No one knows how to celebrate the Assumption like the supposedly secular French, says Peter Newsham
post-Revolutionary France is a robustly secular country which severed the ties between Church and State when the new order was established in 1789. It contrasts sharply with Britain, which, despite the "Glorious Revolution" of 1689, has never so thoroughly overturned the social and economic order and still retains the Head of State as the titular religious leader of the country.
Yet although French society, as well as the country's government and major institutions, is zealously secular, the rhythm of the working year finds echoes in the calendar of the Church's feasts. Good Friday, the feasts of the Ascension and the Assumption and All Saints are all national holidays in France. In Britain, ironically, they are celebrated only as religious events, while many public holidays, such as the various "bank" holidays, tend to have a more secular emphasis.
Even in British Catholic schools which, until comparatively recently, retained the more European tradition of celebrating religious feastdays with a holiday, there has been an increasing secularisation, The celebration of All Saints, Ascension. Corpus Christi and SS Peter and Paul by a day off school (much appreciated by both pupils and teachers) has been curtailed probably as a result of the widespread belief among the British education establishment that there is a mathematical equivalence between the time spent in school and the quantity of learning which takes place.
Medieval Christianity, which once lay at the heart of religious, political, social and economic life in Europe, has left its imprint on modem society in the Old World. The vestigial influence of Christian traditions, together with the rhythm of work on the land, remain an axis around which much of life is arranged in Europe.
France, especially in the south, along with other Euro pean countries bordering the Mediterranean, has a profound affection for the Church's legacy in both its buildings and its traditions. Its secular society, of whom only a minority practise, demonstrate a tolerance and a respect for the Faith which has shaped the cultural landscape which goes beyond a love of conserving something old and beautiful. Catholicism may not be enshrined in the Napoleonic code but it is deep within the French psyche.
The celebration of the great feasts of the Church's year in France is an intriguing mix of the sacred and the secular. Because many of these feasts are also designated as national holidays, alongside the religious celebration there is also a strong element of the carnival, if not the downright carnal. The presence of what looks like the biggest funfair in the world along the south bank of the Seine in Rouen in the first part of November is not merely fortuitous — it is carefully timed to coincide with the feast of Toussaint. To go to Mass in the morning, visit the family graves after lunch and have a riotous time at the funfair in the evening may seem irreverent to those of a Protestant persuasion, or even to northem European Catholics, but it is a way of marking the feast of All Saints which is familiar to many people in France.
The contrast between northern Europe, and perhaps especially Britain, in which there is a residual indifference to religion unless it has political ramifications, is stark. Here, the restrained and sombre, monochrome celebration of the Church's feasts is more redolent of Reformation northern Europe. But in the Latinised and indulgent spectacles of Europe's south, in which Mediterranean colour and elemental emotions surface, what we used to call "occasions of sin" jostle alongside devotion and piety to remind us of the need for forgiveness.
Castelfranc is a bastide village, (a type of fortified medieval "new town" built to resist English occupation in the 14th century), on the River Lot 15 miles downstream from Cahors, in the heart of its wine-making region. Its population of 400, only minimally diluted by foreigners (unlike many of the Dordogne villages to the north) hail mainly from the area and many have agricultural backgrounds.
The lovely 14th-century church is dedicated to Our Lady of the Assumption and the village's patronal feast of the August 15, known as the Feast of the Virgin, is enthusiastically anticipated by almost everyone, from the devout, and usually more elderly in the commune, to the younger (though not exclusively so) carnivalloving residents. The villagers' numbers are augmented by summer visitors come to do a little lotuseating in the sultry heat of August and, of course, a good knees-up is always an attraction for people within 12 or 18 miles.
The emphasis of Castelfranc's fete is on the celebration of French culture, and from the secular point of view of the authorities the religious ceremonies are at its heart. In the Catholic culture of Britain, the carefree enjoyment of a holiday is not often accompanied by religious ritual but among the vineyards of the Lot Valley it is a natural combination.
The morning of the August 14 typically opens with the "amicable" fishing competition, (as opposed to the one in which no holds are barred), which continues until 11.30 am when the anglers make their way to the salle des fetes in the main square of the village to have their catches weighed in a goodhumoured ceremony at which the mayor presides. There is a lot of joshing and trading of outrageous insults involving wet fish. and then the mayor entertains the village to an aperitif under the luxuriant plane trees which shade the square. Lunch and siesta punctuate the heat of midday after which the petanque grand prix, which began in the morning, moves towards the quarter finals and the travelling circus erects its big top in preparation for the early evening show.
There are numerous competing seductions in the hot afternoon; storytelling by the river, an antiques market in the narrow streets off the square, a noisy puppet show depicting the story of Oedipus to excited children. watercolour painting in the medieval herb garden called le jardin des sens, the displays of the work of local artists and writers in the airy rooms of the town hall and all the lazy distractions of a summer's afternoon in the south of France.
The circus tent provides a welcome refuge from the still hot evening sun, and as twilight gathers a huge crocodile of animated children, and enough adults to populate the village twice over, carry a forest of paper lanterns in a jaunty procession to the iron bridge over the . River Lot to watch the fireworks. Finally, there comes the dancing, for which everything else has been but a rehearsal. The band does its preparatory posturing, limbering up for the climax of the evening, and then, with an amazing volume they commence a whirling, heady terpsichorean nocturne which is on course to last until rosy-fingered dawn creeps into the square.
This is the same dawn which ushers in the Feast of the Virgin proper on the August 15 and a few hours later the biggest and best-dressed congregation of the year. barring that for Christmas, assembles for Mass in the beautiful medieval church which is normally used only once every month. Fr Christian Labourse and his young Romanian curate lead the feast day Mass and it is the acerbic parish priest who uses the homily to berate the congregation for their weakkneed faith. He tells them that if this were not the Virgin's feast day they wouldn't be here. He is scathing. He tells them that they only come to Mass when it suits them, and then for all the wrong reasons. At this there is the hint of a smile on the newly polished visage of the garlanded statue of Our Lady, and it is clear that Fr Labourse has not been dancing til dawn with last night's revellers.
The mayor, like everyone else, takes it all in good part. They have been dressed down like this before and, in any case, they know that it is true. But this is not a commercial culture in which the "service provider" is frightened to upset the "customers", and even though France's Mass-goers are dwindling, Fr Labourse speaks what he feels and not perhaps what he ought to say.
Outside in the sunshine the procession of villagers to the war memorial assembles and then. led by the mayor, marches smartly off from the church to honour the village's fallen. It is a linking of the civic and the religious: a suitable symbol of the entire festivity.
Afterwards, terwards. back in the square, Fr Labourse gles smilingly with the epicures, his harsh words having been left behind in church — the faint remembrance of his barbs now drowned in the bonhomie and Rivesaltes sweetness of the Mayor's post-Mass aperitif.
Everyone is marshalled for the village photograph, ordered into tiered ranks like naughty schoolboys on a precarious slope of benches and tables, later to be used for the village meal. There is a great deal of last-minute fluffing of coiffures and adjusting of profiles and then they are immortalised in front of the charming, ivy-covered house which will, later in the afternoon, be the back-drop for the Moliere comedy to be performed by the group of strolling players from Toulouse.
As the petanque competition reaches its climax after lunch the serenade of the Aubade bursts upon the village. Gaily dressed children accompanied by noisy musicians process down the narrow village streets calling at the houses to collect money for the festivities and to dispense paper flowers in exchange; it is a transaction in which no one counts the cost but everyone knows the value.
As the audience for Moliere's play disperses in the early evening, the village begins to prepare for the communal meal soon to be enjoyed together in the balmy August night from the trestle tables on the petanque ground beside the covered market. Children and their parents, neighbours, friends and visitors, and the odd pet or two engage in this deeply civilising experience of sharing a delight' ful supper together — it is a very 1 Christian and human image.
At 1130 or so, two hours later than billed, the group of discreet musicians who have been serenading the diners with lilting ballads of the Languedoc suddenly stop, and from the stage erected in the square 60 metres away comes a blast of sound, a flash of light and the sight of four young men and two pretty girls who are inviting everyone to dance the night away — again.