Christmas Carols French Style

Christmas Carols French Style

This month Beth shares a strange post Christmas holiday story and unusual tradition to kick start la nouvelle année on a high note.

"Christmas carol singing in January? Unusual timing. Then again, all sorts of strange things happen in our corner of southwest France. When our French friend, Camille, asked me to join in, I agreed, dragging my reluctant husband, Jack, along with me.

Five churches are involved in the celebration. A small choir assembles at church one, where a short repertoire of well-known carols is sung. The choristers, plus congregation supporters, drive to the next church. This continues in an ever-increasing convoy to the last church. At least, that’s the plan.

We have since learned that the massed crowds could be even larger, but there are casualties en route. Some folks get lost, others go to the wrong church, and sung-out singers who can’t squeeze out any more notes throw in the towel and go home.

Jack and I arrived for the pre-concert practice, and as the commune ‘anglaises’, we were instantly earmarked to sing a duet anglais. As with many community activities in our village, the rehearsal was predictably shambolic and rife with tantrums, this time between several wannabe conductors over who should take charge of the baton. We struggled through, and the eventual performances were spirited, if not skilled.

Much to Jack’s secret relief, for a couple of years, covid prevented any further choral outbreaks. This year was different. Newly elevated to churches carol singing organiser, Camille gave me the happy news that we were back in business. Unfortunately, I had a packed day, but I could sing at our church. Jack predictably discovered an urgent appointment and gave his apologies.

Turning up at our church for the rehearsal, I said ‘bonjour’ to established choir members and was introduced to new faces. “I’m ninety-five,” chirruped a minute person, shoving her way to the front. I knew I was going to like this lady. We gathered, ready to sing.

Flipping through endless music sheets, Momo, an eccentric chum, sidled up to me. She pointed at a carol. “Is this it?” she hissed, showing me a different song to mine. Camille gave us a stern look, ignored our problem and launched into Mon Beau Sapin all by herself. Nobody had that one. We searched for new song sheets, catching up in several keys.

“I’m ninety-five,” peeped a voice at the end of the first verse. Little madame was still in fine fettle.

Performance day finally arrived, and I turned up to an empty church. Surviving singers and supporters started straggling in. Our choir, still not enormous, was now twice the size. Camille bustled up with a scarf tightly coiled up to her eyes. She’d come down with le rhume (a cold). I had no idea how she would sing through all that wool.  

Sniffing noisily, Camille distributed yet more song sheets. “Where’s Senora Marybelle?” she grumped. “She’s supposed to be singing a solo!” With the congregation seated and waiting, there was no time to worry. As we arranged ourselves into a line, Momo nudged me. “I’ve found another anglais!” she proudly squeaked, pointing at an alto. It sounded like an archaeological discovery. “Do you know her?” she added. (As the token anglaises in our community, everyone naturally assumes we know every single English person in the area.) Sadly, not true. I had no idea who she was.

Our performance went much as expected. Sung at various tempos and with two conductors at one point, we rattled through the first set of carols. Senora Marybelle, who had gone to the wrong church, was now with us and ready to sing her solo. We settled down to listen.  

A petite lady with bags of enthusiasm, Marybelle set off with great verve in completely the wrong key. Her chosen piece was a challenging arrangement of Ave Maria involving trills and extra-high notes. Stoically ignoring the fact that the top notes were now far higher than any human might reasonably be capable of hitting, she carried on regardless.

There wasn’t a sound from the assembled company as she heroically battled higher and higher, valiantly stabbing at those punishingly high notes. We winced, breathing with her as she fought the trills. Having a couple of emergency breaths and clenching/unclenching fists in the middle seemed to help. And it was a long, long piece, but she made it. Relieved applause rang around the church. This had been an impressive effort.

We gathered for our grand finale. It was Hark the Herald Angels, and the congregation was encouraged to sing along. By the time we reached the final verse, the church was vibrating with many different tunes. Our carol concert was coming to a triumphal conclusion, so brilliant that we ended with an encore of the chorus complete with an inventive descant. It was a couple of lines from the end when, with no warning at all, the church was plunged into darkness. This was a first.

As shocked singers fizzled out, our mayor came to the rescue by firing up his mobile phone. Using its light, he strode down the aisle, up the steps to the organ loft and fiddled with switches. Worries about a disapproving divine intervention were dispelled as the church was once again bathed with light. No problem, the electricity metre just needed a tweak.

Following the final carol service performance, a spread is always provided by the host village. Sadly, I couldn’t stay and left as trestle tables were being laid with tureens, cakes and many galettes des rois, kings’ cakes (a puff pastry cake with a small charm hidden inside, traditionally eaten during Epiphanie). As I said my goodbyes, clear as a bell, one voice rose above all the others. “I’m ninety-five, you know.”  It had been another classic experience, one of those that make life here so special.

For more stories about rural living in SW France and to discover Beths' brand new book, check her Fat Dogs in France twitter feed and our blog.

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