Sunday, December 19, 2010

Advent Memories – A French Christmas

Ever since I spent a Christmas in France while on my mission, certain French traditions and music have been part of my annual holiday experience.  On this last Sunday of Advent, I thought I’d share a few memories from that special Christmas, along with some of the traditions and music that have enriched my appreciation of Noël.

I was in a provincial town that December as the holidays approached.  I wasn’t really homesick at all, but I did miss Christmas music. I finally decided I just had to go out and buy a cassette or two of Christmas music that my comp and I could listen to on our el-cheapo tape player in our apartment.  Of course, there were no Bing Crosby tapes or anything else I would have been accustomed to in the U.S.  But I was pleased when I found a tape by a singer that I had recently seen on French television while at an investigator’s apartment:  Nana Mouskouri.  She was a Greek singer who had recorded music in just about every one of the European languages, including French.  I had never heard of her before, but I learned that she was something of a superstar in Europe at that time.

One of the songs she had recorded on my cassette was Petit Papa Noël – the first time I had ever heard this well-known French children’s song that is sort of the equivalent of our Jolly Old St. Nicholas and Here Comes Santa Claus.  (In France, Santa Claus is called Père Noël, or Father Christmas.  For children, he becomes Petit Papa Noël.  He is pictured in the above photograph, taken on my mission, distributing gifts to children.)  One of the things that is charming about this song is that it is written as a prayer by little children who, on a snowy Christmas Eve before turning in for the night, offer one last petition to Father Christmas to not forget their little house.  They acknowledge their foibles, but hope he with forgive them.

Petit Papa Noël has been recorded by many other artists, most notably by Josh Groban on his recent Christmas CD.  But because I first heard this song as sung by Nana Mouskouri (and in honor of my new friend who has a Greek connection), I am including below a video of Nana singing this classic French Christmas song  (the clunky glasses, by the way, are her trademark):

About a week before Christmas, I was transferred to an area near Paris – close enough to enjoy the amenities of the City of Light.  A day or two after I arrived, my comp took me to see the sights and sounds of the city at Christmastime.  We walked by Galeries Lafayette – Paris’ answer to London’s Harrods – and a sight very similar to this one greeted us:

Near there, for the first time in my life, I saw chestnuts being roasted.  I had always had such a romantic notion of this due to the American Christmas song, but frankly, I could hardly stand the smell!

We then went to the Champs-Elysées, where we were greeted with a sight very similar to this one near the Arc de Triomphe:

Later, on Christmas Eve, our ward arranged for us to pass the evening with one family, then be invited to another members’ home the following day for Christmas dinner.  Both were memorable occasions.

In the years that have passed since my mission, I have cherished the opportunity which I had to imbibe a bit of the French culture, particularly during that special Christmas season.  This experience was subsequently enlarged as other people close to me forged additional ties to France and the French culture.  My sister, who lived in French-speaking Switzerland for a dozen years or so, started annually sending me another addition to a growing collection of Santons – hand-made crèche figurines popular in Provence that represent not only the traditional manger scene, but also all the various artisans of the typical Provençal village.  The ones she purchased for me look very much like these:

Other people in my circle, both old and new, have served in the Geneva Switzerland Mission and forged ties to the region of the French Alps and to eastern France and to French-speaking Switzerland.  In honor of these persons, I was going to close this post with a slide show I prepared to accompany Placide Cappeau’s beautiful poem set to music, Minuit Chrétiens (O Holy Night), performed by L’Accroche-Coeur Vocal Ensemble of Fribourg, Switzerland. 

Due to technical difficulties with, however, I was unable to post this.  In its place, I am highlighting yet another of my French connections, this to French-speaking Canada.  Below is a video of a more modern rendition of Minuit Chrétiens by French-Canadian chanteuse, Marie-Élaine Thibert:


  1. Absolutely magical! Thanks for these cultural travel and experiences. They are beautiful. I wondered what you had for Christmas eve dinner?

    I have to say that I love the smell of roasting chestnuts and eating them, only a few, so warm on a cold, wintery day!

    I particularly wanted to thank you for the reference to the Fribourg Choir's version of O Holy Night. This is my absolute favorite Christmas song. It always brings tears to my eyes for some reason. Particularly this morning after dreaming about my father who has passed away. After reading your post, I found the album on amazon where I listened to their version... how uplifting it was! Thank you! I used my MP3 credit and was able to but the mp3 version of the album and can now enjoy the entire album of angels.

    May you be touched also, by the magical softness and light of the Holy Night and powerful dreams that will renew your faith in yourself, Life and your relationship with God and your "families".

  2. I'm glad you found the version I had hoped to post. I agree that it is extraordinarily beautiful, and I love everything performed by L'Accroche-Choeur, Ensemble Vocal de Fribourg. Joyeux Noel!

  3. I loved your post about France. I am quite jealous- I have ALWAYS wanted to go to France, but have not made it there, yet.

    On my mission, in southern Germany, we had investigators who wanted to take us with them to France, but we could not go.

    My little brother is a concert pianist and, in addition to performing in England, was to be performing in France. I was going to go on the trip. We had it all planned- my folks were going, too. We were going to stay in the south of France for three weeks while brother did all his performing.

    At the last moment, he decided he would go only to England. I had lived in England for a number of years, and while I love it, the wind got taken out of my sails for another international trip.

    So, alas, and alack, I have not yet been to France.

    Thank you for posting about it. Maybe this will have to be as close as I get to it, for a little bit. :)

    Merry Christmas to you and yours!

  4. Petit Papa Noel brings back fond memories of my teaching middle school French. I would teach them French carols and then sing them to the neighboring classrooms. I also like Noel Nouvelet (though honestly, I think everything sounds better in French).

    Chris and I would fall into the category of new friends who served in France and Switzerland. I spent one Christmas in Grenoble, France, and another Christmas season in Luxembourg (I came home from my mission one week before Christmas). I very much enjoyed celebrated Christmas over there. Thanks for the post!

  5. Thanks for posting this. Brought back fond memories of Paris, which is a magical place at any time of year, but must be especially so at Christmas.

  6. To This Blog Author, The Wife and Neal - Glad you enjoyed the post. Thanks for commenting!

    To The Wife - Grenoble at Christmastime must have been wonderful! Those of us who served in the Paris mission envied les missionnaires Genevois. :)