Uncle John Upon His Travels is a collection of letters written to children from a European tour, published in 1870, and compiled and introduced by “Aunt Esther” (John and Esther Smith). One of the letters was written from Paris on the subject of Christmas:
Your Christmas, dear young friends, will have heen past some days when you read this, and still you will not have forgotten how your roast turkey tasted. For myself, I had none; neither did anybody here in the house where I am living just now wish any other body a “Merry Christmas.” It is not the custom in Paris, although they do have the “Happy New Year.” They give Christmas presents, too, sometimes, but generally I think reserve those for New Year’s; at which time, possibly, Santa Claus may be more like himself, and give his friends, when he comes to see them, something better than a pinch of snuff!
Some things about Christmas, here in Paris, I must tell you. It was a good deal more, in one respect, like Sunday, than Sunday itself ever is; that is to say, the stores and other places of business were closed, as very few of them are upon the Sabbath. The French people — and indeed the people generally upon the continent of Europe, that is in other portions besides Great Britain — know very little about the Sabbath, except as a day to go to church in, if they like, and to rest from labor and enjoy pleasure excursions, if they choose so to do. An American, English, or Scottish Sabbath one never finds south of the English channel. But certain other days in the year are honored as the Sabbath is not. Of these there are four, Christmas, All-Saints’ Day, Easter and Whitsuntide. At some of the churches in Paris, mass, the most important and solemn of all the Catholic services, was being celebrated all Christmas day, from early in the morning till late at evening. It was so at the Madeleine, and as we were there at the eleven o’clock mass, I must tell you a few things about what I saw and heard.
The Madeleine is a very large and very beautiful church, dedicated to Mary Magdalene, called by the Catholics Saint Mary Magdalene; Madeleine being the French word for Magdalene…
The service was very lengthy, and with the exception of the fine music, to us very tedious; for it was mostly without meaning. Whenever any of the officiating priests prayed, they turned their backs to the people, and spoke only in whispers, or at least so as not to be heard. When they read from the Scripture they chanted or sang it, in the Latin language, so that very few persons, if any, understood…
The choir, a very large one, and made up wholly of men and boys, was behind the altar — which towered up very high — and so was mostly out of sight. These singers were accompanied by a full orchestra, or band, of stringed instruments, including a harp. At the other end of the church was an organ, and in some parts of the service it would respond, very finely, to the choir and instruments by the altar. At one part they sang “the Portuguese Hymn,” which in our country has the words, “The Lord is our Shepherd.” It was the only thing, from first to last, which we could understand, or which we in the least enjoyed. We came down the broad, noble steps of the Madeleine, even more thoroughly Protestant than when we went up.
Another service held in Paris on this Christmas day was quite a contrast with the one I have described. The place was very different; not a magnificent church facing down a wide street, with noble columns in front and on either side, and adorned within with frescoes, gilding, painting and statuary, but a small chapel, in the third story of a building on one side of a secluded court, entered from a narrow street. The street has a name quite appropriate, I think, considering who they are that meet in this chapel. It is the Rue des Bons Enfants — Street of the Good Children; and those who meet at the place I now tell you of are, I hope, many of them, true children of God. They are the French Baptist church, congregation and Sunday-school. The church numbers about eighty, but a good many besides the members attend, so that often their chapel is crowded..
On the afternoon of Christmas three were baptized at the French chapel. They had a sermon, then the baptism, after that the communion. It was a good way to celebrate Christmas, was it not? They have no baptisteries in this chapel, and so were obliged to use a large bath-tub. Some one asked why they did not go to the river, the Seine, which runs through Paris, and would be readily reached from the chapel. The answer was that they would not be allowed to do so. A generous gentleman, Mr. Carpenter, of Boston, who has been spending some time in Paris, suggested to them, on the occasion of a former baptism, that they should go to the river, and offered to meet the expense of carriages for that purpose. He was told that while the Government permit the Baptist, and other Protestant congregations, to hold meetings, if they do it quietly, they will not suffer them to do any thing that would attract public attention like a baptism in the river…
On Wednesday evening following Christmas they had a Christmas tree for the Sunday-school children at the French chapel. The school is not large, but those connected with branch schools in the city were present, and these, with the grown people, filled the chapel quite full. The tree was very brilliant, covered with little tapers and with gay presents, dolls and other toys, while the more valuable ones, books and such like, were kept out of sight elsewhere till the time came to distribute them. When I went in, Rev. Mr, Lepoids, one of the pastors of the church, was making an address. He was followed by Rev. Mr. Van Meter, from New York, and he by Mr. Dez, the other pastor. These addresses were interspersed with singing. They sang, too, while the presents were being handed round. One of the tunes was our “Happy Land,” and it was like home to hear them singing it. They very kindly remembered Uncle John and Aunt Esther, giving each a “Souvenir de Noel” – that is, Souvenir of Christmas, “Noel” being the word which the French use for the holiday that is so much a favorite everywhere.
From 1st to 24th December there will be a “Christmas History” article on Windows into History every day, exploring how people spent Christmas in the past through first-hand accounts in forgotten books. Please come back tomorrow for the last article in the series!
If you would like to be kept informed of new posts on Windows into History, please click the ‘follow’ button on the right of the screen.