This delightful short tale gave me a few questions to ponder, never having given anyone a New Year present in all my life. Have I been an unknowingly awful and stingy miser? Heaven forbid, will I have to get enlightenment from, well if not a Capuchin monk, because these are extremely difficult to come by around here, but perhaps from an afternoon cappuccino? Shivers. New Year presents? What will they think of next? Yet another retail ploy to suck the cash out of our pockets? Anatole France’s tale has an interesting little twist, as they often do. Advice from two who should have known an answer.
The practice dates back as far as Celts and Druids, who gave gifts of mistletoe to celebrate the New Year. And here I was, believing that this was an old Christmas custom. Oddly enough, the pagan Romans also gave New Year gifts and called them strenae, named after their goddess of luck, Strenia. As to which sorts of gifts, well they often gave things like gilded nuts and coins bearing the imprint of Janus, guardian of the gates of heaven, the two faced God of beginnings and time. Hence the two sources of advice on this matter in our story, or just too much interpretation?
So is it really wrong and even perhaps “unchristian” to give New Year gifts, or is it just a nice thing to do? Strangely enough, the German word gift means ‘poison’ in English. Hmmmm… Better be careful then? I guess that most people in Australia only rush to the stores around New Year either for the New Year sales or to exchange unwanted Christmas presents. Apparently however it is still relatively common to give New Year gifts in France and the UK and even in the US. Queen Elizabeth the First insisted on the practice, enjoying being showered with jewels and so on, and even made it compulsory for her subjects to do this. It had been a common practice since the days of Henry III in the thirteenth century, but fell out of favour in the UK when Oliver Cromwell and puritans came to power.
Well I never. All these years I have missed a perfectly good excuse to browse toy stores and look at all the cool stuff that wasn’t invented when I was a kid, while shopping for nieces or nephews or the kids of a dear friend. If I were to confess any sin in buying presents, it would have to be the fun I had going to Toys R Us to buy such things, before they went broke. It just isn’t the same any more buying cool stuff online for kids like my great nieces.
I hope you enjoy reading about the good Monsieur Chanterelle wanting to bring a smile to the face of his little niece back in 1696
Mademoiselle de Doucine’s New Year’s Present
N January 1st, in the forenoon, the good M. Chanterelle sallied out on foot from his hôtel in the Faubourg Saint-Marcel. He felt the cold and was a poor walker; so it was a real penance to him to face the chilly air and the bleak streets which were full of half-melted snow. He had refused to take his coach by way of mortifying the flesh, having grown very solicitous since his illness about the salvation of his soul. He lived in retirement, aloof from all society and company, and paid no visits save to his niece, Mademoiselle de Doucine, a little girl of seven.
Leaning on his walking-cane, he made his way painfully to the Rue Saint-Honoré and entered the shop of Madame Pinson at the sign of the Panier Fleuri. Here was displayed an abundant stock of children’s toys to tempt customers seeking presents for this New Year’s Day of 1696. You could scarce move for the host of mechanical figures of dancers and tipplers, birds in the bush that clapped their wings and sang, cabinets full of wax puppets, soldiers in white and blue ranged in battle array, and dolls dressed some as fine ladies, others as servant wenches, for the inequality of stations, established by God himself among mankind, appeared even in these innocent mannikins.
M. Chanterelle chose a doll. The one he selected was dressed like the Princess of Savoy on her arrival in France, on November 4th. The head was a mass of bows and ribbons; she wore a very stiff corsage, covered with gold filigrees, and a brocade petticoat with an overskirt caught up by pearl clasps.
M. Chanterelle smiled to think of the delight such a lovely doll would give Mademoiselle de Doucine, and when Madame Pinson handed him the Princess of Savoy wrapped up in silk paper, a gleam of sensuous satisfaction flitted over his kind face, pinched as it was with illness, pale with fasting and haggard with the fear of hell.
He thanked Madame Pinson courteously, clapped the Princess under his arm and walked away, dragging his leg painfully, towards the house where he knew Mademoiselle de Doucine was waiting for him to attend her morning levée.
At the corner of the Rue de l’ Arbre-Sec, he met M. Spon, whose great nose dived almost into his lace cravat.
“Good morning, Monsieur Spon,” he greeted him. “I wish you a happy New Year, and I pray God everything may turn out according to your wishes.”
“Oh! my good sir, don’t say that,” cried M. Spon. “’T is often for our chastisement that God grants our wishes. Et tribuit eis petittonem eorum.”
“‘Tis very true,” returned M. Chanterelle, “we do not know our own best interests. I am an example myself, as I stand before you. I thought at first that the complaint I have suffered from for the last two years was a curse; but I see now it is a blessing, since it has removed me from the abominable life I was leading at the play-houses and in society. This complaint, which tortures my limbs and is like to turn my brain, is a signal token of God’s goodness toward me. But, sir, will you not do me the favour to accompany me as far as the Rue du Roule, whither I am bound, to carry a New Year’s gift to my niece Mademoiselle de Doucine?”
At the words M. Spon threw up his arms and gave a great cry of horror.
“What!” he exclaimed. “Can it be M. Chanterelle I hear say such things,—and not some profligate libertine? Is it possible, sir, that living as you do a religious and retired life, I see you all in a moment plunge into the vices of the day?”
“Alack! I did not think I was plunging into vice,” faltered M. Chanterelle, trembling all over. “But I sorely lack a lamp of guidance. Is it so great a sin then to offer a doll to Mademoiselle de Doucine?”
“Yes, a great and terrible sin,” replied M. Spon. “And what you are offering this innocent child to-day is meeter to be called an idol, a devilish simulacrum, than a doll. Are you not aware, sir, that the custom of New Year’s gifts is a foul superstition and a hideous survival of Paganism?”
“No, I did not know that,” said M. Chanterelle.
“Let me tell you, then,” resumed M. Spon, “that this custom descends from the Romans, who seeing something divine in all beginnings, held the beginning of the year holy also. Hence, to act as they did is to do idolatry. You make New Year’s offerings, sir, in imitation of the worshippers of the God Janus. Be consistent, and like them consecrate to Juno the first day of every month.”
M. Chanterelle, hardly able to keep his feet, begged M. Spon to give him his arm, and while they moved on, M. Spon proceeded in the same vein:
“Is it because the Astrologers have fixed on the first of January for the beginning of the year that you deem yourself obliged to make presents on that day? Pray, what call have you to revive at that precise date the affection of your friends. Was their love dying then with the dying year? And will it be so much worth the having when you have reanimated it by dint of cajolements and baneful gifts?”
“Sir,” returned the good M. Chanterelle, leaning on M. Spon’s arm and trying hard to make his tottering steps keep pace with his impetuous companion’s, “sir, before my sickness, I was only a miserable sinner, taking no heed but to treat my friends with civility and govern my behaviour by the principles of honesty and honour. Providence hath deigned to rescue me from this abyss, and I direct my conduct since my conversion by the admonitions the Director of my conscience gives me. But I have been so light-minded and thoughtless as not to seek his advice on this question of New Year’s gifts. What you tell me of them, sir, with the authority of a man alike admirable for sober living and sound doctrine, amazes and confounds me.”
“Nay! that is indeed what I mean to do,” resumed M. Spon,—“to confound you, and to illumine you, not indeed by my own lights, which burn feebly, but by those of a great Doctor. Sit you down on that wayside post.”
And pushing M. Chanterelle into the archway of a carriage gate, where he made himself as easy as circumstances allowed, M. Spon drew from his pocket a little parchment-bound book, which he opened, and after hunting through the pages, lighted on a passage which he proceeded to read out loud amid a gaping circle of chimney-sweeps, chamber-maids, and scullions who had collected at the resounding tones of his voice:
“‘We who hold in abhorrence the festivals of the Jews, and who would deem strange and outlandish their Sabbaths and New Moons and other Holy Days erst loved of the Almighty, we deal familiarly with the Saturnalia and the Calends of January, with the Matronalia and the Feast of the Winter Solstice; New Year’s gifts and foolish presents fill all our thoughts; merrymakings and junketings are in every house. The Heathens guard their religion better; they are heedful to observe none of our Feasts, for fear of being taken for Christians, while we never hesitate to make ourselves look like Heathens by celebrating their Ceremonial Days.’
“You hear what I say,” went on M. Spon. “’T is Tertullian speaks in this wise and from the depths of Africa displays before your eyes, sir, the odiousness of your behaviour. He it is upbraids you, declaring how ‘New Year’s gifts and foolish presents fill all your thoughts. You keep holy the feasts of the Heathen.’ I have not the honour to know your Confessor. But I shudder, sir, to think of the way he neglects his duty toward you. Tell me this, can you rest assured that at the day of your death, when you come to stand before God, he will be at your side, to take upon him the sins he hath suffered you to fall into?”
After haranguing in this sort, he put back his book in his pocket and marched off with angry strides, followed at a distance by the astonished chimney-sweeps and scullions.
The good M. Chanterelle was left sitting alone on his post with the Princess of Savoy, and thinking how he was risking the eternal pains of hell fire for giving a doll to Mademoiselle de Doucine, his niece, he fell to pondering the unfathomable mysteries of Religion.
His legs, which had been tottery for several months, refused to carry him, and he felt as unhappy as ever a well-meaning man possibly can in this world.
He had been sitting stranded in this distressful mood on his post for some minutes when a Capuchin friar stepped up and addressed him:
“Sir, will you not give New Year’s presents to the Little Brethren who are poor, for the love of God?”
“Why! what! good Father,” M. Chan-terelle burst out, “you are a man of religion, and you ask me for New Year’s gifts?”
“Sir,” replied the Capuchin, “the good St. Francis bade his sons make merry with all simplicity. Give the Capuchins wherewith to make a good meal this day, that they may endure with cheerfulness the abstinence and fasting they must observe all the rest of the year,—barring, of course, Sundays and Feast Days.”
M. Chanterelle gazed at the holy man with wonder:
“Are you not afraid, Father, that this custom of New Year’s gifts is baneful to the soul?”
“No, I am not afraid.”
“The custom comes to us from the Pagans.”
“The Pagans sometimes followed good customs. God was pleased to suffer some faint rays of his light to pierce the darkness of the Gentiles. Sir, if you refuse to give us presents, never refuse a boon to our poor little ones. We have a home for foundlings. With this poor crown I shall buy each child a little paper windmill and a cake. They will owe you the only pleasure perhaps of all their life; for they are not fated to have much joy in the world. Their laughter will go up to heaven; when children laugh, they praise the Lord.”
M. Chanterelle laid his well-filled purse in the poor friar’s palm and got him down from his post, saying over softly to himself the word he had just heard:
“When children laugh, they praise the Lord.”
Then his soul was comforted and he marched off with a firmer step to carry the Princess of Savoy to Mademoiselle de Doucine, his niece.
Rue Saint-Honoré, Pissaro: The street in Anatole France’s time. Today, Anatole France metro station is 6 km away via the Boulevard Malesherbes.
corsage (Fr): Not bouquet, but bodice.
morning levée: reception.
Note on France’s text and the illustrations: Translation of The Merrie Tales of Jacques Tournebroche is by Alfred Allinson (London: John Lane, Bodley Head, 1909). Woodcuts by British artist Marcia Lane Foster (1897–1983) have been confirmed as Public Domain Mark 1.0 (free of known restrictions under copyright law). Acknowledgement to David Widger for his digital edition.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.