On Christmas day 1066 William the Conqueror, Duke of Normandy, was crowned King of England in Westminster Abbey. The English and French who were present cheered the new King so loudly that the clamour alarmed and panicked the French soldiers waiting outside who, exhausted after combatting the English, started to set fire to houses surrounding the abbey. Witness reports say that only a few terrified people – bishops and clergymen and a petrified William the Conqueror – were left in the abbey where William nevertheless managed to make his speech for peace, justice and Christianity in a halting Anglo Saxon he hardly understood himself. He was then duly crowned in an almost empty Abbey while outside the riots raged.
Back in Normandy, how would they have been celebrating Christmas? It’s not easy to find accounts dating back that far, but thanks to a recent report published by Caen University we can learn about a landlord’s Christmas near Cherbourg in the 1550s.* Christmas in those days was certainly not the big feast we know today. After dinner on Christmas Eve, his servants would bring in the huge Christmas log – la bûche – and ceremoniously light it (more on this traditional ceremony further down in this article). Then it was bedtime. He’d get up at 2 o’clock in the morning to go to mass which started after midnight. Coming home he’d eat some sheep’s foot, drink some wine and go back to bed while, in the neighbouring parish, they’d be playing morality games into the night, the servants joining in. On Christmas day we see the landlord going to Christmas mass at 9 o’clock in the morning and carrying on with his everyday tasks; after lunch he goes to vespers. No-one in those days thought of inviting members of the family nor of offering presents to anyone on Christmas day, and the idea of a Christmas crib didn’t even exist. You couldn’t find a turkey in the farmyard (turkeys were imported from Mexico as of around 1532). Life continued as usual on Christmas day, sharpening the logging saws, or keeping the mill going in sub-zero temperatures to prevent the paddle wheels from freezing. Servants were sent out to catch small game and when the weather was good the landlord would go hunting. Some would go out for a game of ‘choule’, which originates from the Manche region of Normandy: it’s a kind of ball game-cum-fight between two teams of men, often married men against single men, and which often turned violent (this game of choule is still played today)**. But no-one was bothered about violence on Christmas day in those days. Presents were given on 1st January; the landlord offered them to the women, children and his staff, and the children went from house to house singing Christmas songs in the hope of being given little presents from the inhabitants in return.
This is all a far cry from Christmas pudding. And we’re a long way from ceremoniously burning Christmas logs. With the introduction of iron stoves and electric heating nearly 200 years ago, the long tradition of burning la bûche at Christmas has now morphed into consuming a cream cake made in the form of a bûche which the French have at Christmas; pâtissiers compete with each other to make the most imaginative– and delicious one. Thus the tradition of consuming la bûche, in whatever way, continues.
To go back into history, the Christmas log, the real wood one which was set alight to keep families and servants warm, most probably originates from the pagan rites which took place during the winter solstice when fires were lit. In Normandy a few hundred years back, and then in some places even more recently, the log fires were often lit outside for the poor to come and share the heat; the log – la bûche – was also called the souque, chouquet or chuquet, or the tréfouet– (or tréfeu – a word found in Normandy, Lorraine, Bourgogne and the Bery) which means ‘three fires’, an allusion to the fact that the log is supposed to burn over the three days of Christmas if not longer, right up to the New Year, or even beyond to the Epiphany on 6 January.
For it to burn so long the bigger it was, the better. They’d saw off the thickest part of the tree down towards the roots and called it the Christmas stump, la souche de Noel or the coque de Noel. It was called the first log, the second, the 50th – according to how many years the father of the family had presided over the lighting ceremony. All of the family and servants kneel and pray round the cinders which have been kept from the previous Christmas’ log, and then round the new fire. The adults hide little surprises for the children at each end of the log. On Christmas night it was believed that Jesus came and slipped little presents into all the clogs. Clogs were called Chabots in Norman dialect (sabots in French) and Jesus’ presents, called chabotées, consisted of apples, oranges and baby comforters.
Sometimes the poor would gather round the log fire before going to midnight mass. The poor and the clergy were often offered logs as presents at Christmas.
The way the log burned, either slowly, surely, or spitting, was up for interpretation and announced what the New Year would bring. A fruit tree log was believed to ensure a good harvest of fruit in the coming year; the smell of the wood had its importance – apple wood, abundant in Normandy, renders a sweet odour when burning. The tree had to be cut down before sunrise and the log was sometimes decorated with leaves and ribbons. Cinders from the log fire were kept to protect the house from lightening and protect sick people from disease.
During midnight mass, it was believed, all animals, wherever they were, kneeled down. But, as the superstition went, you mustn’t go to find out because the animals will turn on you. It was also believed that bread blessed on Christmas night protects you from rabid dogs, although if you give some of it to a dog he’ll actually catch rabies…***
It was a Norman Jesuit missionary, Jean de Brébeuf, who composed a Christmas song for the Hurons in Canada in the year 1641.
Jesous ahatonnia (Jésus est né; Jesus is born) was written in the Huron language Wendat and is the oldest sacred music Christmas song in Canada. It is still sung today. You can listen to it here, and follow the words – below is the first stanza in Wendat, then in French:
Ehstehn yayau deh tsaun we yisus ahattonnia
O na wateh wado:kwi nonnwa ‘ndasqua entai
ehnau sherskwa trivota nonnwa ‘ndi yaun rashata
Iesus Ahattonnia, Ahattonnia, Iesus Ahattonnia
And in French :
« Chrétiens, prenez courage, Jésus Sauveur est né!
Du malin les ouvrages À jamais sont ruinés.
Quand il chante merveille, À ces troublants appas
Ne prêtez plus l’oreille: Jésus est né: In excelsis gloria!
Finally, here is a Christmas poem in Norman patois. In our region the patois is called cauchois and it is still spoken today, for example by my elderly neighbour from the farming community who has to explain herself sometimes when she gets carried away telling stories in this almost lisping dialect. This Norman Christmas poem is about the Nativity. Those of you who have a certain mastery of French may be able to decipher the meaning if you can get your head round the patois pronunciations.
« Nativité »
Veisinsn veisinn’ s, Vuul’ s gens, jann’ s gars,
Halez vos gaumb’ s d’ entre les draps,
Mouortrez la tête à la luquerne
Et d’ valez trachi vot’ launterne;
Sortez touos dé d’ dauns vot’ maisoun
Malgré l’ heur’, malgré la saisoun
Ao noum du Bouon Dieu qui vous aime
V’ n’ ous en do nous à Bethléyème !
Happy Christmas ! Bouon Noué ! Bon Noel!
** Today choule is still played in the North of France. See: http://www.jeuxpicards.org/choulemahon.html
***See Abbé Migné’s dictionary of superstitions Dictionnaire des superstitions, erreurs, préjugés et traditions populaires (1856)
****Cauchois originates from the Pays de Caux in the Seine Maritime Département of Normandy.
The Association La Chouque here in Normandy meets regularly to speak the language together and keep it alive.
A Norman patois dictionary can be consulted online here:
A book written in the local Norman patois of the region around Pont Audemer, in the Eure, can be found here.
Thanks to histoirenormande.fr for a wealth of information on historical Normandy.