestors, he writes to us, without success. She married a Frenchman in the latter half of the nineteenth century, but he cannot find the marriage registration. Her husband was from the department of Var, which also contains a bit more than half of the French Riviera. Monsieur B is not the only Dear Reader to write to us with a British -- usually English -- ancestor mysteriously arrived and sometimes disappearing in France. People do like to create theories as to what happened to such an ancestor but we must not allow ourselves to be carried away. Genealogy is about facts, so we thought to give some that we hope may be of assistance.

The Riviera (roughly the French and Italian Mediterranean coast from Toulon to Spezia) was popular in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries because some wealthy people liked it. They went there during the winter to have a bit more sun. The region became even more popular as golf courses were built and as the middle classes trailed after the upper classes, (who had already moved on but never mind). Before that, however, the initial reason for the English journeying there was for their health. Many people had tuberculosis, or consumption, and it was thought the the sun and mineral waters of the region could effect a cure. Very quickly, local business folk developed spas and each one had its own character. We give here the most commonly visited towns.

  • Hyères - was for those who needed calm, as it had a reputation for being boring. Queen Victoria stayed there in the 1880s.
  • Fréjus - had Roman ruins and was considered romantic.
  • Cannes - still had forests surrounding it in the nineteenth century. For a period after its swamps were drained, it was avoided because of the stench. It was considered the best place for those suffering from scrofula or anemia, and for children with diseases that affected their growth.
  • Mentone - was protected from the wind by hills and so, was for those who needed calm. The local walks are steep and the ancestor with a gimpy leg most likely would not have stopped there.
  • Théoule - was considered charming and quiet.
  • Napoule - was not of much interest until a golf course was built there.
  • Le Cannet - was for those who wanted to be in nearby Cannes but could not afford it.
  • Grasse - with all of its flowers and perfume industry, was not for those with pollen allergies.
  • Golfe Juan, close to Vallauris, had a large pottery industry, so an ancestor with that interest may have selected that town.
  • Juan les Pins - which became quite popular in the twentieth century was not so in the nineteenth.
  • Antibes (in the watercolour by William Scott above) was considered to be already ruined by the 1890s.
  • Cagnes - another town that became popular once a golf course was built there.
  • Nice - was the English headquarters of the French Riviera. It was considered a "Small Paris" -- for the French, a town can receive no greater compliment, but many of the English disliked it for it is cold in the winter there (to which we can attest, having nearly died once of an evil strain of bronchitis in a cold, rainy and windy winter Nice.) Nice was more for pleasure than for health and one guide book author of the day looks haughtily askance at the soi-disant or "so-called" invalids who stayed at Nice. 
  • Monte Carlo was absolutely not recommended for health due to the "dangerous seductions of the gaming tables" to be found there (and in Cannes, Nice, and many others, to tell the truth).

Thus, if your ancestor followed fashion but was not too ill, he or she may have gone to Nice. An incorrigible gambler would have tested Monte Carlo. The poor soul with scrofula might have gone to Cannes and tied a handkerchief over the nose. The keen golfer would have gone to Napoule or Cagnes. The potter to Golfe Juan. If your ancestor followed the poets and carried on to the rainier, Italian Riviera, to Bordighera or San Remo, you are reading the wrong blog.

The "season" on the Riviera began any time from October to just after the New Year, but its ending was rigidly and absolutely at Easter, whenever that movable feast might have occurred. One could leave England when the mood was on one, but the most appallingly unaware of fashion's dictates -- or the hopelessly ill or impoverished (and there were many of both who stayed and died there) -- would be found there after Easter.

Arrival and departure were generally at Marseilles, if the voyager were travelling via Paris and Lyons. If arriving by steamer, they might have come either to Marseilles or to Toulon. Neither was, even then, a place where the English stayed. They boarded a train immediately and went to one of the stations listed above.

Thus, if you have an English ancestor who married someone of the region, or who died there, try to learn from the family papers if he or she had an ailment that may have been the reason for going there. Perhaps that will guide you to a town's civil registrations and, we hope, to a fortuitous discovery.

©2013 Anne Morddel

French Genealogy



Was Your Ancestor a French Inventor? If only....




As each of us proceeds with our family research, one of the many little temptations to sin we encounter is regret for our ancestors' failings, misjudgements or downright foolishness. The temptation is to imagine "if only..." (the sin, of course, is envy), to dream of how different our own lives might be if only they had lived theirs with a bit more foresight. Depending upon just how grand your lineage may be, the temptation of regret can be quite strong, indeed. We have no profligate princes among our ancestors, who were nearly all Quaker farmers, it seems, but there was one who owned large patches of the San Joaquin Valley during the nineteenth century. He was a rancher, but his son had little talent for ranching and sold the land piecemeal....before irrigation. If only he had hung onto it a bit longer, we would all, as our father actually used to say, be on Easy Street. 

Our father's wanderings in the search for the route to Easy Street involved shady dealings plotted, for the most part, over scotch and clam chowder at the Cape Cod House, something of a small town Hole-In-the-Wall that happened to serve seafood. Most of those schemes never made it off the bar stool and out the door and none of them exhibited a trace of invention or creativity, except perhaps for a certain ingenuity of contortion to evade the law. If your French ancestor were more creative than that and invented something, you may now, via his or her patent application, be able to learn more.

The Institut National de la propriété Industrielle (INPI) which handles trademark and patent registration and promotes French innovation, has a page with a data base of nineteenth century patent applications, named bluntly La Base de données Brevets français 19e siècle. Currently, it has online the details of patent applications from 1791 to 1855, with plans to continue adding all those dating up to 1902, the contents of over 5000 rolls of microfilm of some two and a half million images. Many applications have already been uploaded and the goal is to have all included in the data base.

The simple search, recherche rapide, is by surname of the original applicant or proxy. The more detailed search, recherche avancée, allows one to hunt via patent number (after the year 1844), a keyword or the patent title, the applicant, the applicant's address or profession, the year of the application. 

The results will have, in the first column, a simple list of essential details, called the fiche:

Brevet fiche

If the application has been added, it will include the written description:


There may also be a sketch of the invention:


If your family has a story that an ancestor invented something, this collection may help you to determine if that were true. Better yet, it may help you to gather more genealogical details and to break through your French brick wall or lay claim to a patent. If only....

Even if there were no inventors in your French background, but you read of the fracas caused by an Illinois investor who called French workers lazy, there is a spiffy little video, in English, that lists the country's good points that might appeal to investors.

©2013 Anne Morddel

French Genealogy


Exciting News From the Archives Diplomatiques!


Going Overseas

We have written quite a few times about the wonderful treasures held at the Archives diplomatiques. We have told of their great use in tracing French ancestors who went abroad to lands not among the French colonies or territories:

  • Of the Overseas Civil Registrations, or actes d'état civil, which were made by the French embassies and consulates around the world concerning French citizens who lived overseas,
  • Of the registered notarial records concerning the same French citizens, an example being the consent of a father living abroad for his child back home to marry, 
  • Of the censuses taken by the French embassies during the nineteenth century of French citizens living overseas.

We have also told of the extreme unpleasantness of the locale of the Archives diplomatiques, in the new central administration building of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in what can be described only as the pit of Hades that is La Courneuve (with apologies to the local citizenry). The transportation to get there from central Paris, using the dreaded regional railway, involves filthy carriages, open station platforms in either freezing winds and rain or baking, brutal sun, then a ten-minute walk that feels like hours through a crush of extremely aggressive street vendors. The equally aggressive security procedures at the entry of the Ministère des Affaires étrangères confirm the sense of local danger. Though the archives there are well worth it, we do not at all care for the voyage. No, we do not.

Thus, joy at this excellent seasonally appropriate gift announcement -- at a genealogy conference held at the Archives diplomatiques -- that plans are afoot to digitize and put online those parts of the archives most interesting to genealogists -- the overseas civil registrations, albeit only those prior to 1891. (Thus excluding the more recent ambassadorial records held at Nantes.) This could be of significant use to all those whose nineteenth century immigrant ancestor was known to have come from only "somewhere in France", for it could help in finding out where in France that ancestor was born. Dates were not given for this thrilling event, but the "near future" was promised. Ah, this news transports us from Hades to Olympus.


Let us hope that the near future will not be too far.

©2013 Anne Morddel

French genealogy

SOS Call From Alsace's Genealogists



The wonderful and wonderfully productive Centre Départemental d'Histoire des Familles, known by the acronym CDHF and about which we have written here and here, is under threat of immanent demise due -- as they would have it -- to foul play. The essence of the matter is that someone somewhere thought it would be useful  for the CDHF to be placed under the Departmental Archives of Haut-Rhin (itself under the General Council of Haut-Rhin). The CDHF is much opposed to this as it would then lose its standing as an association or club of volunteers and its collection would be moved to Colmar and housed in the Departmental Archives. 

They point out that the consequences of this absorption, as they term it, would be that:

  • Their library, which is a central source of all genealogical research in Haut-Rhin would no longer be easily accessible, as it currently is, but would be hidden in stacks behind a desk at the archives;
  • The place of welcome, chat and "convivial exchanges" about genealogy, e.g. the club house, would disappear;
  • The actual Association of the Friends of the CDHF would be dissolved, leaving its 1300 members of whom 50 are active volunteers, as "orphans";
  • The CDHF website would be shut down;
  • The CDHF newsletter -- which has more than 5000 subscribers -- and other publications of the CDHF would cease publication;
  • The research for others that the CDHF does would cease;
  • Conferences sponsored by the CDHF would be no more

We have always found the CDHF to be one of the largest, best organised and most helpful of all such associations in France and we really cannot understand this bureaucratic assault on it. Did they ask someone for too much money? Is there a rent dispute? Did someone at the Departmental Archives recognize what a cash cow genealogy is becoming and decide to make the CDHF profitably their own? We cannot say, but we do think it would be a pity as well as an alarming precedent (imagine if all these wonderful genealogy associations and the work they have done were taken over by the Departmental Archives!)

In any case, if you would like to help, there is an online petition to sign to Save the CDHF. It received 1660 signatures and is currently suspended during negotiations, but we ask you to keep checking and, should it open up again -- which would mean the negotiations failed -- please sign it.

Merci bien!

©2013 Anne Morddel

French Genealogy