In October of 1987, I moved to a hill above Cannes, France, to see the seasons 'round in my favorite country.
Friends warned, "You will be so lonely." "They will never invite you into their homes." Aunt Ann wrote from Toledo, "Dear, you do not HAVE to stay..."
However, --even beyond the spectacular beauty of living between mountains (coppery Esterel Massif and imposing, already snowed-upon pre-Alps) and sea (the Mediterranean), the highlight of my Provence year was friendship / l'amitie.
On Christmas Eve, I was welcomed to share the ritual supper of the young family who lived in and tended Observatoire Tower at the crest of our hill.
A simple family supper by the tree turned out to be canard [duck] a l'orange, with real frites (those very most perfect French fries), tiny turnips, followed by a buche de Noel - rolled cake frosted to look like the Yule log. It is traditionally adorned with hand-made meringue mushrooms, powdered sugar snow, and cinnamon to make the mushrooms look more woodsy. [I have made this with my daughters, here in Princeton, and experienced some tristesse (sadness) seeing that cake without them....] Very pagan sprigs of holly decorate the buche and re-inforce the woods atmosphere.
Luckily, I had been to Confiserie Auer in Nice that day. My gift to the family, I later learned, is a Provencal tradition - part of les treize desserts (the thirteen desserts of Christmas Eve supper before Midnight Mass. This meal is part of un jour maigre, among natives of old Provence, a meal without meat.)
Auer's legendary preserved fruits were eagerly received by "Madame de la Tour", (The Lady of the Tower, — as my villa neighbor, Charles Mouzon had christened Jeanette), her husband, Claude, and their young and perfectly behaved son, Didier, and daughter, Marie-Claude.
When the last crumb of buche de Noel had vanished, the children quietly and swiftly cleared the table. Then Claude drove us over to Le Suquet, — the old town of Cannes. We entered a church seemingly carved from ancient rock. It was filled with villagers garbed in everything from the blue of the laborer and long hand-knitted scarves, to grandes dames swathed in sable.
Mass began, to my wonderment, celebrated, sermoned and sung in French, Latin and Provencal.
I had been in Frejus the day before, following in footsteps of Caesar Augustus, — to his favorite port, his lantern, a forum, aqueduct and arena. Steeped as I was in matters Roman, it still stunned me when the priest began the Christmas gospel with "Dans le temps de Cesar Auguste."
"In the time of Caesar Augustus" I'd heard all my life, from Toledo to Detroit to Minnesota to Manhattan to New Jersey. It's possible I never believed it until that moment in the church on Le Suquet. I had the irreverent thought that, in the Frejus of Caesar Augustus, Christ was a Johnny-Come-Lately.
Suddenly the lights dimmed, and a procession began, for it was time for the Offertory. The main aisle of that chilly stony church began to fill with living Santons. These are the village creche figures of the region, originally made of cooky dough at the time of the French Revolution. Now made of clay, terre cuit, terra cotta, and actually dressed, right down to petticoats and pantalons, santons literally stand for the villagers' varied occupations, honoring Le Nouveau-Ne (The Newborn) in the manger.
These people, too, were authentically garbed right down to the pantalons and the petticoats. Even their sturdy sabots (like Dutch shoes) were authentic. Someone must have knitted the stockings of the era. The aisle was awash in my cherished Provencal flowered fabrics, hand quilted. Men wore rough short black fabric jackets. Others strode past in heavy leather hunting coats with an extra flap on the shoulders. Its purpose is by no means fashion but to carry the lamb or the goat — actually brought in on those broad shoulders that night.
Grapes were carried, wheat sheaves, rifles, demijohns of wine, of olive oil — everything brought so that the harvest of the new year would be blessed. Everything laid on the altar, in honor of Le Nouveau-Ne.
Music in three languages wafted up to loftiest reaches, woven with incense.
Four women carried a layette made for a human newborn, preceding the young Provencal-costumed couple carrying their real child, — the infant born closest to Christmas. They knelt reverently, laying their precious burden in real straw in a wooden manger on the altar steps. "No crying he made..."
The church lights went out, except for candles. The procession reversed itself moving ponderously, without its burdens, to a wide-ranging creche (nativity scene) set among clay hills along one inside wall of the church.
At exactly midnight, lights returned - the entire point of the Solstice and these holidays. Particularly visible was the star in the heavens guiding wise men. The Provencaux had managed to make the Wise Men's procession move, camels and kings.
Light bathed the clay Baby Jesus, and His human successor in his parent's arms. And so the year turned.
Some of the songs I knew and could sing. Some I could only hear. Une Flambeau, Jeanette, Isabella was one I had been taught, so could join, asking for a torch brought by Jeanette and Isabella to light the Baby's way. "Ah, que l'enfant est beau..."
Public buildings in the South of France are notoriously dark and cold, even in the dog days of August. But that compact house of worship, set high on what had been watchtower hill, watching for centuries lest Saracens arrive by sea -- that night, that holy night, its grey reaches were filled with light and the warmth of songs.
Midnight Mass comprises a unique quality in Provence -- Although an hour is part of its name, La Messe de Minuit is an exercise in timelessness.