Wednesday, 24 December 2014

A Sans-culotte Christmas

Légendes de Noël 

Another Christmas and another story translated from G. Lenotre.

In this tale, "Le petit Noël de quatre sans-culottes", four French Revolutionary soldiers find themselves, somewhat improbably, in Bethlehem on Christmas night.

Illustrations are  by Paul Thiriat from the 1911 edition of the Légendes de Noël which is available on Gallica.




There were four of them!  Four from the “Faubourg Antoine”, that volcano, now extinguished, which formerly, at almost regular intervals, spewed onto Paris torrents of revolutionary lava.
One morning in August 1792 they had followed the crowd to the Tuileries;  they had enjoyed themselves at the sack of the palace; they had  stabbed the mattresses of “le gros Capet” with their pikes; fired at the gods enthroned in Olympia on the painted ceilings; broken a few mirrors; and, like children, had  shaken the eiderdowns of the palace through the high windows of the gallery of Diana, to “make it snow”.

They cared little for politics, but this had not stopped them a few days later, in September, from being there at the prison massacres; not that they had killed anyone but  just “watched”, onlookers filled with joy at the novelty of the spectacle.  Then,  to the sound of drums and the canons on the Pont-Neuf,  they had  joined the  volunteer batallions and marched off, still singing, laughing and joking, to the Army of Champagne.   There they had been with the corps of the traitor Dumouriez, sleeping during the day, marching at night, without discipline, good soldiers only in battle.
The chance fortune that had brought them together persisted; together they had joined  the Army of the Alps and were part of the legendary bands that were  unleashed  by the “little Corsican” on Lombardy;  having left barefoot, thin and impoverished, they had returned from the campaign well shod, fat and comfortably off.  No-one knew better than they did how to take advantage of circumstances and profit from windfalls; they were nicknamed the “Parigots”.  They had long since forgotten the names that their parents had given them and adopted ones suited to the times: the first called himself “Nonidi”, the second “Décius”, the third “Tournesol” and  the last “Pimprenelle”, all names taken from the Revolutionary calendar.

Their moral philosophy needs only brief analysis:  they had for their only rule of conduct the desire to live as well as possible; they were wary of their superiors, detested aristocrats and rich people, despised superstition and priests.  In the villages where they made camp, they were the first into the churches; they forced the doors, made soup spoons from the wood of the confessionals, lit their pipes from the sanctuary candles.  They drank the communion wine, used the altar cloths as napkins, all exploits which earned them the reputation of freethinkers and “philosophers”.  For the rest, they went with the flow, were “bons garçons”, sometimes bandits, sometimes heroes.  In sum, they were true sons of the Parisian faubourgs, let loose as conquerors upon the world.

In this year, 1799, having crossed the seas, taken part in the conquest of Egypt, defeated the “Bedouins”, written their names on the Pyramids, Nonidi, Décius, Tournesol and Pimprenelle were part of the force which, following the siege of Acre, occupied Palestine and imposed levies on the Jews of Jerusalem, Jaffa and Gaza.

For several days the half-brigade of which the four "Parigots" were the crowning glory, had been camped under the walls of the Holy City.  They operated patrols in the surrounded area to ensure the security of the payment collectors.  At the approach of the French, pilgrims had left the holy places; the Catholic and Orthodox churches were abandoned; even the Turks had deserted their mosques; there remained in Palestine only the Jews who, after several shows of resistance, had been roundly beaten and  were now behaving towards our soldiers with exemplary courtesy.






On the evening of the 24th December Nonidi, who was the sergeant, and his three companions found themselves on patrol in the countryside.  The air was warm, the night dark; the four men were seating in a low-lying area, a desert of pebbles and asphodels, bounded by twin hills whose summits were lost in the black sky. At this melancholy, but often peaceful hour, nothing was to be heard but the croak of frogs in the abandoned cisterns.  Décius was asleep; Tournesol whistling  “La Carmagnole”, Primprenelle eating, Nonidi doing nothing at all.

They had been there for an hour when, above the hill which closed the ravine, a point of light appeared shining in the night sky.  At first an indistinct glow, it gradually became clearer.  It moved across the sky with a slow regular motion.

- What is that? muttered the sergeant in a low voice.

The point of light grew larger now, shining in the pure air; it seemed as if it was a star descending on the sleeping valley.

- It is a marsh fire, said Tournesol; I have seen the same thing in the marshes around the Bièvre.

- A marsh fire at that height, is impossible! replied Pimprenelle.  Décius, awaking, sat up and looked up with a terrified expression.

- Oh! said-he, it is the Star!

- The Star?

- Yes, he said, lowering his voice, but without taking his eyes off the light; yes, it happened in this country; they used to tell me the story…..


- Are you finished?

- Eh! You know very well, the miraculous star that led the shepherds to the Crib….it is Christmas Night…it is the Star, I am telling you, the Star!

- Fool!  muttered Pimprenelle.

The others, slightly disconcerted, did not mock.

- We will soon see, said the sergeant.  Let's take our guns and knapsacks and walk out to it; don't make a noise.  Not a sound. Off we go.

The four men gathered their equipment and made their way to the back of the ravine.  The star now came down towards them at an angle and began to go in front of them.  Nonidi led the little troop, keen to solve the puzzle;  Tournesol and Pimprenelle followed him cheerfully enough; Décius came last, without enthusiasm and muttering:

- It’s the Star…for sure. It’s the Star. The sergeant suddenly stopped.

- Imbecile, he said in a low voice.  Look at your star…it is a citizen with a lantern! Where on earth is he going?

Feeling the ironic looks of his companions, Décius took up his rifle:

- He is going to pay for the fright he has given me.

The sergeant stopped him with a wave.

- Don’t do anything stupid for a moment.  We should find out what has brought this man here.  Let's follow him….but quietly.

"Look at your star...It is only a citizen carrying a lantern"
The star came out onto the plain;  there  the shadows were less dense and the four soldiers could see, profiled against the red of the dawn sky, the man who was carrying the lantern; they could see his silhouette in a long robe; he was wearing on his head the pointed bonnet of the Armenians.  He entered a field of olive trees, divided by little dry stone walls, then turned onto a stone path and immediately disappeared into the shadows.  Nonidi and his men, guided by the light from the lantern,  quickened their pace.  They found themselves in the road of an abandoned village; the great square shapes of the deserted houses loomed; no light shone through the closed windows; no noise troubled the silence.

The Armenian pushed open a door which closed behind him;  the four Frenchmen stopped; with their faces up close to the slots in the door, they looked in; the man had entered a vast church, splendid and deserted;  his lantern projected a strange wild glow onto golden mosaics, broken and blackened; four rows of slim columns held up the roof, which in places was open to the sky.  The Armenian put down the lantern and prostrated himself in the middle of the empty temple.

- I don’t like the look of that citizen, said the sergeant.   It seems to me that the moment has come….ready your arms boys, and let me do what needs to be done.

Then, pushing open the door in his turn, he entered the church, followed by his comrades. The man did not move at the noise; he remained prostrate, with his forehead on the tiles.  Nonidi walked up to him, and put a hand on his back:

- You shouldn’t go to sleep there, boy….the place is dirty. 

The Armenian raised his head;  it was an old man with a grey beard. He stared in astonishment at the soldiers that surrounded him.

-       I am praying, he said in French.

There was a silence.  Nonidi seemed a little taken aback.

-       Obviously that is permitted, he replied stroking his moustache, but all the same it is suspicious.  What is this place called?

- It is the Church of the Nativity.

The soldiers looked at each other; the words meant nothing to them.

- And the name of this village?

- Bethlehem

There was such a magic about this name that the four soldiers shivered:  Décius, instinctively, took off his hat.   This movement of emotion did not escape the pilgrim.  He got up and took his lantern.

- Come, he said.

The five of them crossed the church;  the Armenian went first, murmuring prayers, the soldiers followed, proceeding with caution, caught in a sort of reverence.  They descended a flight of dusty and echoing stone steps; at the foot was a narrow archway of white marble.  This entrance, which had no door, gave access to a vast grotto made up of small compartments and narrow corridors, encumbered by the debris of altars and fragments of marble; the  black bedrock, seeping with moisture,  formed the vault.

The Armenian was unconcerned about showing respect and had no fear of these “unbelievers” for whom he acted as guide; he waved his lantern and explained: Here is the Crib where the Infant was lain; here the Virgin was delivered; here they tethered the ox and ass; here the Wise Men knelt.  And the four soldiers, their heads uncovered, curious at first, then moved, stood in reverie before these things which awoke in their hearts forgotten memories of a long past childhood,  the stories that their mothers had told them long ago; and they were astonished to find themselves in this august place, forever held sacred, this grotto more famous than the proudest palace, whose only glory came from having provided shelter, for a few hours, to the most poor of children.

The pilgrim explained  how, for centuries, day and night, the faithful had crowded into this underground space; a thousand candles had illuminated it; the kings of all the earth had adorned it with marvels; then the war had come, the French had invaded the country and the holy places had been deserted; he, the only believer among heretics, had not wished that on this Christmas night the site of the Nativity should be without worshippers.  So saying, he went down on his knees, and without paying any more attention to his companions, began to pray.

It did not occur to Nonidi, Décius, Tournesol and Pimprenelle to leave.  They were seized by an emotion which was impossible to resist and yet so sweet…This place where, for seventeen centuries, the multitudes had crowded, where so many hearts had melted in prayer, this sacred place held them in a vague, tender and peaceful spell.  The sergeant did not try to hide the tears which fell slowly from his eyes; his companions surprised him staring at the Crib and murmuring, looking at the crib;

The poor little one!

The prayer which thus escaped from his heart was a bit vulgar and idolatrous.  But it conformed so well to his nature that it must have reached  heaven as surely  as did the most magnificent hymns.

Such was the strange night passed by these four men, whom circumstances had hardened and whose coldness now melted like April snow in the warm sun.

To be sure they were not animated by the fervour of the first Christians, still less by the enlightened faith which gives birth to strong convictions; no, the simple piety of the past which slumbers in every French soul, merely re-awoke a little in theirs;  they thought of the festivals of their childhood; snatches of forgotten hymns came to mind; they saw themselves once more in their local church; the beautiful processions of the past passed before their eyes; the cross-bearers, the banners, the girls in white veils, the guards formed in line, the soldiers kneeling in circles before the portable altar, whilst the drums rolled and flowers covered the pavements…..

They thought of the cardboard rocks and the sheep in the old Christmas cribs of their parish;  things that they had laughed at since; and again they returned to the grey stone where the Armenian was prostrated in prayer and they said to themselves:

- Can it be true?  That it was here, on this very spot,  that the infant, who is adored everywhere, gave his first cry;  here that he he came so that anger should melt away and proud hearts be humiliated...

When they returned at dawn along the road through the village, they marched in silence, their heads bowed, their hearts filled with new emotions, and they dared not speak for fear that they would not recognise themselves.

I do not know what became of Décius and Pimprenelle.  Nonidi continued his military career;  his name - his true name - is that of one of the officers whom Napoleon promoted to general after the battle of Iéna.  As for Tournesol, having returned to France and been given his discharge, he entered holy orders.  It was he, we think, who in 1834, as vicaire of the parish of the Assumption, pronounced the "Miserere" over the coffin of Lafayette.

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