Santa Chords

 

Apologies for the recycled post friends, these are testing times… But for those singing ‘O Come All Ye Faithful’ alone into French radio silence, this might help you out….

In the voyage of discovery that has been my so-far eleven years in France, I’ve encountered many a curious and endearing custom. At this time of year, that cultural apprenticeship turns festive, and I’ve learned an awful lot about how the French embrace the Christmas period, not least their baffling fondness for holding on to their Christmas trees for dear life until the summer months, refusing to let them go until every last needle has fallen.

Kim carols 4This year though, my education intensifies as I’ll be spending only my second Noël in my adopted homeland (thanks for the strikes to mark the occasion SNCF, RATP et al). Mostly, I’m not going to lie, I’m looking forward to the good food, Champagne and feasting, not to mention the best French lesson a person could have, spending Christmas Eve as I am (the Queen ‘turkey’ on France’s December calendar) around a table with 25 talkative Frenchies. English will be as rare during that meal as a flaming Christmas pudding, bread sauce and paper hats.

But it dawned on me the other day, with every Christmas card I wrote, that the glaring lump of coal in my Gallic Christmas stocking, was the French Christmas soundtrack. Or more accurately, the lack of it. I may be denied seconds by my hosts when I proclaim that the music culture in France is one of the country’s weakest points (at least when compared to the motherland’s efforts), and it seems that even a dollop of festive cheer hasn’t been enough to get the nation’s songwriting heavyweights to lift up their pens. Back in the UK anyone who’s anyone has a Christmas song under their belt. Even East 17.

Kim carols 3There are some that exist of course, we’re not talking full-on Scrooge here. One of the most well-known and best loved is the tinkling classic Petit Papa Noël, though anything by Bing Crosby knocks that right out of the snow. Jingle Bells loses most of its Christmas charm when translated into its French version Vive le Vent, more a meteorological observation in lyrical form as it celebrates that, erm, delightfully biting winter wind. Even French legend Jonny Hallyday has had a couple of pops, but I’m not providing you with any links to save your ears.

Joyeux Noël from the Granny Flat!

Joyeux Noël from the Granny Flat!

The religious crowd get their fix with some classics carols, but these, and most of the holiday song efforts are mere translations of various international versions, with lyrics forced in like stuffing into a plump bird. For a gal who’s used to The Pogues, Nat King Cole, Chris Rea and Shakin’ Stevens keeping me nodding through Christmas dinner, I simply won’t be having a wonderful Christmastime in the music stakes this year. And don’t even get me started on the glaring Wham!-shaped hole, though in retrospect travelling to see friends and family on a stuffed-to-the-gills train means Club Tropicana may be more appropriate than Last Christmas.

I promise I will try to get in the spirit and not spend the 24th pining after Elton John et al (though I’m sure the oysters and foie gras will go some way towards helping), but I can’t promise I won’t try and teach my fellow French revellers how to sing Fairytale of New York when my head is merry with bubbles. By God, they’d better know how to play Charades…. 

Spiritual commodity

If you witnessed the scenes at Les Halles on Black Friday (I certainly did not, and glad to see that French lawmakers are pushing to ban it) then you’ll know that consumerism is (sadly) the new religion of the day. But in that very central quartier of the 1st, the old religion serenely surveys the new in the form of Saint-Eustache, the 16th-century church occupying the spot just next to the monstrous undulation that is the modern shopping centre.

Now let’s get it out of the way. I’m not a religious person per se though I do possess a healthy sense of spiritual curiosity and respect for tradition, and especially at this time of year I love ducking into one of the city’s churches to have a wander around, light a candle or reminisce about carolling in the school Christmas concert as a young pup. There’s nothing more welcoming than a religious building, and when it comes to Paris, its churches are buildings like any other – old as the hills and chock-full of history. So religious or quite the opposite, you’d do well to head inside to appreciate the tranquil beauty, and give all the plastic tat in the shopping centre a wide berth whilst you’re at it.

As we discovered in the last post, Les Halles was the site of a medieval food market famously captured in Zola’s Le Ventre de Paris and finally dismantled in 1971 (see freize above and picture, left). But commerce and worship have been close siblings as way back as 1213 when the first chapel was built next to the original Les Halles built in 1187. Back then it was known as the Chapel of Saint Agnes, but was changed to Saint-Eustache in 1303 after the church received relics (which are still there) relating to 2nd-century Roman general Placidus who was burned along with his family for converting to Christianity.

The first stone of the current structure was laid in 1532 and a lengthy construction followed until it was finally consecrated in 1637. Next, proof that dodgy builders are not a modern phenomenon, two chapels were built in 1655 that nearly brought the whole thing tumbling down, and coupled with significant damage sustained in the French Revolution and then a fire in 1844, the church arrived at the mid point of the 19th century in a sorry state and in need of serious repairs.

Whereas sister church Notre Dame had two saviours to champion her restoration in the same era (Napoleon and Victor Hugo), Saint Eustache had one in the form of architect Victor Baltard, the same chap responsible for the design of the iconic Zola-era Les Halles market pavilions just next door. He oversaw the church’s complete restoration between 1846 and 1854, and despite another fire in 1871 and revisions of the façade in 1928/29, its Gothic exterior, and Renaissance and classical interior remain happily intact today.

Head inside for some quiet contemplation by all means, but take in some of its most famous charms too, including the beautiful Chapel of the Virgin (pictured above, right), France’s biggest pipe organ, its huge vaulted ceilings and a plaque commemorating Mozart’s mother, who was buried here in 1778. In a nod to the food heritage associated with the area, don’t miss either the Chapel des Charcutiers (Chapel of the Butchers) dedicated to the tradesmen of the quartier. I’ve never seen pork butchery depicted in a stained glass window before, and I bet you haven’t either. Food takes on a more philanthropic guise at this time of year as it’s the site of a soup kitchen serving 32,000 meals each year between December 1st and March 31st.

If you really can’t resist the bright lights of the shopping centre, bear in mind that Saint Eustache is a patron saint of hunters, so maybe he has something to do with your predatory consumerist urges. But he’s also one of the figures depicted on the Jägermeister logo too, and I know which one I’d choose…

2 Impasse Saint-Eustache, 75001. For more info, click here