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.

George Sand Charpentier

George Sand by Charpentier

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.

Snowy landscape Soleil Levant Chabotterie Raphael Toussaint

Snowy landscape Soleil Levant Chabotterie Raphael Toussaint


Portrait of George Sand by Auguste Charpentier. Landscape by Raphaël Toussaint.

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20 Comments to “George Sand’s Christmas memories”

  1. sauna lyon says:

    Great read. I found your website on google and i have your page bookmarked on my favorite read list!
    I’m a fan of your blog. Keep up the good work

  2. Robert Floyd says:

    What a wonderfull story from a wonderfull writer and indeed wonderfull character. There was a movie a few years back that was about George Sand and Chopin. I remember that she was ahead of her time. Would love to read some of her work. Adieu.

  3. Yes. Feel fee to print, Penny!

  4. Penny says:

    ma chere Catherine,

    are these in public domain? I would love to hang up the pictures,the
    countryside and the George Sand and I know right where I would put them.
    So may I have them?

  5. Catherine Delors says:

    George Sand had very distinctive features, as this portrait shows. Elongated face, Greek nose. She was not a classic beauty, or even conventionally pretty, but her contemporaries seemed to find her very attractive. Beautiful portrait, isn’t it?

  6. Catherine Delors says:

    Good for you, Penny! Glad to see you caught the bug of French literature. :)

  7. Penny says:

    Oh Catherine forgive this question,
    is this painting idealized or does it really look this good?
    if so, I am moving.

  8. Penny says:

    Ah dear Catherine, It finally arrived,
    my first George Sand novel, Indian. Oxford. I did not notice
    anything else that looked like a trustworthy translation.
    But first I have Princess de Cleves. I have now 2 editions of that

  9. Catherine Delors says:

    Ma Chere Penny – What an honor to do my bit to pull George Sand out of this undeserved obscurity. I fell in love with this landscape as well. It seems to reflect the atmosphere of GS’s beloved Berri countryside.

  10. Penny Klein says:

    Ma Chere Catherine,

    this is my first encounter with George Sand. I had heard of her but not read anything by or about her, so I appreciate this post. I think I should look at the Lady and the Unicorn tapestry as I have not heard of that one either. I love the landscape. you come up with such imaginitive posts.
    Bien Amicalement,

  11. Catherine Delors says:

    Thanks, Elisa, I didn’t know that detail, and I love that series of tapestries. See this prior post:

  12. Elisa says:

    When I was in high school, my music teacher showed my class an old movie about the life of Frederic Chopin. I thought the actress playing George Sand did a good job in that role.

    Also it was George Sand who took note of the famed “Lady & the Unicorn” tapesteries, calling for them to be restored and saved for future generations to enjoy.

  13. Catherine Delors says:

    Ah, Richard, certainly virtue was not George Sand’s stock in trade.

    I still found this passage evocative and charming in several regards. A reminder, for one thing, of the emotional power of Christmas, and how it now has been sadly overshadowed by materialism. Here we have two generations of children (not rich, as she says, but far from poor) who are absolutely overwhelmed by the gift of a cookie. But it’s a cookie baked in Heaven’s kitchens!

  14. Richard says:

    Catherine, I shall have to recommend this article to my daughter Genevieve, her discertation for the National French Honour Society was on G/S. It was well received. I have from time to time begged her to loan it to me to publish, alas thus far I have met with only with failure.

    I took it that Genevieve did not care much for this woman of the 19th century. It may have been Genevieve’s virtuous nature that was offended.


  15. Catherine Delors says:

    Felio – True, George Sand was a rather flamboyant character, even apart from her writing. She adopted a masculine name, often dressed like a man (though she could also be very elegant as a woman, as attested by this portrait) and counted Chopin and Musset as her lovers. Quite a life.

    Michelle – If this post can be an incentive to read GS, all the better!

    Judith – When my son was little, I always left my shoes next to his by the fireplace. And it worked!

  16. Judith says:

    I am going to look into her work some more, very interesting! I’m going to go pick out a pair of shoes to leave out for Pere Noel as well, a girl can wish…
    Happy Holidays!

  17. I second Eva’s thoughts – that was such a great excerpt. Thank you for sharing it!!!

  18. Felio Vasa says:

    This post was fabulous! I really love this portrait of her in all black too & the only color being the red, white & green from the flowers in her hair. Her description of her getting up & running barefoot towards the simple gift of an apple and how precious that apple was is just wonderful isn’t it.
    She was also known for her “trouser” wearing!
    A interesting book my brother-in-law gave me called- “Bohemians: The Glamorous Outcasts” by Elizabeth Wilson offered insight to George’s life.
    The Tousaint painting is really lovely too.
    Thanks Catherine!

  19. Catherine Delors says:

    Thank you so much, Eva! You can find some of her work at Project Gutenberg. The Devil’s Pool (La Mare au Diable) might be a good place to begin.

  20. Eva says:

    What a wonderful excerpt! I don’t think I’ve even heard of George Sands before…where would you recommend I begin reading with her?

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