Thursday, 1 January 2009

New Year's Day in 17th century France

In France, New Year's Day is known as Le Jour de l'An — or Le jour d'étrennes, day of presents, because of the very old custom of giving gifts on that day. Early in the morning, children give their mothers and fathers something hand-made, tradesfolk send gifts to their patrons, and all day long people bearing gifts make social calls to family and friends. (One wonders how it was co-ordinated: who stayed in to receive, who ventured out to call?)

The gifts were often candies, preserved fruit, sugar-plums or candied chestnuts. Confectionary could take delightful forms, disguised in the shape of a sucking pig, a ham, a hat, a boot, or even a carrot or birch rod, for example — each hollowed out to hold bonbons. Chocolate was popular during the Court of the Sun King (although I've read that by 1693, his second — secret — wife, Madame de Maintenon, had it banned — this is quite possibly untrue).

(Note: Bonbon — or bon-bon — comes from the French word bon, meaning “good”. In Europe, a bonbon is any sweet. The most simple bonbon is a sugar-coated almond.)

Then, as now, it was a day of friendship — although the gifts, at times, could carry a threatening message. After the French Revolution, for example, grenadiers presented the young dauphin with the gift of a domino made of stone and marble from the fallen Bastille. It was a sad and ironic gift, for the child was destined to die in prison. (From Mémoires sur la vie privée de Marie-Antoinette by Madame Campan.)

During the Court of the Sun King in late 17th century, the gifts bestowed could be lavish. On New Year's Day in 1679, for example, Mademoiselle de Fontanges presented the King's official mistress — Athénaïs, Madame de Montespan — with a magnificent diary, the binding studded with gems. I doubt very much that Athénaïs cared very much for this gift since young, beautiful (but not too bright) Fontanges was the King's newest love interest.

That same year, Athénaïs's son by the King, the Duc du Maine, gave her a collection of his letters to her — "Diverse Works of a Seven-Year-Old Author." Charming, no doubt, but for the fact that the collection had been edited and put together by his governess, Madame de Maintenon, a woman for whom the King was also showing rather too much interest.

From left to right, the warring mistresses: Athénaïs, Madame de Montespan; Duchess de Fontanges; Madame de Maintenon.

In 1685, her favour fading, Athénaïs presented the King with an album with covers of solid-gold. Inside were hand-painted miniatures illustrating all the towns of Holland the King had won during the campaign of 1672. By the following year, however, Athénaïs was no longer welcome in the King's company, and by November 18, 1689, while he was recovering from an operation, it was Madame de Maintenon (compiler of the Duc du Maine's letters), who turned Athénaïs away from the King's chamber.

One wonders what gifts they exchanged six weeks later, on New Year's Day.

Sandra Gulland

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