PROVENCAL CHRISTMAS EVE – My Story in Princeton Packet on Midnight Mass in Cannes

Provencal Creche and Evergreens on French Table back in Princeton

Provencal Creche and Evergreens on French Table back in Princeton

In Provence, the real Christmas

Sharing a special holiday ritual in France

DATE POSTED: Tuesday, December 23, 2014 11:17 PM EST  The Princeton Packet

By Carolyn Foote Edelmann

Provence to see the seasons round. “But, Carolyn, you’ll be lonely!” “You with your two years of college French!” “The French will never invite you into their homes.” And so forth.

I paid no attention, as I wasn’t going to the south of France to be invited into homes. All my life I had wanted to be a resident in what has always felt my real country. The country was my goal. And, as it turned out, the nay sayers were wrong.

Take Christmas Eve. The year is 1987. As I walk across the crest of Observatoire Hill, high above Cannes, the night is bright, colder than I expected. The dark sky is nearly blinding, Vincent’s “Starry, Starry Night” seemed all around me, coming to more and more intense life.

I had been invited to my neighbors’ for that special time. They were a young and merry family in all seasons, from my first fall days on the hill, we had taken full and casual delight in one another’s company.

This night, I would not only share their Christmas Eve meal, we also would open presents together, beside their Christmas tree (or “sapin de Noel,”) quietly resplendent with its handmade ornaments. The boy and girl were fully a part of every aspect of those rituals.

The purpose of my presence was not only to share the sacredness of these home rituals. At a certain moment, we bundled ourselves warmly, and the father drove us all to Le Suquet, the old part of the Cannes the world connects mostly with movies. It’s a high and stony hill, from which watchmen peered over many centuries, especially during 800 years of Saracen invasions. Steep and rocky enough to be defended, high enough to light warning fires that could reach sentinels on the Iles de Lerin off-shore, without Le Suquet all those years, there might not be a Cannes.

A no-nonsense stone church crowns the rocky enclave of old Cannes. We walked from the velvet, nearly absolute darkness of these ancient towns into a nave of nearly blinding light. Votive candles flickered along both sides, leading our eyes to a wall-length “creche,” a Nativity scene created with terra cotta “santons” for which this region is famous.

These figures used to be created in the churches, until the Revolution. I don’t know why that ordeal meant no more santons and creches. But the clever French decided to create their own figures to honor Christmas in their homes. The irst post-Revolution santons were made of cookie dough.It had something to do with danger in people’s gathering in public places in those fiery times. This night, this church was one profoundly connected gathering.

There was a real wood stable, about as big as a breadbox. Mary and Joseph knelt by an empty manger. The requisite donkey and cow and other farm animals of baked clay were artfully placed to create a sense of waiting. Awaiting the birth of the child, outside the creche stable were the bread-maker, the garlic-braider, the aioli-maker, the lavender lady, the herdsman, the basket-weaver and so forth. Each more delightful than the last.

Along the creche hills moved a procession: tawny long-legged camels, their handlers, and, of course, the three kings and assorted servants. The proprietors of nearby Les Baux claim to be descended from the Balthazar of this pilgrimage. We know that stars directed the journey of the kings. They may well have been en route as Mary and Joseph found their way to Bethlehem. In the Cannes church, the reverent Kings were visible, lit and steadily nearing on some sort of motorized walkway. But, even though it was Christmas Eve, there wasn’t what my daughters called “the baby Jesus.”

That church was cavernous and deeply cold. My neighbors had warned me to dress as though for one of my daily hikes, with many layers. The pews were filled with people of all types, dressed in everything from full-length sable to the bleu of the laborer. Perfume mingled with incense. An eager though hushed restlessness stirred from front to back as the hour turned. I was reminded of suddenly riveted attention, as a bridal procession is about to begin.

Altar boys proudly swung censers, so that frankincense purled through the air. More clergy than I’d seen since the Vatican moved toward the altar. Music surrounded us, our seatmates singing carols in French, in Latin and Provencal.

The priests arrayed themselves, backs to the altar, facing the aisle. Suddenly, old Provence came to life before my very eyes. Villagers, garbed like the hand-made santons I’d owned since the early 1970s, walked where the clergy had been. The women’s thick quilted skirts belled out just like mine on the shelves at home. Each woman carried — like scepters, like jewels — objects identifying her role in the town. One held a bowl and a whisk; one a cluster of baguettes. One was adorned with a lei of braided fat white succulent garlic.

The women were followed by men. The shepherds wore long tobacco-brown cloaks, with an extra flap along the shoulders. And that night I learned why. The men carried live lambs over their shoulders, resting on those capes. The baker toted a handmade basket, full of his multi-shaped breads. Others held guns, so that the hunt might be blessed. Twosomes bore demijohns of wine, otherspaniers of grapes. Each and every living santon went to the clergy, knelt for the blessing, then took his or her very real offering off to the side, for “the baby Jesus.”

But even that was not the culmination. A cluster of townswomen moved as solemnly as brides, each carrying items of a baby’s layette — handmade, hand-decorated, proudly borne. Behind them walked a young man, carefully cradling the elbow of his even younger wife. In her arms was a baby. A real baby. “Le nouveau-ne” — the newborn — the most recent child of the town.

They, too, knelt at the front, between all the harvest offerings, flanked by the delicate layette. Mass was said and sung in the three languages. When the gospel came to “dans le temps de Cesar Auguste,” chills suffused me.

The mass concluded with exquisite timing. The incense boys turned and recessed toward the back of the church, followed by all those priests. Only the young parents and their amazingly silent infant walked carefully behind them. They all went over to the wall-sized creche. The priest who had said mass blessed the real infant in its mother’s arms. Then Father took something from the head altar boy — the Infant Jesus, “le nouveau-ne,” this one made of clay — as are all humans, come to think of it. Tower bells pealed, exactly as the terra cotta child was settled into its manger, lined with real straw provided by real shepherds.

Interestingly, the carol we sang then was “Un Flambeau, Jeanette, Isabella,” — “Bring a Torch, Jeanette, Isabella.” We were each metaphorically carrying the torch of wonder to that cradle. My dear neighbor turned to me with a very special grin, her name being Jeanette.

Provencal Madonna and Roman Mosaic of Madonna, Provencal Doorways, on table back in Princeton

Provencal Madonna and Roman Mosaic of Madonna, Provencal Doorways, on table back in Princeton

Christmas Fable: Star-Guided

When I lived in New Hope, for some reason, my Muse insisted that we write fables.  Here is one of the earliest, which has to do with the Christmas Season.  May it bring delight and blessings:

STAR-GUIDED

We are striding Bethlehem’s dark streets with curious urgency. We know where we are headed, although none has been to Bethlehem-of-Judea before this electric night. All is eerily still, the entire town asleep save for our small band of travelers.   The streets here are like mazes.   They are rough underfoot.

I walk gingerly, afraid of turning an ankle in our haste. My tall daughter, Catherine, strides beside me. Each of us is impeded by a long light traveling dress and thicker cloak, which stir up street dust as we go. Upon our feet are leathern slippers too fragile for such journeying. Her companion, the knight, Galen, is safe enough, encased as he is in bright armor. Merlin shuffles, as always. His robes, as are his habit, are askew. His hair is all-a-tumble. Every so often, his starred cap tumbles off, and he scurries back through the dark dust to retrieve it. Merlin, mercifully, carries a pole with a swinging lantern. Its fat yellowed candle casts pools of honeyed light before our feet. When he is not chasing his hat, the Merlin cheerfully leads our procession.

The dwellings, what I can see of them, seem sculpted of clay. They have a pink-grey cast by lamplight. The moon this night is somehow obscured. There are a few stars, which deepen our shadows, purple against the sand-hued roads.

We are responding to an unfamiliar star. Either because it is lower or simply brighter than the rest, it seems to be playing a game with us. If we start to take a turn that is not right, that star flutters and dims.   When we turn in the correct direction, the star grows steadier, more intense.

In this way, we find ourselves at a nondescript hostelry. Jarring sounds of revelry spill into its courtyard, startling after all the silence of the town. Out in back, where Merlin leads us almost stealthily, quiet reigns. In this dusky quarter, I am increasingly grateful for his lantern.

The Wizard lifts his light on high, revealing a small outbuilding. In its dim interior, I can just make out the form of a very young woman, seated next to a low wooden container lined with straw. From the center of that straw emanates a mysterious glow, soft as candlelight but much steadier.

I realize Whom and what we have been seeking. My knees are trembling. All of my being is drawn to that hushed glow.

I am startled by the young Mother’s youth. She is not much in years beyond my tall teen-aged Catherine. Petite, slender, the woman of Judea looks too frail and much too inexperienced to be anyone’s mother. Let alone…!

Behind her, nearly hidden in shadow, is the man who must be her husband. He looks more like a kindly uncle. “Joseph,” I think, “seems a bit confused. More like Merlin’s usual mode. Merlin, on the contrary, tonight is clear as bells.”

Joseph seems a good deal older than Mary. It may be just the differences, — in background, in training. He is fulfilling his role as guardian. Yet he is not of her milieu. Most of what has been happening to him in recent months must have been baffling. Nonetheless, as we all must do, the man trusts and serves. I feel deep empathy for all that lies before him.

And I am awash in compassion for Mary. Perhaps because of Merlin’s presence, I can read this girl’s emotions. I never before suspected her profound loneliness.   Her cross is not only that she has born this wondrous Child only to lose Him. Her cross is that she must carry out all to which she has agreed, isolated from all who understand. All those who had taught, those who could reassure, are far, far from this stableyard.

Although the Flight unto Egypt has always before seemed a terrible ordeal for parents and child, I now see it as blessing. Once there, she will discover for a few years, those who know the full story of this rare family and its many destinations. Yet on this night, and throughout so many of her recent years, with the exception of one small mentor in the Temple, Mary has been in exile.

The Child lies sleeping on golden hay, meant to nourish creatures of the Inn’s farmyard. The very grasses emit rays.

We are all drawn to our knees, as much by Mary’s courage and serene obedience, as by the Presence of the Babe. The gleam of Merlin’s lantern flitters across the Baby’s eyes, waking Him. He blinks and an almost-smile plays across the Infant features, as light rays play like rainbows across the tiny face. He waves tiny hands as though to catch the Wizard’s glimmers.

Joseph rouses himself, suddenly aware that they have visitors. Drowsily he waves a greeting, then retires to the darkest corner of the stable. It is as though, with us among them, that tired traveler can rest. He has endured so much, without understanding, without complaint.   Joseph’s role is merely to love and to protect. It is enough. The man’s legs now, literally, give out beneath him. He settles onto straw bales for his sleep.

My eyes, accustomed now to gloom, become aware of cattle. Nestled behind a barrier of wood, their breath steams in the night air.   These cows have huge bittersweet eyes, that seem to widen as the Baby moves His tiny hands. Their skin is the hue of milk chocolate. There are smaller creatures here with us – sheep, and delicate, silky goats. I don’t remember goats at that Stable, but here they are – dainty, with long hair and perky faces, hooves like the dancing princesses, like the ones who prance through meadows above Zermatt. The goat’s eyes are cinder-bright. Their cloaks gleam in the lanternlight and Infant-glow. I feel warmed by the gaze, the breath, the presence of the barnyard creatures. About our feet are hens, too, scratching at straws, searching diligently as close as they can be to the Child.

Outside, somehow, the skies grow brighter. It becomes increasingly easy to see.

Merlin rises and approaches the child/woman who guards the rough manger. He fumbles in that voluminous wiry beard. “I know it was here when I came!,” he growls, in his absent way. “Sorry, Madame, it won’t be but a moment.” Then the old man pulls out one of the tiniest living creatures I have ever seen.   A miniscule saw-whet owl, it is not so big as one of Mary’s hands, folded in her slender lap. The tall Wizard bends, cupping the owl in both gnarled palms. The creature snuggles daintily onto Mary’s right shoulder, nuzzling into her corn-silk hair. Mary looks obviously enchanted with Merlin’s gift.   As she claps her hands with delight, we are all aware of her own nearness to childhood.

Galen next moves. In his silvery armor, helmet in the crook of his left arm, the boy kneels, formal as he would have been in the Initiation ceremonies. The plume of his hat dances, catching the Baby’s dark eyes. It is then that light from Merlin’s lantern falls upon the gilt cross on Galen’s silvery breast. The Babe is riveted to that image, reaching out, then still. All time stops.

Galen breaks the spell with his mellifluous voice: “Crystals I bring,” says the lad. He lays bright offerings into Mary’s slender hands with a caressing gesture. I am reminded of a game we played as boys and girls – “Button-Button.” Then, prayer-shaped hands cradled a button secretly into someone’s matching hands.   Everyone then was to guess whose hands held the gift.

“These crystals are for you, Maria,” Galen explains, slipping into her Latin name, as though from long familiarity. “Hold them,” he instructs. “Bring the Light with them, to warm, to comfort, the Babe, yourself. You will be needing them upon your journey. For the duration of your time in this place, lay them in His cradle as He lies.”

Mary lifts up first one angled crystal, then another, turning them this way and that, in starlight, in lamplight. She runs attuned fingers over every facet, studies all the power dancing in their depths.   Mary reaches out her right hand, — crystals and all –, touching Galen, light as a kiss, on each cheek.

It is my daughter’s turn.   In her soft dress and flowing cloak, my daughter has a new queenliness I had not before acknowledged. She towers over the young Mother. Catherine’s towhead tresses seem to glow, against the darker gold of Mary’s hair. As Catherine leans over the Baby, taking one of His tiny hands into her own, her long hair brushes His little face. Something like a smile flitters over Him, as though it tickled, and there is a sound, very like new laughter.

Suddenly, in the icy stillness of that Bethlehem night, Catherine lifts her voice in song. We are startled, all of us, by the pure notes in the clear cold air. The songs sound ancient – Medieval, I would guess, or Welsh. Starlight skitters among us, and I think of music of the spheres.   I realize, my daughter is singing the first Christmas Carols.

The Infant turns, then, from Catherine to the rest of us. His eyes are not only dark, but also golden. The only name for that color is “toffee”, for that includes their uncanny softness. I watch the Child watch us. He knows who we are. He has expected us. Through His awareness, I realize that we fill the role of cosmic “Magi”, Merlin above all, first visitors to honor this rare King, until the other Kings arrive.   They will be accompanied by very earthy camels, guided by their own heavenly voices and specialized stars.

Through those gilded eyes, I see the Baby’s emotions, as I could his Mother’s. There is something familiar yet unknown in those bronze depths.   The only name I can give for this is shock. So must we all have looked, first opening to Earth Plane, realizing our choices, recognizing companions…

Peace floods the stable.   We bask in unconditional love.   Then the Child, once again, sights the cross on Galen’s armor. The newborn hands open. Where light rays had poured, when he’d reached up to play with Catherine’s bright hair, now there are shadows. I recognize those shadows – somewhere between bruise and blood.   Stigmata. I turn at once toward Mary. Her sweet eyes are riveted upon those hands.

I have not given a gift.   My own hands have been seriously emptied by life, by the times. I rise, then, move instinctively to Mary. I embrace her girlish shoulders, as I would any new mother. “How wonderful you are!,” I murmur. “How brave! Such a beautiful Son!” All the phrases women have said to each other at such moments from the dawn of language, we exchange. At the end, I add, “I wish you joy.”

She looks up with a plea I fully hear.

“You are weary, Mary.   It is time for your rest. You cannot keep vigil all night, every night, alone. He is safe here, safe with us. Go. Go over to your Joseph.   Sleep. We will watch the night with your precious Boy.”

She looks hesitantly from one of us to the other, as if to gain permission. All of us are nodding in permission, the stately Merlin above all.   He retrieves Strigi, the little saw-whet owl, and actually shoos Mary over toward the corner. She looks back at her Little One, still not sure. He stirs, restlessly.

I reach down, lift up the Child, cradling him easily upon one hip. It all comes back. The awkwardness I knew with my own firstborn, this surety now. How grateful I had been , in those long-ago days, for practiced arms, arms that were sure and even relaxed around my daughters. The Baby senses my ease, curling naturally against my side. Mary looks relieved and moves, indeed, toward Joseph. My second-born rises and removes her periwinkle-blue cloak.

“Mary,” Catherine urges, “here. Please cover yourself with this.   And sleep. Deeply and well. Dream of all the joys you will have, He and you together.” Mary smiles up at my daughter, accepting the soft warmth.   She lifts her right hand in a good-night gesture, revealing the sparks of Galen’s crystals.

I settle the Infant lightly into the crook of my left arm. He curls a tiny hand naturally, instinctively, around my forefinger. He is rest itself. A soft light radiates from the small body, merging with the light of Merlin’s lantern and the spill of stars. In hushed tones, Catherine and Galen begin to sing lullabyes.

Dawn light comes all too soon. Outside, in rustling trees that sound like palms, birds I do not know begin to call to one another. In the inn courtyard, there is the jangle and clatter of first departing travelers. We overhear inquiring voices, simple country accents. These will be the shepherds, asking as they have been led to ask.

Skies overhead fill with angels, glorias. Our vigil is rapidly ending.

Catherine and Galen move swiftly, tenderly to the sleeping Family. They urge the young parents to rise, help them smooth and brush their clothing. Merlin provides water in a generous metal dipper. Mary gracefully removes my daughter’s travel cloak, clasping it about Catherine’s lofty neck. “Thank you,” Mary whispers.   “I shall never forget your songs, your cloak. There will come a time when you may require the same of me. Call upon me. Remember…”

I settle the Babe into His Mother’s eager arms. Her look of joy wars with full realization, of all that has been foretold. Mary presses her cheek against my own, nodding in silent gratitude. She resumes her post. Joseph stands sturdily behind her, one hand on the staff which helped to bring them to this haven. The Baby nuzzles, urgently, begins to nurse.

There is the rustle of straw as shepherds kneel.

With Merlin in the lead, we all fade into, then out of the stable shadows. I give the silken goats a lingering caress as we depart.