Saturday, February 2, 2008


On Thursday a sign went up on the wall at the bottom of the steps leading to the bakery: Crepes, Face Painting, and Free Hot Chocolate on Saturday. It was, I'm sure I need hardly mention, hand-written on poster board, the letters loopy and uneven and surrounded by someone's idea of festive squiggles. I thought it a little mysterious--why have a celebration this Saturday instead of last, or next?--but accepted it. Crepes and hot chocolate are never a bad thing, and a good way to start February.

Then yesterday I had coffee with an American woman who has several French decades under her belt, and she mentioned that Chandeleur was this weekend. She recalled making crepes for fete, and a game where you held a coin in one hand and a crepe pan, with a crepe in the other. If you could flip the crepe in the pan successfully without dropping it or the coin, then you would have good luck in the coming year--at least in your crepe-making endeavors, she added wryly. That explained the crepes at centre commercial.

My American friend didn't remember what Chandeleur was about, besides the crepes, so I looked it up: it is the Catholic festival of the Purification of the Virgin Mary and the Presentation of Jesus. Which means: Christmas is about six weeks ago, and that would make Jesus six weeks closer to sleeping through the night and Mary closer to feeling like a human. So that was the religious story. The parallel story had to do with winter, and light, and warmth. I found a list of French proverbs: À la Chandeleur, l'hiver cesse ou reprend vigueur. At Chandeleur, winter stops or strengthens. Chandeleur couverte, quarante jours de perte. Snowcover on Chandeleur, forty days lost--probably until crops could be planted.

It seems wrong to complain about winter when we live on the Cote d'Azur. The ground is not frozen, and the world is turning green again because of all the rain, and now the mimosa trees are blooming, great masses of tiny yellow blossoms. So it is hard to define this as winter.

But it is dark. Since December, our alarm clocks have been going off in the dark. We have eaten dinner in the dark. C. has not needed his sunglasses to drive to and from the office: it has been dark both going and coming back. I am conscious of how much further north we live here than in America. And, even without the usual winter cold, I feel that familiar February impatience, restlessness, longing for warmth, and longing for light.

When I read the French proverbs for Chandeleur, I realized that our crepes at the rond-point were the second cousins of Punxatawney Phil. It's French Groundhog Day. Somebody went off to America a few centuries ago and maybe they forgot their crepe pan, and now, here, we have crepes and are grateful not to have snow on the ground, and, across the ocean, people look out for groundhogs. It is the same impulse: needing a sign that winter will end and light will return. It's like finding out that the stranger you just met is actually the person your friend was telling you about the other day.

With due respect to Mary and Jesus and getting through the first six weeks, I have a feeling that the need to mark this day--seven weeks, after all, after the winter solstice--may reach back further in time. Chandeleur became part of the liturgical calendar in about 500, but it had been winter at this time of year, and dark and cold, a long time before that. Maybe the Gauls were restless and eager for light, too; maybe by this point in the season, they needed a fete to pick up their spirits. Maybe Chandeleur, like so many of the churches in our area, has pre-Roman foundations.

E. and G. and I went up to the rond point this morning and shared a crepe. The commercants were taking turns at the crepe stand and, while the girls waited in line, I went over to the presse to buy a newspaper. The man next to me grumbled about the headlines, gloom and doom, as always, he said, but he seemed to be grumbling for form's sake. It was sunny and, if you stayed out of the wind, warm. The smell of warm crepes was in the air, and little children were walking around with rainbows painted on their cheeks, and the headlines seemed like they were happening a long way away.

The girls and I sat down on a bench with the sun warming our backs and shared bites of the hot crepe, the chocolate oozing out and getting on our fingers and coats despite our best efforts. People were standing around in small groups, greeting each other, shaking hands, watching the children. The sun was shining and the sky was almost cloudless. Winter may not be done with us yet, but it will be soon. There is cause for optimism.

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