Tag Archive | christmas

The Grand Entrance

Soon it will be “Goodbye 2010s” to an eventful decade and on its wake will resonate “Hello 2020s” in spirits of fresh-found confidence. Despite the anticipations of the prospect of a flourishing brand new year, considering the shifts in attitudes, fixation on praising excess, awful incidents emerging around the world, etc, one can’t help feeling a quiver of anxiety about what have the wheels of fate in store. As the years roll by with an almost frightening rapidity in a fusion of happiness, apprehensions and solidities, experiences prove that there are instances when one could not help feeling like a hooked fish on the time’s line.

Now as we hold up five fingers, four, three, two …. to signify the final-run-down to the Christmas day, the tale of Christmas miracle cannot be aptly told without music. This time around, in our mind’s eye, we go to Salzburg – to that gem of the Austrian Alps of castles, fortresses, churches, museums, parks, and, of course, nature.

Some years ago, we had the pleasure to drive around and savour the enchantment of Austria. Vienna hosted us as the base of our domicile for this visit. A clear rival to Paris in the superiority and variety of its architectural decorations and every style of art, Vienna proffered us a good stroke of fun with the fortunate presence of our friends.

As I wrote in earlier posts, we drove or foot-marched over much of the city to set our sights on the fave haunts of the locals and also on out-of-the-way tourist spots not counting the 18th-century Schönbrunn Palace, the Museums, Wiener Staatsoper, the Burgtheater, Stephansdom, Café Sacher Wien and other coffee spots where no one knows how to make bad coffee.

Hoping to get some more inspiration and to make good of the plentiful time at our disposal, we had jumped in with both feet and visited places as far as Graz, Salzburg, and their vicinities. Without a glitch, those days were mostly bright and of clear blue sky. All the way the only shadow cast was from the trees.

Our trip to Graz was covered in the car and company of my old business friend in Vienna from my days in the Middle East. At Salzburg, we were driven around by Herr Rupert, a gentlemanly fellow who only wanted to please as he took us around. Rupert, as we know, is the name of the patron saint of Salzburg who founded the Abbey of St. Peter’s beneath the sheltering cliffside of Mount Mönchsberg in the center of the Old City. With musical luminaries as talented as Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Herbert von Karajan gracing the annals of the city, the delight of music is so divine and tangible in the air.

Now back to Christmas – a little more than 200 years ago, Josef Mohr (1792-1848), an assistant priest in the sacristan of Oberndorf bei Salzburg wrote a new poem of Christmas flavour at his first parish in Mariapfarr, the village of his father where Josef had cut his teeth as a priest at a young age in 1815.

Although limited to a year, Josef’s clerical term out at Mariapfarr was in 1816 when Prince Klemens von Metternich (1773–1859), the Chancellor of Austria, won repossession of the Province of Salzburg for Austria from the Bavarian crown. The following year, Josef was appointed as curate to Oberndorf, about twenty km from Salzburg. It was a village of boatmen, wooden and stone houses located on the Austrian bank on the serpentine bend of the River Salzach (Salt River/Igonta). Originally a Roman settlement, Oberndorf was mentioned in the Salzburg chronicles as early as 1050.

It is said that a clergyman sees you at your best, a lawyer at your worst and a doctor as you really are. Having taken up residency in Oberndorf, Josef conducted his priesthood which enriched the life of that parish.

During the morning of the day Josef had written the poem, he was with his closest friend Franz “Franzl” Xaver Gruber (1787-1863), a village schoolmaster, song writer and church organist. Josef was attending a celebration in the school house of Franz in the village of Arnsdorf when they realised that there was no really great Christmas song. The Christmas is already right at their doorstep.

And so, the poem Josef wrote celebrates the greatest birthday of all time – illumines the holy night and the birth of a baby in a stable at Bethlehem long time ago. It held the vision of a baby so little and soft – pure as a white flame. Having grown up close to River Salzach, no doubt, Josef must be inspired by the legend of the statue “The Enthroned Madonna with Child” (about 1500) which is believed to be a work of miracles and supposedly washed ashore by the ice-drift in the River Salzach.

At Josef’s instance, Franz who lived in Arnsdorf and performed in the post of organist at Oberndorf since 1816, soon composed tune to accompany the poem in German verses which was named the “Stille Nacht, heilige Nacht” (Silent Night). A task he accomplished creditably, Franz’s composition, said to be done during the afternoon of November 24, 1818, was goodness set to music and his idea of perfection lauded the dictum that a good melody must be rooted in the nature of the human voice.

 

The song was performed publically for the first time during the Christmas Midnight Mass of 1818 at St. Nikola parish church at Oberndorf – just a stone’s throw away from the serpentine bend of River Salzach. The working partnership of Josef and Franz was extremely successful – an alliance that would subsequently unite their names famously for all time. Rendering the song as a duet in the plain rural dignity of that church, curate Josef sang the melody and played the guitar while composer Franz sang the bass. It was complemented by chorus of the resident choir. Undoubtedly, Josef and Franz didn’t want to face less than perfection in their song and it made a remarkable effect on the congregation of parishioners of that great Midnight Mass.

In such ready expertness, “Stille Nacht, heilige Nacht” had to be first played to guitar accompaniment because the works of the church organ on which it was to be played at the church service was damaged useless probably by the gnawing mice and river flooding. Even though under normal circumstances guitar was not a medium in vogue acceptable to play a German song in the church service, the guitar had become a favoured medium since by that period the six-string guitar had replaced the lute completely and was of greater prominence on the European concert stages.

The work of Josef and Franz more or less would have been confined to the repertory of that parish and slipped into obscurity had it not been for Karl Mauracher, an organ builder, a one-off who came to repair the damaged organ. He took an interest in the song and sought a copy of its text and music to take along with him to his village in beautiful Tyrol in Western Austria which attracts many tourists.

No sooner had they heard the version of the song from the organ builder, the Strasser Quartette, famous for their beautiful singing of Tyrolese mountain songs, was won over by the full zenith of its charm. At length, they added it to their repertoire and performed widely on their concert tours as “The Tyrolian Song” due to its place of birth. It was often considered a folk song but without any known authorship of its poet or musical composer.

Although the Rainers, another singing group had taken “Stille Nacht, heilige Nacht” into their shows as early as 1819, it was later sung by the Strasser Quartette before the congregation at the great cathedral of Leipzig, Germany. The song remained unprinted until 1840. Some attributed its melody to Johann Michael Haydn (1737–1806) until the Royal Court musicians in Berlin, in their wisdom, enquired with the Abbey of St. Peter’s (Stift Sankt Peter) in Salzburg about the origin of the Christmas song “Silent Night”, believed to be by Michael Haydn of that Abbey. Through Franz’s son, this inquiry reached the ears of Franz who was then still alive while Josef had since deceased. It was nearing the end of 1854 when Franz set his claim to Berlin and soon after received credit for his creation.

In 1854, the “romanticist on the throne” Emperor Friedrich Wilhelm IV of Prussia (Reign: 1840-1861), whose beautiful Queen consort Elisabeth (Elise) Ludovika of Bavaria who had been brought up in the Roman Catholic faith, took great interest in “Stille Nacht, heilige Nacht” following its performance before him by the Berlin Church Choir. He delightfully ordered it be given first place in all Christmas programmes. Curiously, he was the first Emperor of Prussia to enter a Roman Catholic place of worship when, back in 1844, he attended the celebrations marking the completion of the Cologne Cathedral (Kölner Dom). From that distance of time, trooping ahead past events like its performance during the World War I front-line during the Christmas Truce, until today, “Stille Nacht, heilige Nacht” was on a moving treadmill fuelled year on and on by popularity – casting a celestial spell upon all Christendom and in a multitude of directions.

During an interview in the early last century, the grandson of Franz produced a copy of the manuscript of “Silent Night” in his possession which he claimed to be a copy made by Franz Gruber in 1836. The original is no longer in existence. It was the oldest known copy and contained the original stanzas penned by Josef for which voices and instruments were arranged.

Presently, the Stille Nacht Kapelle, the memorial chapel blessed in 1937, stands on the site of the old St. Nikola Church which disappeared with time – perhaps consequent to the deadly maelstrom of floods of River Salzach in 1899 when most of the river-side houses were carried away. The year 1899 may be remembered by movie lovers as the year of birth of American actor Humphrey “Bogie” Bogart. He was a Christmas baby born on December 25th. The image of the old chapel can be seen, among other works, on the brochure of Stille Nacht Kapelle and as chocolate-box scenes.

The carols we always associate with Christmas are of very old religious lyric and musical idea. The combination of singing and dancing carols is undated since it existed among people from time immemorial. As one could think of the Christian tradition of the joyful hymn of praise “Gloria in excelsis Deo” the angels sung to the Shepherds, appreciating the Nativity story in a stirring age in our history, the popular mind could also reflect on the soft lullaby of the Nazarene maiden Mary as she lulls her new-born babe to sleep in a manger of that hamlet called Bethlehem (according to a book, the name Bethlehem signifies the “House of Bread“).

Fashions have changed – tastes have altered – the carols may go in and out of favour. Then again, together with the seasonal favourites “O Come All Ye Faithful / Adeste Fideles,” “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing”, the jubilant “Joy to the World”, etc, the soulful Christmas carol “Silent Night” has always sweetened the joyous effect in our home during the Christmas Eve.

As Christmastime shows up annually, we have had our moments in the festivities, feasting and jollities that goes along with it. In common parlance, the Christmas favourite lists: the living room dressed in the house’s finest, the Nativity crib, a brightly decorated tree to glisten and gleam with baubles, tinsel and fairy lights, the mistletoe, the Christmas stockings and gifts, the brass and silver brightly polished, the holiday table laden for sumptuous feast fit for a gastrophile at heart, the seasonal melodies like the “Stille Nacht, heilige Nacht,” to moon and swoon, to talk over old and new times with near and dear. All those Christmas traditions are perfect and nice to hold on to – and meaningful, too.

The concept of the illuminated Christmas trees in legends of Germany relates to the heathen belief that the new life energy developed after midwinter by all trees and sprigs should be taken into homes to radiate its power among all those who live there. Delightfully, there are other things also not to lose sight of – mind you, to ensure a certain period to reminisce and meditate about all things that one builds too high in one’s mind and to thank for our many blessings.

At this time, Christmas would seem funny here without snow. But we would overlook that – for it has always been so. Then again, certainly there will be melodies inspired by my wife from our collection of her native Weihnachtslieder to ensure this Christmastime will be one of enchantment.

A Merry Christmas full of Joy and Cheer

Jo & Carina

(©Joseph Sébastine/Manningtree Archive)

Christmas Always Comes Up Trumps

Christmas is different from what it was more than 100 years ago… yet it is much the same. At length, Christmas celebrations have become more and more elaborate – hiked up by the gravitational pull of commercialisation that might even lead us to believe that Walt Disney invented Santa Claus.

But the traditional oldies are there to fall back on: the Christmas Eve, the traditional Holy Mass, shining stars, cribs in Nativity scene, Christmas trees, angels, decorations, greenery, fairy lights winking and blinking, carols, songs, dances, gifts, wining and dining, stuffed poultry and plum pudding, white-iced cakes, Christmas & New Year greeting cards…..and then there are the candles calling attention to the legend of medieval times when lighted candles were placed in windows as a welcome to the Christ child, to show that there was a place in the home for Him.

As I wrote in my previous posts, I have had many Christmas memories from my childhood and one of my few flights of fancy is to allow them to flood me every now and then – especially during Christmas time. They are like Christmas decorations saved from Christmas to Christmas, and more added each year.

The joy of those carefree Christmases! Still and all, Christmas was something inside me – a singing in my heart. As if Mr. Charles Dickens might call at any time, our ritual of Christmas does not change. Each year there is much the same routine. The excitement spread over weeks as the star is hung, the crib is made, the Christmas tree erected hung with baubles and other decorations, and friends and relatives came in to visit.

The clever old Santa, with rhythmic, booming sounds and a certain sense of dignity will show up in the evenings without his sleigh, his eyes, exuding geniality and delight, peeping through the eye holes on his mask. He was accompanied by dancers and singers few of whom can’t carry a tune in a steam shovel. It’s all very Christmassy.

One of the neighbours of our traditional house was a family with three men good with their hands and easy-to-make notions. They are linked in my mind with stars and cribs. Two-to-three weeks leading to Christmas Day, these men and some of their friends, real no-nonsense workers, devoted their afternoons to create very low-cost and small-scaled Christmas trimmings for selling locally.

As it drew near to Christmas and there was no school to worry about, I sometimes went over to watch them create stars and cribs using bamboo. Their vibes was so grand that they could all laugh at the same things. Once the bamboo was cut vertically into sticks of required lengths, both surfaces are buffed finely to obtain smooth texture before they are tied into shapes of stars and cribs. The roof of cribs was thatched with hay.

Most of their exquisite works, some even varnished for glossy look,  are sold at Michael’s shop at the junction by our street and in the evenings people oh’d and ah’d looking up at the cribs and lighted stars on display for sale.

One of the most amusing was a wonderful Christmas in the 70s when our family made a beautiful Christmas tree. It stands out most vividly in my mind. Approximately 6ft. tall, it was bedecked with all the delicate sparkle associated with Christmas decorations. Given that the pine and fir (species grown as fresh Christmas trees in Europe and elsewhere) were not readily available potted at that time, a similar species (possibly, Araucaria Heterophylla) was acquired.

Set upright in base made of wooden pieces, the plant was decorated with gold and copper paper, gold and red ribbons, sequins, bugle beads, gold streamers, crepe paper strings, cardboard cylinders, fairy lights, etc., to create that jingle-bells effect. Copper and gold was kept as colour scheme to indicate the sparkle of the festive occasion. Few years saw us using a tree with branches cleared off its leaves as a substitute when the right plant was unavailable. Always the charming note is that the decorated Christmas tree, ablaze with tiny lights, represents the spirituality of Christmas.

The matter of substitute mentioned above brings to my mind the letter of a woman published in an old magazine about her great-grandmother who was a colonist passenger in a ship from Europe bound for Australia more than 160 years ago. As the narration goes, everyone was looking forward to spend Christmas in the new land and ladle great helpings of Aussie hospitality.

But, sweet suffering grief, on the Christmas Eve all were disheartened to learn that the ship was still hundreds of miles away which meant – no Christmas tree. Then again, did anyone there hear the angels in Heaven sing? When the children gathered in the saloon for their gifts, they were surprised to find a little tree with real leaves.

Assuming that the ship will be delayed and Christmas would be spent at sea, the ship’s carpenter had made the tree. Upon sailing from Cape Town, he had sowed parsley seeds in a box filled with sand (from ship’s ballast) and sawdust. Having kept out of reach of salt spray, the crew took turns to water it using their daily allowance of drinking water. As Christmas neared, the parsley had grown luxuriantly. From the firewood the carpenter carved out the stem and the branches on which the parsley leaves were tied. The tree was adorned with tiny candles, tinsel ornaments and white sugar for ‘snow’. A Christmas tree was born!

True to the Christmas ideal, how wonderful the ship’s carpenter had made his finest effort and shared his decorated Christmas tree to swell the hearts of strangers and friends. Indeed, Christmas, just as it always does, triumph after all. Merry Christmas, Jo

(©Joseph Sébastine/Manningtree Archive)

A Winsome Sweet ‘17

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2The New Year’s Day 2017 has arrived with hopes – giving new courage and belief for a fresh start. The transitory period when the old year gives way for the new often kindles a curious manifestation of optimism in us and inspires hope for a “happy and better New Year” – free from the misfortunes of the year just gone by. Inwardly, this feeling is merely a repetition of the optimism that inspired us at earlier New Year’s Eves when it was wished that the ensuing New Year would bring its own heaven. Even though the year’s outcome was contrary to our expectation, yet again, when the clock struck the first note of midnight at the New Year’s Eve, and the bells ring, the fire crackers were lit, Auld Lang Syne was sung to be followed by other old, new, nostalgic medley of seasonal carols and songs, and toasts were raised, we take fresh heart to, once again, hope for the best.

New Year’s Day is the eighth day after Christmas and traditionally, bears the name “Octava Domini” (In Octavas Domini) in the Gelasian and Gregorian Sacramentaries. The first of January appeared as an ecclesiastical festival at Rome for the first time at the beginning of the ninth century, where it is called from the first Circumcisione Domini. The idea and date of this festival are derived from the Gospel of St. Luke (Chapter II. 21), since eight days after birth, the Christmas child of Virgin Mary was circumcised and received the name Jesus, a personal name. The year ends with the birth and begins with the naming.

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This year’s crib in our house

The traditions and customs related with New Year’s Day were concerned with bringing good luck for the coming year. When the year dies out at the chimes of the midnight hour, and when the traditional toast and ubiquitous salutations of “Happy New Year” and “Good Health” resonate the air and people hugged, kissed and shook hands; whatever be the attitude of the body, certain thoughts in some of us would become silent prayers turned heavenward, thanking for the past years and hoping for the best times and good health. Holy Toledo! The truth is you cannot savour the joys of life without good health.

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It is also a time for New Year resolution – decisions intended to abandon a bad habit or adopt a good one in the New Year, most popular being the decision to give up smoking and to diet which are always updated as time passes by. According to a survey, two people out of three made such resolutions but most soon break them.

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Back in December 2013 we were in Bangkok for the festive season. There was political unrest in the country at that time between red and yellow shirts. But rather than let the tourism go haywire and celebration of people curtailed, the sensible local authorities, very efficient to cope with the matters of their positions and departments, did not clamp on any undue restrictions which was laudable.

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On that warm Saturday morning of December 2013, I was waiting to keep my appointment at one of my favourite Foot Reflexology parlours in Bangkok which I had managed to reach from my hotel with some difficulty. As many of you will know, Bangkok is notorious for traffic congestions, but since yesterday (Friday, 27th) the streets were unusually packed as the New Year revellers flocked out of Bangkok to their villages. A friend of the owner of the parlour, a middle-aged Thai was also in the lobby with me waiting for the arrival of his friend. A great conversationalist, he is known to me from my earlier visits. That was the extent of our acquaintance. Having known that I write about Bangkok, he wisely used my waiting time to give me a run through about some of the many traditions and customs of his land – most of which I had come to know over the years in some finery.

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9When our conversation touched upon Songkran festival (marks the start of the traditional Thai New Year which falls during April), he suddenly switched the topic to the hair style he would be getting at the adjoining salon either on 30th or 31st (specifically on Monday and Tuesday which he believed are the only good days for getting haircut!!) in time for the New Year’s Eve. At that time, his hairdresser would remove the red-shades from his natural jet black hair worn too long by Thai standards. Although I tried to avert the conversation from being nosy about his personal choice, he went right ahead and told that he is clearing the red shades for his elder sister who has invited him to her house for late dinner on the New Year’s Eve which he intended to attend, after cutting-short his own razzle-dazzle with his friends at the local pub.

8As assigned, he would be the “first-foot” to enter his sister’s household to usher in the New Year. This fairly clear-cut custom, which has many versions, is based on a Hogmanay (a New Year’s Eve in Scotland) tradition, and still kept up in some Far Eastern and Australian households.

It is believed that if the first person to cross the threshold of a house after midnight, when the old year ends and the New begins, is a dark haired man, a year of good luck will follow. Since her brother’s last “first-foot”, she had experienced lesser gale over the domestics. And certainly, once more the elements of specific gifts a “first-footer” usually brings which symbolised life, hospitality and warmth is in his consideration to take along with him.

For his sister, who displayed great strength and furious energy to go through the ritual of sweeping her whole house thoroughly on 31st of every December, the recruitment of her brother to make the necessary entrance at her house is rooted on her belief that it should be someone with dark hair and not of her household.

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Family ties are stronger at Christmas and New Year time – and louder, too. First of January is Global Family Day, too. Mind you, he would have his fun in her home ground – the whisky, the songs, the smile, the smells – and the mishmash of games: shuffleboard, Ping-Pong, Bingo, cards, and God knows what else. To reach her home at that time of the night without the bow-wow of stray dogs in her street would be a benefit since any stray dogs living in the premises on New Year’s Eve were particularly cleared because, according to his sister, they brought bad luck.

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People do strange things hoping for best things ahead. Not long ago, a European chef of Mandarin Oriental spoke about a Thai chef’s unbridled enthusiasm for anything associated with superstitions. The Roman belief that misfortune would come into a house by anyone entering with his left foot first, is a custom which is strictly followed with right foot by his family. They have a tradition to criss-cross certain rituals of the Thai Songkran festival also with the customs of New Year’s Day.  The ingredients they used in this respect, forming part of the ritual of bathing of Buddha statues during Songkran, consists of five bowls containing different-coloured floating flowers – each colour to represent prosperity in a variety of forms: Rose Red to bring a tranquil life devoid of obstacles; Marigold Orange to signify success and wealth; Anchan Blue representing strength to overcome obstacles; Pandan Green for peace without problems; and Jasmine White to symbolise a joyful life.

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The question about how a fairly intelligent and even moderately educated person could inwardly believe these superstitions – that number 13 is unlucky, or that one should not start a new venture on Friday, etc., in spite of its universal acceptance, is, how-do-you-say-it, much like a pyramid balanced in unstable equilibrium upon its point. Nevertheless, people do knock on wood; take a pinch of salt and throw it over their left shoulder; or refuse to walk under a ladder, and hope that, “touch wood”, this New Year would hopefully go down in memory as the year they moved into the house of prosperity, good health, peace, joy and all things of goodness – with the baggage of serious misfortune safely left behind. I remember the saying, if you must leave your old house and move to a new one do not take your old broom with you.

Thank you for riding with me during the past year. I raise a toast: Here is wishing my friends and readers a lovely, peaceful and prosperous new 2017. Jo

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(©Joseph Sébastine/Manningtree Archive)

NOTRE DAME WILL STAND

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“The Gothic of Verona is far nobler than that of Venice;

and that of Florence nobler than that of Verona.

… that of Notre Dame of Paris is the noblest of all.”

  • The Seven Lamps of Architecture by John Ruskin

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The day was bright and filled with leisure hours. We would not have wished to be anywhere else in the world on that day but in the grand Cathédrale of Notre-Dame in Paris, the capital of elegance and art. With the presence of our daughter Bianca, the last few days had swiftly accelerated and rolled away quickly. She was absolutely vibrant. Having visited the central landmarks and point of identification, viz., the Eiffel Tower, Arc de Triomphe and the Avenue des Champs-Élysées, Sacré-Cœur, The Louvre and Mona Lisa, all of which has been absorbed into the tradition of Paris, we had decided to take her to other blessedly French places not to be missed including Palais Garnier (Opéra de Paris). She had done her homework and knew there was far more colour and nerve in Paris.

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Long before all the above landmarks came into existence and well before the city came to be known as Paris, “Lutetia” (Lutetium) as it was known during the Late Empire, was centred on a small island in the shape of a cradle in the Seine called Île de la Cité, the heart of the city. Years later, it was here on the pavement in the great plaza called Parvis Notre-Dame – Place Jean-Paul II (1) before Notre-Dame de Paris that the official centre of Paris was landmarked with a bronze star on an embedded plaque – proclaiming the central place of Notre-Dame in the country’s life.

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This bronze star, (placed by André Jules Michelin), is the point-zero (Point-Zéro des routes de France) for measuring distances from Paris. The local tip-off is that: a) if you stand on the bronze plate, you will return to Paris; b) your love will last forever, if you stand on it with your lover and share a kiss. No reward for guessing what I have often done there.

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I know, so much has been written and said about Notre Dame. But, until last time I was here, I never thought that Notre-Dame de Paris is best seen from behind the flying buttresses at the east end. This time around, having reached the area via Quai Saint-Michel, we had crossed the Petit Pont (Little Bridge, erected in 1853) and entered the Parvis (square) which now dwarfs the apocalyptic west façade with its great area. The Parvis was indeed much smaller before Georges-Eugène Haussmann (1809-1891), while remodelling Paris for Napoleon III in the nineteenth century, cleared the structures which clustered before the cathedral and enlarged the Parvis, adding different features to it.

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The Parvis was crowded with people – we could pick up the scent of liveliness in the air. Moving past the Crypte Archéologique du Parvis de Notre-Dame, we came across the high stone base bearing “Charlemagne et Ses Leudes”, the imposing bronze equestrian statue of Emperor Charlemagne accompanied by his leudes: Roland and Olivier. It was sculpted by brothers Louis and Charles Rochet in time for the L’Exposition universelle de 1878 (third Paris World’s Fair – open to the public: May 20 to November 10, 1878). Since its erection in the square, it not only has outlived the threat of displacement but also has remained a mute spectator at the area which has played a vital part in so much of France’s history.

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If one would track the olden times back from the time of Charlemagne to the origins of Paris, we would find that it was the military importance of Île de la Cité which had motivated the Romans to build the city of Lutetia where there was a small settlement of Gallic tribe of merchants and fishermen called Parisii. Given that the spot was already hallowed by a Druid shrine, no wonder a place of worship for Jupiter came up – the remains of this altar will be mentioned below.

The Roman occupation had ushered in Christendom and from the wreck of the Roman shrine rose a cathedral – just like many mediaeval churches of Western Europe which claim a pre-Christian origin. In his book about Paris, author A.J.C Hare relates that a church dedicated to Saint-Étienne (St. Stephen) was built on the islet about the year 375. (The website of Notre Dame states: This cathedral dedicated to Saint Stephen was very large. Its western façade located about forty metres west of the current façade of Notre-Dame – which is where we are presently sitting now.) Adjacent to Saint-Étienne, an edifice far more rich and beautiful was built in 528 and dedicated to the Virgin Mary (Notre-Dame II), the substructions of which were found during excavation of the Parvis during the 19th century. Notre-Dame II had subsequently assumed a pre-eminence among the churches and for the faithful, became the center of the Christian cult.

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During the three hundred years between 1050 and 1350, 80 cathedrals, 500 large churches and hundreds of small parish churches were built in France alone which reflected the wealth and variety of the country’s history and architecture. It has also been regarded as the most typical expression of medieval civilization. It was a period when the country’s faith was humble, her love a mounting flame. Following the construction of the abbey of St. Denis (now Basilique cathédrale de Saint-Denis) on the grave of Saint Denis north of Paris in 1144, there was strong plea for a cathedral much longer and upward looking than Saint-Étienne’s in Île de la Cité, – a cathedral worthy of the great demographic expansion and economic dynamism of Paris. With the low hills region such as Butte Saint-Jacques, nearby Bagneux, Arcueil, and Montrouge dispersed with great beds of granite and limestone, there was hardly any shortage for building materials. Without totally destroying the existing two churches, Maurice de Sully (elected bishop of Paris on October 12, 1160 – died in 1196) commenced to build a new edifice on the same site. It is generally held that Pope Alexander III laid its foundation stone in 1163.

8 Prior to the start of the work, the Rue Neuve-Notre Dame was created to make it easier to bring the masonry. With the center of worship shifted to the nave of the older Notre-Dame II, the foundations of the new cathedral were dug thirty feet deep and filled with the hard stone of Montrouge on which the enormous weight would rest. The construction was done by professional workers organized in accordance with the traditions and rules of the guilds, and the powerful Chapter of Notre-Dame.  The underlying efficiency of the work done is that the vault webs of Notre-Dame are only 6 inches in thickness and they have held steadfast for 850 years!

The chancel was built first so that the church could function. The choir’s high altar was consecrated in 1182. The nave (with the exception of the extreme west end) was realised about the year 1195 (the year Santo Antônio de Pádua was born in Lisbon.) Under Eudes de Sully (died 1208), the successor of Maurice, the work on the west façade which begun in 1202 was completed to the base of the gallery by 1223. The galerie des rois (the Gallery of Kings) was completed under Guillaume de Seignelay (1219-1224).  The twin towers (without the spires) were realised by 1235. A transept was not in the original plan, but a short one was inserted before the nave was laid down. Saint Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) was in Paris during the time the transept was being built. After visiting the chapel of the Virgin behind the choir in 1323, French philosopher, theologian Johannes de Janduno wrote, “On entering one feels as if ravished to heaven, and ushered into one of the most beautiful chambers of paradise.” Although the cathedral was never completed consistent to the plan of the original designers, when the work was finally realised circa 1345, the edifice presented an irregular alignment due to interruptions in its construction.

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God must have danced around me when I was born – for as it turned out, I have been generously blessed with occasions to travel far and wide – and most importantly in the presence of wonderful persons. For the past few days, Carina was having fun naming to me the various trees adorning Paris: the Linden- and Horse chestnut trees along the Seine; Honey Locust, Mimosa, Empress, Cherry…… and many others including the London Plane by the Avenue des Champs Élysées. That was hardly a fortuitous coincidence, but in lieu of the movie locations of Roman Holiday (1953, William Wyler) which I pointed out to her in Rome on a spring-like day – few of which she knew!

My theory/schedules of longer periods of stay and repeated visits to a given place has aided my endeavours for in-the-field study of important subjects augmented with the minute details of history and architecture available in various writings. The day before, Carina brought me a book from a little shop across from our hotel, which I had been looking to buy for a long time. Everything comes to he who waits. This book to which the quote on the header relates, had given me the right disposition to write this article. But for me, to be in the presence of a cathedral of religious, cultural and architectural significance such as Cathédrale Notre Dame de Paris is good fodder in that respect.

We have now moved closer to the cathedral. From where we sat, we could clearly view the features of the major divisions of the west façade crowned by two towers. Dissimilar in size, the towers rose from a parapet or pierced cornice which surmounts an open arcaded screen of gigantic proportions. The spires for the two towers of Notre Dame, originally planned by the builders, were never made.

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At the top of the towers are open arcades and small turrets where the staircases end. The panoramic view of Paris from up there is also complimented by the full structural beauty of the cathedral – its grand arrangement of flying buttresses, the great roof ridge, fléche (built in 1859-60 since the ancient fléche was destroyed in 1787), the circular chevet, the host of statues, gargoyles and other sculptured ornaments.

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Atop the south tower, one can see the great bell or bourdon of the cathedral which was re-foundered and re-baptized “Emmanuel” (Emmanuel-Louise-Thérèse) in 1686 in honour of Louis XIV, and Marie-Thérèse of Austria. According to a book by Esther Singleton, it was originally named “Jacqueline“ in honour of Jacqueline de la Grange, the wife of Jean de Montaigu (about 1349 – 1409) who had presented the bell in 1400 (very interesting – must read up this history). You could listen to the sound of Emmanuel, topping over the other bells, in Youtube videos featuring liturgical ceremonies of the cathedral.

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Under the division containing the wheel window is the Gallery of (28) Kings running across the entire façade. The figures we see now are restorations. Directly below, on ground level, are the three great portals – all asymmetrical in height and width and in sculptural subjects.

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Le Portail du Jugement – Central doorway

The Portal of the Last Judgment (Le Portail du Jugement) occupies the central doorway with The Portal of the Virgin (Le Portail de la Vierge) on the left, and commemorating the Blessed Virgin’s mother is The Portal of Saint Anne (Le Portail Sainte-Anne) to the right which is a composite work carved during Maurice’s time (between 1160-1170) but was set up only after Eudes de Sully took over the work of the west façade.

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Le Portail de la Vierge – Left doorway

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Le Portail Sainte-Anne – Right doorway

It was outside on the porch of the cathedral, in front of the “architectural glory of France”, that the marriage of King Henri of Navarre with Marguerite de Valois took place on August 18, 1572, owing that the King was a Huguenot at that time. In May 1625, the marriage of Charles I of England to the French princess Henrietta Maria (youngest daughter of King Henri IV of France and Marie de Medici) took place by proxy with the west façade as the backdrop (2)(3) (4),

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Dedicated to the Virgin Mary (Notre-Dame), the edifice was subjected to reckless mutilation between 1699 and 1753 when the Cloister, the stalls of the sixteenth century, the old high altar, many sepulchral monuments, and stained glass were destroyed – yet, considering the vicissitudes through which the cathedral has passed, it’s a blessing that so much remained unaltered in contour and general effect and also much of original sculpture has been preserved. While the mid-19th century restorer, Eugéne Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc has outshot the others in proving his efficiency for all of the present state of skilful restorations of Notre-Dame which included aesthetic and structural improvements; at any rate, Bishop Maurice de Sully, the ancient designers and premier massons (5) of the cathedral have ensured that everything was essentially arranged to concentrate the eye on the chief altar, and to provide dignity to its position.

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18Ever since the consecration of its main altar in 1182, the cathedral with its vast open space to accommodate the ever-numerous believers has served the religious services and frequent synods. I read somewhere that St. Dominic preached there. The new-born heir was blessed at its altar. Emperors were crowned there. Standing before the altar of the cathedral on December 2, 1804, Napoleon Bonaparte took the crown from Pope Pius VII (1742 -1823) and crowned himself. For being the venue, it was decorated for spectacular royal marriages like the fairy-tale wedding of Emperor Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte (Napoleon III) and Empress Eugenie (Spanish Eugénie du Derje de Montijo, Comtesse de Teba) in January, 1853, Little more than 100 years later, Princess Françoise of Bourbon-Parma married Prince Edouard de Lobkowicz there in January, 1960.

Prior to ceremonial interment of Saint Louis (Louis IX (1214 – 1270) at St. Denis, his body (having undergone the process known as mos Teutonicus) lay in state at Notre Dame – a custom followed for many French monarchs and princes. In October 1895, the cathedral was the venue for the State funeral of French chemist and microbiologist Louis Pasteur (reinterred at the Institut Pasteur). When Gen. Charles de Gaulle died in 1970, it was in Notre Dame de Paris, (the very place where gunshots were fired at him in August 1944), where the heads of nations gathered for a Requiem Mass on the day the funeral was held at his home village, Colombey-les-Deus-Églises where he was laid to rest by the grave of his daughter Anna.

19Bound in the developments of the times, Notre Dame de Paris had also served as a meeting place for trade unions, dormitory for the homeless, location for movies, while its nave was once used to store wine casks. According to media reports, in May 2013, a French historian pulled out a shotgun and shot himself dead in the cathedral.

Periodical repairs and modifications were done to redress the wear and tear it suffered by time, climate, intolerance and ignorance. In their book, authors Jean-Benit Nadeau and Julie Barlow wrote that by the middle of the 19th century, the cathedral had fallen into such neglect that authorities considered demolishing it and using the stones to build bridges. The restoration of the cathedral finally came when the government of King Louis-Philippe I (1773 – 1850) decided to counter the concerns with remedial measures.

Ever since our arrival, we had noticed that the porch of the cathedral was swarming with visitors of all shades and shapes. Right now, the line-up of people under the southern door: Portail de Sainte-Anne or St. Marcel, has swelled. It was time for us to join the queue.

Merci et au revoir. Jo

(End of Part One)

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Notes:

  • Named in September 2006 in honour of the pope who had died in 2005;
  • Charles I of England and Princess Henrietta Maria were married in person at St. Augustine’s Church, Canterbury, Kent in June 1625.
  • According to the website of Notre Dame de Paris, although masses, vespers and the sacrament of reconciliation are celebrated every day of the year, since the cathedral is no longer a parish, baptisms, marriages and funerals are no longer held there;
  • Currently, outdoor wedding ceremony packages are available for couples wanting a symbolic wedding ceremony or symbolic renewal of vows held at major Paris landmarks and in the vicinity of Place Jean-Paul II or at its fringes with Notre Dame Cathedral as backdrop. Of course, I mention here only about symbolic ceremonies.
  • Name of the first master of the work is unknown although, according to a book, a “Richard the Mason” witnessed a cathedral document in 1164.
  • I am indebted to many publications dating from the late 19th century onwards, for useful background data;
  • This article is dedicated to all the brave soldiers of India, the fallen and the living, for their courage and dedication in protecting our country from the menace lurking at our frontier.

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(©Joseph Sébastine/Manningtree Archive)

Flutter by, Melodic Butterflies

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There’s a song in the air !

        There’s a star in the sky !

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I have always found music delightful for relaxation. Lately I had been listening to music either streamed or downloaded from the web where we could find any kind of music we wish for. Unlike the effort to flip through our musical collections of vinyl albums, CDs, cassettes and videos for enjoying music in the conventional way, one needs only to flick some icons on the web, and the music comes pouring into the room. But how can I resist from admitting that I like music on physical formats, especially the tangible experience of holding a vinyl album and admiring the big cover art while it plays with the pops and cracks and imperfections of an old gramophone record.

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A week ago we were sorting out the Christmas albums in the storage shelf where they were waiting for the right time to arrive when we would let them play their joyful melodies – to experience the pleasure they would bring us.

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Waiting for Christmas! The instance reminded me of an old adage which relates that “a test for true love is a rose which has been picked on Midsummers’ Day and put away until Christmas. If it is found still fresh at Christmas, the love of the girl who plucked it and her beau will run true and flourish.” – the kind of love where the boy will kneel down and tell her that she is the sweetest, most charming and ravishing girl in the world and that he would be unable to live one more second without her! I personally know of instances like this.

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But vis-à-vis our present subject, the fact remains that listening to greater part of carols and Christmas songs surely create an effect we aspire to in our house.

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Christmas time is a warm and nostalgic time of a year – and Christmas, winter’s merriest tale, is all about the birth of Jesus Christ and cannot be rightly told without music. As it happens, throughout the festive season and often beyond – while we set up the Christmas tree and the Christmas crib, or hang up the stockings and decorations, or prepare the feast, or merry-make in the festive gathering, we play them as background music just for the warmth and joy of those seasonal melodies.

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Those are classical instrumentations by Tchaikovsky, Vivaldi, Bach, Handel, Beethoven, etc, or sung by choirs, or carol singers or by Earl Grant, Ray Conniff, Harry Belafonte, Nat King Cole, Brenda Lee, Nina Simone, Pierino Ronald “Perry” Como, Frank Sinatra, Judy Collins, Tom Jones, Fernand Gignac, Nana Mouskouri, Celine Dion, Muriel J, Jose Feliciano, Ajejandro Sanz, Andrea Bocelli, Dame Kiri Te Kanawa, Rod Stewart, Boney M and many others.

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Behind those songs were the lyrical and musical talents of folk singers, monks, the clergy, literary and musical luminaries.

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In the movies “The Alamo” (1960), “To Kill a Mocking Bird” (1962), “In the Heat of the Night” (1967), the viewer might have noticed a versatile actor named Jester Hairston who was also a songwriter/composer/conductor and singer. In 1956, Hairston wrote fresh lyrics for an earlier song he had written titled “He Pone and Chocolate Tea” and attuned in calypso rhythm but was never recorded in that form.

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The song with the new lyrics, later characterised as a Christmas carol, was titled “Mary’s Boy Child” and the world first heard of it when Harry Belafonte released it through his album “An Evening with Belafonte” (1956).

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The song was subsequently recorded by music artists such as Jim Reeves, Tom Jones, Andy Williams, Anne Murray, Dame Kiri Te Kanawa, including a version in 1978 by Boney M which is still popular like most of the Boney M songs released when they were in the prime of their time.

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Christmas carols lend an air to this festive season and over the years have spawned a variety of classics to make good cheer. In England of the olden days, groups went on “Wassailing” for “luck-visits” from house to house at Christmas time – singing carols and sharing the contents of their wassail bowls for which they expected to be rewarded with gifts, food and drinks.

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15They were considered to be the forerunners of modern day carol singers. This practise later evolved into modified versions. Then again, what is true in England is also true in Italy and in our Cochin, or everywhere.

And so, wassailing was enacted in our Cochin also when numerous groups dressed in character of Santa Claus and shepherds and shepherdesses in knee-length, floating skirts as dancers, together with their entourage of singers and musicians. They visited houses, predominantly in Fort Cochin and the coastal belt, to entertain during Christmas time.

Although this practise is slowly dying down, few groups are still active during the Christmas season. The songs which maintain great popularity in their street collection lists are “Jingle Bells”, and “Santa Claus Is Comin’ to Town” which tells of the approach of Santa Claus and his pack of reindeers.

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These songs are nice accompaniments to dancing and rather similar to renditions such as “Rudolph The Red-nosed Reindeer”, “I’ve Got My Love to Keep Me Warm”, “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree”, etc.

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20Interspersed in their collection are popular songs from movies or simultaneously, versions in local language which some enlightened ones find not ‘hip’ and very un-English without some English terms peppered in it. But if there is one carol that is generally heard here throughout the Christmas time is the English version of “Silent Night” (Stille Nacht), a reverential rendition written in German in 1816 by Friar Joseph Mohr of Austria with music added to it by Franz Xaver Gruber in 1818.

This is said to be one of the main songs (and also ‘Adeste Fideles’) the German and the English soldiers jointly sung on the first Christmas of the First World War, in 1914 when, in a spontaneous and unofficial Christmas truce, their guns fell silent for a brief period and they emerged out of their trenches into no-man’s land in a number of places along the Western Front: to exchange gifts, cigarettes and joyously sing carols and songs to commemorate the birth of baby Jesus. They knew that the war was going to last a long time and many would not live through for another Christmas Day or even see their wives back home knitting socks for the soldiers at the Front.

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This chivalry between enemies in the military air to uphold the Christmas spirit is depicted in the films: “Joyeux Noël” (Merry Christmas – 2005/French); Oh, What a Lovely War (1969/UK) (1)

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Many a Christmas carols and songs have played at the chords of the human heart with its angelic fingers: “The Twelve Days of Christmas” covers the 12 days starting with Christmas Day till 6th January (Epiphany); “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing”; “O Little Town of Bethlehem”; “In The Bleak Mid-winter”; “Joy to the World”; “We Wish You a Merry Christmas”, “Away in a Manger”; “Ding Dong! Merrily on High”; “Adeste Fideles/O Come All Ye Faithful”; “In Excelsis Gloria”, and many many more. Some of these titles are highlighted here.

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The most ancient carols known to us date from the Middle Ages. Historians contend that the word “Carol” passed from French into the English language in about 1300 and was associated with words, music and dance. Books of carols were cried about the streets of Paris as early as the thirteenth century.

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These carols shadow forth the true spirit of miracle plays, religious spectacles, and old religious legends. In most cases, they were by and large in Latin which was the medium for prayers and chants in the churches in those days. Latin being unversed to most common men of Italy, San Francesco di Assisi presented the carols in his native language – supported by theatrics.

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From there it gathered popularity, and despite occasional hindrances (such as the temporary abolition of Christmas in England in the 17th century), it survived through transitory periods spanning the medieval, the renaissance (rise of music printing and of vocal music performed with instruments), the baroque (invention of opera), the rococo (rise of comic opera and the symphony), the classicism (flowering of instrumental music), the romanticism (rise of the conductor and the golden age of the piano), the post-romanticism (dominance of mammoth orchestra), up to our time. In 1918, carols received the biggest boost when the “Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols”, a Christmas Eve service which includes carols and readings from the Bible, were adopted by King’s College Cambridge.

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People vary greatly in their way of responding to music. Tastes have altered. Then again, there is great proliferation of Christmas carols and songs, owing to the creative flair of many contemporary musicians who retain its originality.

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As for us, we treasure each Christmas of our years gone past – its virtues of humility, generosity and love. We admire the splendour of its true traditions: the birth of baby Jesus, the Christmas tree, the Christmas crib, the star, the old decorations of rosemary and bays, the holly and the ivy, the poinsettias (Flores de Noche Buena/Flowers of the Holy Night), the Mistletoe, the greeting cards, exchange of gifts, the banquet which includes plum pottage, minced pies, roast beef, Christmas ale, and of course, Santa Claus, dancing and singing….

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Although the Christmas festive season will come only once a year, our steadfast delight in the Christmas carols and songs ensure that those cherished melodies flutter around in our house, like butterflies, whatever the season may be. Enjoy your Christmas holidays! Ho! Ho! Ho!! Jo

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Notes:

  • Christmas Truce: In books: Silent Night: The Story of the World War I Christmas Truce by Stanley Weintraub; Truce: The Day the Soldiers Stopped Fighting by Jim Murphy, etc. It is also the theme of Sainsbury’s official Christmas 2014 Advertisement
  • DVD/Blu-ray of the movies referred above is available with main dealers of movies.
  • This is dedicated to Pope-emeritus Benedict XVI who received Doctorates honoris causa on 04 July 2015 for five contributions to knowledge and culture – which includes his great respect for the musical tradition of the Church and his remarkable sensitivity to the music of faith. May he enjoy blessings of good health.

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 (©Joseph Sébastine/Manningtree Archive)

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