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