Monday December 23, 2013 | 08:30 AM

 Joyeux Noël! Christmas is the most joyous of the Franco-American religious holidays. Celebrations include singing beloved French carols, story telling, attending Christmas Mass and family gatherings.

St. John the Baptist Church Christmas Alter Brunswick

St John the Baptist Church in Brunswick, ME. The main alter is adorned for Christmas. Side alters are also decorated.

Singing the beautiful Minuit Chrétien brings tears to the eyes of devout Franco-Americans, because the French lyrics to O Holy Night validate the religious meaning of Christmas.

Many Franco-Americans recall Christmas past, before the extraordinary merchandising holiday we’re consumed by today. My husband recalls growing up in Sanford during the 1940s when joy on Christmas morning meant finding oranges or apples (not both) in his stocking “hung by the chimney with care”. 

Franco-American les traditions de Noël come together in Brunswick’s beautiful St. John the Baptist Church on Pleasant Street. A colorful la nativité is waiting for the birth of Jesus, prominently displayed adjacent to the front alter.

A customary Santon (a symbolic worshipper) is tipping his hat to the manger, where the Christ child will fill the scene on Christmas Eve. The sanctuary’s alters are adorned with seasonal Christmas greenery. At Christmas Eve’s Midnight Mass, the nativity scene will be complete when the statue de l’enfant Jesus is placed in the manger. In fact, St. John’s (which is among the cluster of churches in All Saints Parish) is one of the few churches where Midnight Mass is still celebrated at midnight, rather than earlier in the evening.

Franco-Americans in the Brunswick and Topsham communities have looked to St. John’s as their parish since before 1877, when Father Noieux was assigned to be the first resident priest. Inside the church, many of the beautiful religious statues, along with the stained glass windows and some icons are inscribed in French. 

Jeremy Phalen 12 years old alter server at St. John's the Baptist Church

Jeremy Phalen, 12, a student at St. John the Baptist School, has been an alter server since he was in the third grade.  He lives in Durham, Maine.

A virtual video tour of St. John’s, accompanied by a classical church organ concert, is interesting to watch at this on line site:  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ACWgOEyd1Vg

Among the children’s Christmas stories my husband recalls when growing up was listening to his mother, Rose, reading a French adaptation of Hans Christian Anderson’s story, “The Little Match Girl”, first published in 1845.  In French, the title is “La Petit Marchande d’Allumettes”. Anderson wrote, “It was dreadfully cold, snowing and turning dark,” in the first line of the sadly familiar story. In Anderson’s original text, the Little Match Girl sees her dead grandmother, who takes her to heaven. However, the French children’s adaptation told by Rose ended with a vision of the Virgin Mary consoling the freezing child, while she was trying, in vain, to warm herself with unsold matches. It’s easy to imagine how cold Quebec and French-Canadian children could feel on December’s long winter nights. Obviously, the feelings conveyed in the story of La Petit Marchande d’Alumettes were more real than fiction to many French-Canadian and Franco-American children in the past, especially for the many who were poor. 

In the old French story, it’s the Virgin Mary who takes La Petit Marchande d’Allumettes to see her grandmother in heaven.

A black and white silent French film of the original story is posted on line. In fact, the old French film receives a respectable 7.1 consumer rating. It was produced in 1928, by Jean Renoir and Jean Tedesco. The 31 minute film is posted at: https://archive.org/details/theLittleMatchGirllaPetiteMarchandeDallumettes1928

Today, most Franco-Americans continue to celebrate Christmas religious traditions.

Santon tipping his hat at l'nativite in St. John's Church Brunswick

Santon is a secular worshipper, tipping his hat, who visits the Nativity. This tradition of including Santon originated in Provence, France and continues in Many Franco-American churches.

Noël festivities typically conclude with family gatherings at the homes of Memeres and Peperes (grandparents). 

Overwhelmingly, traditional French chants de Noël are the most haunting of the nostalgic memories for Franco-Americans. Familiar hymns and performances of them are available on line. A list of songs, with French and English lyrics included, are available at this site:  http://french.about.com/od/christmascarols/

Joyeux Noël, bonnes fêtes et bonne année! 

About this Blog

Juliana L’Heureux is a freelance writer whose articles about Maine’s Franco-American history and culture have appeared in Portland newspapers for 25 years. She serves on the Maine Franco-American Leadership Council.

Juliana and her husband Richard live in Topsham ME. Feel free to contact her at Juliana@mainewriter.com.

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