On the sixth day of Christmas

 

 

On the sixth day of Christmas,
my true love gave me
Six Geese a-laying
and
Five Gold Rings
and
Four Calling Birds
and
Three French Hens
and
Two Turtle Doves
and
A Partridge in a Pear Tree

According to the tradition, the Six Geese a-laying represent the six days of the Creation, as it is well known that God took a rest on the seventh day.
At this point, roads branch out along which I may choose to go. I may praise the Creation and describe the countryside in winter time as I did this spring and the seasons that followed. I may notice that this is the end of the year and tell you how grateful I am that you are spending time reading me. I may chat about the revels of the Little Family while waiting for midnight – if midnight is awaited. I may assess the situation at the end of the year, which is something very popular on this time, and/or speak with hope and tremolos of what I expect / am thrilled / can’t wait / to do next year.
Nothing of this. Not yet.
I shall dip once more into my memories and the collective memory that makes part of these “Sketches and Vignettes”.
Grand-Mother used to remember a time when, even in the mild and mellow Dordogne, there were winters with snow, sleet and ice. Grand-Mother’s was Aunt Sweet’s and Great-Uncle Mark’s sister. She was the eldest and was sometimes asked to play Little Mother to her sister when Nanny was too busy and when the children were let loose outside to play with the farms and the village children.
There was this grand time when there went all sick – all but Aunt Sweet who was still too young to be admitted in such noble company – after their first taste of smoking. They had found in a barn the rest of the corn or maize long stalks; the boys had cut them with their penknives and handed out to all “reasonably old” children. Then Great-Uncle Mark had handsomely invited all back home, in the drawing room that was empty that afternoon. They had lighted the stalks to fire in the chimney place … and smoked them. Grand-Mother had been sorry not to be able to proffer refreshments, but she had explained who George Sand was to the girls (who did not give a thought neither to the tea nor to the female novelist) and she had played at being Sand smoking the cigar in company with the intellectuals of her time.
They had been interrupted in the middle of their coughs by Great-Grand-Mother who showed her disapproval of smoking, using her drawing room, and George Sand in a few curt words. The village children were sent back to their homes with a few well chosen words and the promise that their parents would know about their deportment; as to the children of the house, they were only too glad to fly to the nursery and to be as sick as they needed.
They were much more “outside” children than I was and I aways marveled at their plays and pranks, when they talked about sliding  and throwing snow balls. It seemed that they had lived in a world constricted by more rules, and at the same time more free to do many things that did not exist anymore. I expect some lustre was added by memory and by the fact that they lived in the same place half the year, and therefore had more friends among the residents.
They were afraid of only one thing and that was on New Year’s Eve.
The ceremony of the Yule Log took place that night. A log was put to burn in chimney places in all houses with a ditty said by one of the elder folks of the family, praying that they might be the same number or more the next year at the same time, but certanly no less. Then there was some drinks and kisses under the mistletoe, and the lads would go out to meet, each with a long stick decorated with ribbons and mistletoe. But before they left their houses, they would smear their faces with soot coming from the Yule Log. Black men not to be recognised under their masks.
They went from house to house, begging for sweets, money and kisses from the girls. They were called in the local dialect les guilhannos. That was twisting the words they were shouting which meant (in French) “Au gui, l’an neuf” and in English, something like “With the mistletoe (au gui), comes the new year (l’an neuf). Their name was the contraction ofgui (mistletoe) and an/année (year): “guilhanno”.
Grand-Mother told us that she and Aunt Sweet would go upstairs and look down through the gaps of the bannister when they heard what they knew would be les guilhannos. Great-Uncle Mark would stay downstairs  with the adults but would never be far from Great-Grand-Father. Les guihannos were received with courtesy and respect. They would be given something to drink – wine, I suppose -, cakes and sweet to take back home, and money to go revelling at the café when they had finished their visits to the houses of the village or nearby.
Time passing, Grand-Mother discovered that they were lads who worked in the felds and who she knew well by meting them every day or so. But the soot disguised them so well that, younger, she thought they were foreigners to the village or the country, who would curse the house, and make away with her and Aunt Sweet to live on the roads like gypsies.
Mother did not know them. This custom stopped with WWII or just after. In fact, lots of customs dwindled and slowly disappeared then. They were entering the modern era of cinema, radio sets, then television, and loss of regional habits and language. By the 1960s, l’Occitan, which is the language of the South of France, and its local variants that make the dialects, were almost a linguistic forgotten aberration. It was studied as a foreign language in High School but one could hear the difference between the real thing still spoken by the elder and the language that had been taught. Nevertheless, the effort was a good one as there was no complete loss of the culture (doesn’t this ring a bell with what Adam Thorpe wrote in Ulverton and that we discussed yesterday along with The Forsyte Saga?)
This evening, there will be no guilhanno knocking at our door, and this is fine as I would be too scared to open the door: nowadays, this could well be anybody, and fear of the other has won over the traditional rural confidence. There will be dinner, TV programme and going to bed before midnight. No party. No waiting for the New Year. The Girls fare better when they sleep early. And I shall not revel by myself.
It might be time then to thank for the Creation as:
On the sixth day of Christmas,
my true love gave me
Six Geese a-laying
and
Five Gold Rings
and
Four Calling Birds
and
Three French Hens
and
Two Turtle Doves
and
A Partridge in a Pear Tree

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3 thoughts on “On the sixth day of Christmas

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