Monday, December 31, 2012

250 Years Ago ... Celebrating the New Year

 *Part of my continuing blog series leading up to the 250th anniversary of the founding of St. Louis in February 2014. 

It is New Year's Eve and we all have our celebratory traditions.  Back before St. Louis was founded, the French settlements in the Mississippi river valley would have celebrated on this night by observing the tradition of 

La Guiannée or La Guignolèe.

Because I'm feeling a little lazy today, I will rely on Wikipedia to describe the background of this custom:
La Guiannée or La Guignolée is a French medieval New Year's Eve tradition that is still practiced in two towns in the United States. The tradition related to poor people being able to ask the more wealthy for food and drink at the celebrations of winter. Customarily a troupe of traveling male singers went from door to door to entertain and ring in the new year. Hosts were expected to give them food and drink. Other sources say the young men were seeking donations for Twelfth Night. Begun as a way for the poor to be given gratuities by the rich, it also became a community social event for young men to visit with the families of young women.
Over time, the practice became an occasion for visiting with relatives and friends, and was more or less, a traveling feast. At first it was carried on only by young men, often in costume; women joined the party in the 20th century. In many years, the people appeared in disguise, as part of the celebration was a kind of overturning of the common order.
The two towns in the United States where the custom is still observed are the little village of Prairie du Rocher, Illinois, which is located just south of the location of old Fort de Chartes, and Ste. Genevieve Missouri, located across the river.   

Here's a description of the celebration in Ste. Genevieve:

Ste. Genevieve, Missouri, lays claim to being the first permanent European settlement west of the Mississippi. Founded by French traders, it remained for centuries a French enclave in the midst of an increasingly Anglophone Midwest. Today, the last generation of native French speakers is disappearing, but old traditions still remain. The most visible is La Guignolée, a medieval tradition analagous to the English custom of wassailing. Every New Year's Eve, the descendants of St. Genevieve's French settlers don bizarre and archaic costumes and wander from bar to bar, singing a begging song that harks back to the Middle Ages.

       "The song asks for a piece of meat -- forty feet long, if I remember right," says Duke Blechler, leader of the current Ste. Genevieve Guignolée singers. "And if the people didn't have a piece of meat to give them, they would ask for their eldest daughter. Take her out, wine her and dine her -- which doesn't sound very good, you know."

       In every bar, the singers are welcomed with a drink and, as the night wears on, they begin to sway a bit and the French lyrics become harder and harder to understand. The spirit of the musical tradition keeps coming through loud and clear, though, until the last singer stumbles home to catch a few hours sleep before New Year's morning mas
 Here for your listening pleasure are Dennis and Jennifer Stroughmatt playing the song traditionally sung on La Guianee, so you can hear it (unfortunately they were  not playing it on a New Year's Eve but, rather, in summer):

   And here is one translation of the lyrics of the song:

Good evening master and mistress,
And all who live with you.
For the first day of the year,
You owe us La Guignolée. If you have nothing to give,
A chine of meat or so will do.
A chine of meat is not a big thing,
Only ninety feet long. Again, we don't ask for very much,
Only the oldest daughter of the house.
We will give her lots of good cheer,
And we will surely warm her feet. Now, we greet you,
And beg you to forgive us please.
If we have acted a little crazy,
We meant it in good fun. Another time we'll surely be careful
To know when we must come back here again.
Let us dance La Guenille,
-- La Guenille, La Guenille!

 Whatever your traditions, Bonne année et bonne santé !