Christmas in Germany and New Year’s Day in France (1848)

This piece by Francis J. Grund appeared in the January 1848 issue of Godey’s Lady’s Book published in Philadelphia.

There is nothing so beautiful in this world of bright hopes and sad realities, as superstition. It is the vein of poetry, which runs unheeded and often unperceived through our lives, and tinges our earthly existence with hues of the unknown future. It is the dream of the heart in the midst of our presumptuous pursuits of knowledge— the magnetism of the mind, which deflects it continually from science to faith, from arrogant self-sufficiency toward the dusky regions of the unseen powers.

Nothing is more absurd than the pride of those who pretend to be above superstition. They are, for the most part, believers in fate, in accidents, in destiny, and in a thousand things which science would equally condemn, though it cannot account for their cause, however it may attempt to disprove them. We may make light of the belief in supernatural things; yet how much of nature do we see, and what little of it do we know? Can we account for a single phenomenon in nature, except by an hypothesis? Do we comprehend a single property of matter, except by inference from its laws, as far as these fall within the short compass of our experience? And what do we know about ourselves? Are not our births and deaths the eternal secrets of nature, and is not our whole life an enigma, solved only beyond the grave? Let us analyze our pains and pleasures, our hopes and fears, and they exist for the greater part only in the imagination— the most god-like quality of man— unbounded by the mathematical rules of time and space; confounding the present by the memory of the past, and configurating the future beyond the spheres. And what is superstition but the instantaneous action of the mind, or the imagination, without going through the tedium of logical deduction, and the slow and uncertain action of judgment? It is the harmonious sound of the AElolian harp touched by a simple whisper of the breeze, and yet far more accurate and true than when tortured by the artistical performer.

Godey’s Lady’s Book— Louis Antoine Godey began publishing Godey’s Lady’s Book in 1830. He designed his monthly magazine specifically to attract the growing audience of literate American women. The magazine was intended to entertain, inform, and educate the women of America.

The whole mythology of the Greeks was a beautiful superstition, and yet the source of all their poetry, from which even the Christian culls the flowers of his sympathy. Superstition is often the last stage of irreligion, and the point at which religious sentiments again assert their rights. It clings to us as the premonitor of another world, whose flitting shadows pass over our minds, without being perceived, by the senses. People in mountainous countries are more superstitious than those living in plains, because they generally have more imagination. It requires a romantic country to produce a romantic people;— so says Torquato Tasso, somewhere in his “Jerusalem Delivered,”— though the neighborhood of the ocean, or some mighty rivers may produce the same effect as high mountains. Every one knows that sailors and mountaineers are superstitious all the world over. There is not a valley or a rock in Switzerland, that has not its romantic story attached to it; the same holds of the hills of Scotland; and who, that has read Goethe’s Faust, or heard of it, does not recollect the German Hartz mountains?

But there is a superstition in early life — (When no child makes a distinction between animate and inanimate objects. Every plaything, every doll has life to it. Is that not in itself the most beautiful superstition in nature?) — which, if there be happiness on earth, is the true means of tasting it. It is the superstition of love, of faith, of lasting friendship, of unchangeable hearts. Wo to him who rudely bids those superstitions to vanish— who enlightens the faithful believer with his miscalled truths and realities, and destroys the golden age of youth and imagination with the shreds and patches of the world’s wisdom. There are men foolish enough to wish for the abolition of fairy tales, giants and dwarfs; to teach children the distance of the earth from the sun, and that the latter is not rising every day and careering through the skies, as we are told in the beautiful Greek fable, but soberly turning round its axis; that the stars are not bright diamonds or lit-tapers, but large worlds; and the moon no sweet face which smiles on the children of this earth, but a burnt-out world which may be examined through a glass! And if the moon were ten times over a lifeless chaos, it has a happy office in blessing lovers, and magnetizing glades and forests. We gain nothing by the philosophy of dissection, which destroys life by exhibiting the artery through which it once flowed. Thought, imagination, life, happiness are no subjects for the anatomist.

One of the prettiest superstitions I know, is that of children in Germany, and the whole north of Europe, on Christmas-day. They are then taught to believe that our Saviour, on the anniversary of his birth, travels all over the world to visit children that love him and their parents, to bestow upon them some token of his affection. “Blessed are the little ones,” he said; and there is not a little heart in Germany which does not, on that day, feel the truth of it in its own childish manners. From Whitsunday to Christmas the days are counted with great care, and as the nights grow longer, the approach of the holidays becomes the subject of children’s conversation. At last snow begins to cover the ground, and it is now certain that the great day is near at hand. The eve preceding the festival every child is on its best behavior, in breathless expectation of the great event, and the favors that are to be shown it by Him who loved “the little ones.” Towards dark the family are all united at the thanksgiving dinner— the tapers burn with more than usual lustre, and the father looks anxiously for the figures on the wall; for it is an ill omen to see one’s shadow obscured by the intrusion of a strange object, and portends either sickness or death during the following year. Neither will he allow them to sit down in odd numbers, for that is very unlucky; rather would he invite a stranger or a distant relative to make the number even. After dinner the children, young and old— though the latter may be let into the secret, after having pledged themselves to keep it religiously— are conducted into a darkened room, where they are left long enough to think and guess at the gifts which await them. At last the door opens, and father and mother announce “that the little infant Jesus has paid them a visit, and left them tokens of His love.” They are then conducted into another room, where the Christmas tree is dressed for their reception. It is a large evergreen with many branches, fantastically lit up with tapers and lamps, with its branches gilt or silvered over, as in the fairy tales, and suspended from them are the beautiful presents, all inscribed with the names of the donees.

For a moment all gaze in breathless silence on the brilliant spectacle; then comes the rush into the parents’ arms; the mutual embraces of father, mother and children, and, at last, a single bound to the tree itself. The boys have seen, from a distance, that the wooden horses and huzzars, the tin soldiers, the drums and trumpets, and the swords and muskets, are intended for them; while the girls look tenderly on their sweetly dressed dolls, the little tea and coffee sets, and the imitation articles of furniture, which are to constitute their little household for the ensuing year. Fruits and cakes, neatly dressed with gold leaves, are divided equally among them; but it is a rare thing for the boys— who always cherish some gallantry for their sisters— not to give up their share to the girls; and new embraces and tokens of tenderness among the little ones, follow the new division. Where the families are large, it often happens that each boy has his pet sister who receives his share of the sweet things, which she requites by some needlework especially adapted to his use. For an hour or more all are lost in joyful contemplation of their riches, and their happiness knows no limits. But the clock has struck ten, and it is time for the little ones to retire. They quit with reluctance their boundless wealth, and are long kept awake by speculating on its application. At last, nature asserts her rights— and they fall asleep still dreaming of their riches. The evening prayers at Christmas are deeply impressive, and every child repeats them with a grateful heart and in joyful accents. The elder members of the family remain together till a very late hour, and when all have retired to their chambers, father and mother indulge for a long time yet in prophecies as to the fate of the pledges of their love and fidelity.

Christmas dinner is a real love feast, at which the absent, and those who are departed forever, are kindly remembered, and at which every heart expands through the love of Him whose incarnation has made all mankind brothers and sisters, and the children of the great Parent whose throne is the Heavens. Early on the following morning the children creep out of their beds to survey their vast possessions, unmindful of the tree which the frost has painted on the windows ; for their hearts are so warm, and their fancy so bright, they scarcely know it is winter. Oh, for the recollection of that merry Christmas, and all the associations that have hallowed it in our memory! Where is the man, who, on that day, does not wish to be a child again, to nestle confidingly in some heart that loves him? Who, that does not wish back his childish superstitions and the faith that constituted his happiness? Is there a joy which knowledge has given him that equals the blissful ignorance of his early days, when his childish enthusiasm grasped the stars, and his fancy was equal to the world it conceived? There is no moment in after life at all approaching to it, if it be not that when ourselves are witness of the happiness of children, and the blessed means of bestowing it.

Quite differently from Christmas is New Year’s day ushered in in “sunny France.” It is the great conventional gala of the nation, and long and brilliant are the preparations for the festival. A hundred million francs are supposed to change hands on that day, and the shops and bazaars of the great capital— the capital of the world, as the French proudly call it— are for weeks previously dressed in their gayest attire. The gifts bestowed on that day embrace young and old, and are selected from every department of human art and industry. The French are remarkable for the taste and skillful construction of their toys, though the machinery of their steamboats is often imported from England. No people in the world dress dolls more prettily, or are more fanciful and expert in childish contrivances. Their dolls all but move— their wooden horses are almost alive, and fit for the exercise of a young voltigeur. There are field marshals, uniforms for children, tin sabres and carabines, drums and fifes, cannon and battlements, and whole fortresses constructed out of wood. Dogs, horses and elephants, lions and tigers almost as large as life, though made of pasteboard, form a very good stock of a menagerie; while fanciful pigmy carriages, with Lilliputian coachmen and outriders, and chasseurs behind, impress the mind at an early period with the state and magnificence of this world.

But here the French do not stop. On New Year’s day not only children, but ladies, young and old, receive presents, not only from their relatives and friends, but from all their acquaintances. And these presents are not merely fanciful trifles, but articles proportioned to the wealth, refinement and taste of the persons who receive them. They vary from Brussels’ lace and Cashmere shawls to a simple but elegant bonbonniere— a beautiful paper box, filled with sugar plums. “That is a matter of a few cents,” think some of my readers; but they are mistaken. They cannot buy a decent thing of the kind under a Napoleon— and some cost as high as a hundred francs. Every variety of fancy may be suited, and every purse accommodated, from the prince and the banker down to the cook and the chambermaid. The Boulevards are thronged with purchasers and loungers, while strangers in the metropolis are struck with the ingenuity, taste, refinement and fancy which are there displayed. It is impossible to describe the hundred thousand things which are there exposed for sale;— they are known in commerce only as “Paris articles,” which are exported to all the world, though they are very expensive, and composed of materials that cost nearly nothing. A thing worth six sous is made into an article worth five francs— a piece of paper, straw or cotton is turned into an ornament that may be placed by the side of porcelain or silver; shells and pebbles are made into ladies’ work-boxes; and a thousand things which would be thrown away in other countries, turned into pleasing shapes and agreeable trifles. But there are works of art, too— statuary, paintings, engravings, books, which are distributed on New Year’s day among the conoscenti, as tokens of love, friendship, respect and admiration, with ardent prayers to “remember the donors;” and I should judge that there was really no better method of making an indelible impression.

As New Year’s day approaches, every article, including bonbons, increases in price, if not in value; but would you suppose it, gentle reader, nearly all of them may, after that day, be had at half price— and some of those that were actually sold for a third of their cost— at some second hand shop, where they have been disposed of for cash. To think that you have made a present to a lady which she has changed for something more agreeable to her taste, or for ready money to be afterwards expended at the ball or the opera! The thought is absolutely shocking, entirely destitute of romance— and yet how perfectly simple and natural, after a man is accustomed to the uses of this world! Mark, I do not say that there is a single lady in Paris that would dispose of all her New Year’s presents. I have no doubt, but that she will keep some of them; but what is she to do with the rubbish— the tokens of fealty and not of affection? I have always disliked this ridiculous custom of making indiscriminate presents to ladies. It’s like paying attention to the whole sex, which is not flattering to any woman, who prides herself (and what woman does not?) on her particular attractions. Besides, it is a hard thing for a man who has many female acquaintances, to provide presents for them all, and, at the same time, to suit their different tastes, not to speak of the expense which this attempt to make one’s self agreeable entails on every male inhabitant of France, who is not absolutely a bore. And what does he get for it? A few hundred kisses— not by one and the same lady, (that would indeed be quite a different thing,) but by as many ladies as he has made presents to, and kisses too, that are not voluntarily bestowed, but merely snatched from them, for the most part in presence of witnesses! Was there ever anything so shallow and insipid? The ladies do not return the caress, they merely suffer it, and delicacy forbids that they should offer their lips! They merely present their cheeks! No doubt, lips, too, are kissed on New Year’s day; but that is against the rule, as those will recollect who have ever spent a New Year’s day in the French capital.

The day is nevertheless a great gala, and serves to rekindle many a feeling that lay dormant during the year, and would have died entirely, but for their resurrection le jour de l’an. Friends and acquaintances remember each other, and shake hands; women are pleased to look with complaisance on those who make them presents, and men are made aware, (if they forgot it during the year,) that women are dear creatures, who expect to be made happy at our hands. Children, too, are not forgotten, and though girls, in general, fare better than boys, yet all of them receive tokens of kindness and affection. No supernatural power, it is true, is made the mediator between the donor and the receiver of the gift; but even from human hands, when dear, it is acceptable, and the feelings of gratitude it awakens are more direct and pointed. The French, like all southern people, are eminently a people of the senses; their impressions are vivid, and received directly from nature or the things that immediately surround them, without passing through the magnifying lens of the imagination. The northern people of Europe may keep Christmas eve , and feast the living and the dead; the French have “a happy New Year.” They express their wishes to each other in direct language, shake hands, kiss, embrace, and make merry for the rest of the evening.

There is one advantage, however, which that day has over Christmas in Germany, viz., the presents that masters are obliged to make to servants. But then the good Germans have the same custom on New Year’s day, with this exception only, that no presents are made to any other class of society; and that the presents made consist generally in serviceable things or money. This is, in a great measure, true also in France, yet it is not uncommon for nurses to receive tokens of affection from the children on whom they attend, and the nurses, in return, make presents to the children. This manner of remembering servants is very laudable; it attaches them to their masters, and makes them look upon themselves as members of the same family. Servants, who have been for several years in the same house, always attach themselves to the children, and are respected and liked by the latter as those from whom they are accustomed to receive kindness. The respect for age, generally, is so great that children have a real regard for the domestics of the family. There are many instances in which servants, who have lived in the house of the father, are supported as pensioners in that of the son; and I have known servants who were actually serving the third generation of their masters. And I will add, that these very servants spent their last sous in buying sugar-plums for their masters’ children. New Year is of course the time for remembering and renewing these acts of kindness, and this is, perhaps, one of the finest features of the day. Everything that softens the relations of masters and servants is Christian; but that which renders the dependent servant happy, and content with his fate is actually cultivating good feelings, morals and virtue, and ought to be cherished.

But between these praiseworthy private servants and those who wait upon you at the cafes, the restaurants, and the hotels, there is, indeed, a wide difference. Those fellows, which are ready to do anything for anybody, provided they are paid, do not come into that category; and hence the abomination of being unable on New Year’s day to take a cup of coffee or a glass of wine, eat a steak, go to the theatre, or do anything else in public, without receiving an almanac worth from three to twenty-five sous as a gift from the waiter, box-keeper, or showman, for which he expects regularly from one to five francs by way of a douceur. This is really a nuisance, especially to a stranger who has been but a few weeks, or perhaps days in the place, and is thus called upon to liquidate the debt of a whole year. But you can scarcely refuse them, when you reflect that these presents enter into the estimate of their wages, and that this is the only day in which they can bring up arrears.

One species of servants, which is peculiar to France, and especially to Paris, strangers will do well not to forget— I mean the portiers, who have so large an influence on your happiness, and may serve you, if they feel disposed, a great many good turns. Every house in Paris has a porter’s lodge, with one or two servants in it; the portier and his wife— whose business it is to watch all the persons going into the house, to ask them whom they want to see,— inform them whether the lady or gentleman is at home, whether she or he receives that day, and at what time, &c. All the letters, which come to the house, are left at the porter’s lodge, who pays for them, and afterwards re-imburses himself from the different locataires on delivery, or once a week as they may agree. Newspapers and small notes are left in the same manner. At night the doors of the vast houses in Paris are closed; but you no sooner ring the bell, than the door opens, for a rope from the lock goes into the porter’s lodge, and need only be pulled to admit the person without. The porter also keeps your candle, and lights it for you when you come in at night, handing you, at the same time, the letters and notes, which may have come during your absence, describes the persons who called or inquired after you, &c.

The portiers, as my readers will readily perceive, have an almost unlimited control over those trifles of which social and conventional life is made up, and a very large discretionary power. Supposing you call on a lady and learn from the portiers that she is not at home— if you possess the art of introducing a five franc piece into the palm of his hand, you may yet learn why she does not wish to see you; and even that, in some cases, is a consolation. If, on the other hand, the lady requites the portiers better than you do, he wil tell you, on his parole d’honneur, that she is not at home, and— take the bribe as a proof of his earnest to serve you another time. There is not an important lawsuit in France in which portiers are not summoned as witnesses; but their testimony, in case they have been well paid, is always “non mi ricordo.” The portiers, if they were men of letters, could write the best novels; and, as civilization improves, they will, no doubt, write memoires. As regards the delivery of letters, and the sending of messages, they have you completely in their power. Supposing you are invited to a party, or to a cup of tea, by a lady of your acquaintance, and the portier, with whom the note is left, does not deliver it till next morning? Or somebody comes to see you, and the portier, or his wife, fancies that you are out? Or supposing that you do not want to see anybody, and the portier says you are in? All these things are necessarily vexatious, and can only be avoided by remembering the portiers — especially on New Year’s day. Whatever you may give them on that day is well bestowed, for the carnival is at hand, when you are sure to come home late one or two evenings in the week— and when you have an interest to have all your notes punctually delivered.

For a week or ten days previous to New Year, the portiers of Paris, who are proverbially the rudest people in the capital, begin to change their conduct. You never pass them without receiving a “bon jour, monsieur !” or “madame!” your letters are punctually delivered; every person that calls on you is properly noticed; and if you want a cab, the portier is ready to fetch it. All these attentions continue till he has received his New Year’s present, to slacken again on the evening of the first of January.

But the first of January is also a great day at court, on which the king receives the corps diplomatique, and on which ministers and ambassadors exchange civilities. The officers and staff call on the minister of war, and the inferior officers on the colonels of regiments, and their generals. In fact, the streets are crowded from early in the morning till a very late hour in the night; every carriage, hack, and omnibus are in requisition; and yet thousands are unable to finish all their calls, and embrace all the friends whom they wish to see on that day. New Year’s day revives old friendships, renews acquaintances, and strengthens many a tie that binds us to our kind. I love those popular gala days, and could only wish they occurred twenty times, instead of once every year.

The Germans have a regular bacchanalian way of ushering in the New Year on “Sylvester Evening.” The whole family, with a select number of old and tried friends, sit down to supper, and continue till after twelve. A minute or two before the clock strikes, the glasses are filled with the best hock the means of the company afford, and precisely at twelve they are emptied; and the company shake hands, and wish each other “a happy new year.” A great many fantastic notions are mixed up with this custom, of which it would lead me too far here to give the details. Whatever occurs during that meal portends good or evil, as the hour from twelve to one in the morning is the time for ghosts and witches to hold high carnival; and the long winter evenings in the north of Germany, where candles are regularly lit at four in the afternoon, and breakfast at seven or eight, taken by candle light, are particularly favorable to popular superstitions.

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