The month of Messidor takes its name from the Latin word for harvest. Eugène Le Roy describes the back-breaking labour in the hot sun that was the wheat harvest. Dreading summer rains or a hail storm that could destroy the crop, and thus their supply of bread for the year, people worked as hard and as fast as they could, bent double in the fields, their heads so low that they were breathing the mixed dust of earth and chaff.
But, Le Roy exults, Messidor is also the month for celebrating the anniversary of THE REVOLUTION. Heroism! Struggle! Nobility! Fiery change! Fireworks!
The French Revolution involved a hefty amount of destruction, and Le Roy tidily links this to the pre-Revolutionary festival of Saint Jean, which itself was a Christian festival draped over the pagan rites of Mid-Summer. Bonfires all round. For a couple of weeks or so, people no longer being fussy about the exact date, there have been village fêtes for Saint Jean, with evening bonfires, all over the country. The government allows these fires for just a few short weeks, just for these festivals, (though some people also use this permission to burn their garden rubbish).
Your French ancestors, if they lived in villages, would have gathered at the place in front of the church, everyone bringing wood and faggots to build the bonfire. On top of the wood would be added pine and juniper branches, then bunches of fennel and mint for their scent. When darkness fell, the church door would open and the curé would come out, say a prayer, light the fire and retreat back into the church, leaving the parishioners to revert completely to paganism and whoop and dance round their inferno.
Mid-Summer night is now overlaid with yet another festival. It seems that those in power must always put their imprint on certain human rituals that will be performed no matter what happens, for all time. In France, the twenty-first of June is now "Fête de la Musique", an all-night celebration of music. In Paris, not only will there be concerts indoors and out, but every bar will have a band or a singer. People will dance in the streets, even -- or perhaps especially -- those on strike. In towns and villages, there will be music and people will gather together. In the village close to where we are at the moment in the southwest, the grocer -- whose shop happens to face the church and the place -- will be serving drinks at tables placed in the road and his teenaged son will play the guitar.
All of France is celebrating the beginning of Summer tonight. Observe how it is done here, and enjoy.
©2014 Anne Morddel