George Sand’s Christmas memories
George Sand is one of those novelists who enjoyed extraordinary fame and success during their lifetimes, only to become unfashionable posthumously. Let’s hope that this injustice will be repaired soon. It is about time to rediscover this great lady of French literature.
In her Histoire de ma vie (“Story of My Life”) George Sand, whose legal name was Aurore Dupin, Baronne Dudevant, writes about her childhood belief in Père Noël, the French counterpart to Santa Claus. She was born in 1804, so the scenes she recalls here took place in the very early years of the 19th century, in the family château of Nohant
Note that the French Père Noël, literally Father Christmas, leaves gifts not in children’s stockings, but in their shoes, which are to this day placed by the hearth on Christmas Eve, just as they already were in little Aurore’s time. French Christmas customs have changed very little over the centuries.
Now let’s listen to Aurore, writing here under her nom de plume of George Sand, in my translation:
I have never forgotten the absolute belief I had in the arrival through the chimney of the little Père Noël, the kindly, white-bearded old man who at midnight left in my tiny shoe a present I found upon waking up.
Midnight! ‘Tis the fantastic hour children don’t know and which is depicted to them as the impossible limit for their bedtime! What incredible efforts I made not to go to sleep before the little old man appeared!
I had both a great desire and a great fear of seeing him, but could never stay awake until then, and the next day my first look was for my shoe, by the hearth. What emotions the white paper wrapping stirred in me, for he was extremely neat and never failed to carefully wrap his offering. I would run barefoot to grasp my treasure. It never was a very magnificent present, for we were not rich. It was a cookie, an orange, or very simply a fine red apple. But it felt so precious that I barely dared eat it. There again imagination played its part, and it’s all there is to a child’s life.
I do not at all approve Rousseau when he wants to do away with the wondrous, under the guise of lies. Reason and incredulity come all too soon on their own. I very well remember the first year when doubts crept into my mind as to the reality of the existence of Père Noël. I was five or six, and I surmised that it must be my mother who put the cookie in my shoe. So it tasted less good than the other times, and I felt a sort of regret not to be able to believe any more in the little white-bearded man.
I noted that my son believed in him longer; boys are more naïve than little girls. Like me, he made great efforts to stay awake until midnight. Like me, he failed, and like me, he found, come daylight, the cookie marvelously baked in Heaven’s kitchens. But for him too, the first year of his doubts was the last year of the visit of the good old man.
Portrait of George Sand by Auguste Charpentier. Landscape by Raphaël Toussaint.