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Christmas Eve in the South of France

December 24th, 2016 · No Comments · Abu Dhabi, France, Languedoc


I like to attend Christmas Eve services. Preferably of the “candlelight” variety. I have attended one every December 24 since I was 13 — aside from one year in Long Beach when we got the starting time of a service wrong and arrived just as everyone was leaving.

Options for church-going in this part of the south of France are not as numerous as in California, nor as obvious as in Abu Dhabi, where the whole of the city contained only three churches, located in the same few blocks of town.

The options?

I could go to the English-expat Anglican service held at 6:30 p.m. in a French Protestant church a few towns over … or I could drive to the nearby “big town” of the region, where a 10 p.m. Roman Catholic service was promised by the tourist office.

I chose the 10 p.m. service at the Roman Catholic church for two reasons: 1) I had the list of hymns the Anglicans were going to sing, and I had never heard of any of them; and 2) I like my Christmas Eve services to be closer to midnight, thank you.

As it turns out, the service was so long that it not only approached midnight, it ran right past it.

France is predominately Roman Catholic, when its citizens have any affinity for a church, and a lot of them do not.

Where we live, at least four town churches take turns having one Sunday mass per month. The more dedicated Catholics in the area thus are required to drive quite a bit if they want to attend a mass on a weekly basis.

It isn’t clear how big a problem that poses, because France has been described as the “first post-Christian society” in Western Europe.

But I digress.

If we had paid closer attention to what was going on at the Catholic church in the “big” city down the road, we would have made more of an effort to puzzle out the phrase “les jeunes de l’aumonerie” which would have conveyed some key information.

Their Christmas Eve service was going to be run in large part by the church’s kids. Teens down to pre-schoolers. Which is all fine and good, but maybe not quite as tidy in the presentation as a service run by a professional. Say, an ordained priest.

We arrived 35 minutes early because the tourist office had told us it started at 10. It was actually at 10:30.

Several people were already there. Perhaps they also had gotten their information from the tourist office. More likely, they were the parents of kids who were going to do readings or carry candles in the service. (Nothing like a kids’ service to ensure high attendance; the church was nearly full.)

The church is a big old thing, from about 1800, and is one of those French churches that don’t look much like churches. But it has pride of place, right in the middle of the old-town part of the city.

It was cold in there, which I suppose gave it verite, because the old Catholic churches in Europe don’t have heating — just lots of stone that hangs on to the cold and projects it back at you as you sit in a seat, trying to slide your head inside your jacket.

The kids did their thing, which was happy and energetic and sometimes precious but it also was a bit chaotic, as most kid-led religious events are.

The priest on the scene was fairly serene with the whole of it, in which he seemed to have little control, certainly for the first half hour. He was a man of perhaps 36, 37, with heavily Spanish-inflected French and we guessed “South American”.

After the kids were done with readings, and with leading hymns — including the French-language versions of at least three carols with which I am deeply familiar and was happy to hear, even en francais — the priest pretty much took control of a regular service tacked on to the kids’ stuff.

I don’t know if it was the priest or the audience, but more so than most Christian services no one seemed quite sure when we were supposed to stand or sit. The locals don’t attend church often enough to know? The priest wasn’t giving us enough indications? The whole thing was sort of ad hoc? Too many expats in the crowd?

The one time the priest seemed a bit huffy about sharing the altar area with teens was after communion, when the girl who was leading the parishioners in their singing (with the words projected on a screen, behind her) finished a hymn and the church went quiet and she looked inquiringly at the priest, who was at the time wiping down the chalice (a very serious undertaking, among Roman Catholics).

He heard the music stop and looked over and made a sort of winding motion with his hand that we (and she) took to mean “keep singing, I’m not done with this” — and the girl, showing grace under pressure, somehow communicated that to the organist up in the balcony, and we did another round of “Angels We Have Heard on High”.

As for “candelight” … did I mention it was an old Catholic church, and there are lots of candles burning inside because it’s dark in there? They were not distributing more candles to worshipers.

It was over at about 12:15, when it was Christmas Day, of course. (And the pope’s televised midnight mass was already in progress; you’d think individual churches would try to make sure to be finished before the Big Guy gets going, in the Vatican.)

We had been inside the church for nearly two hours. I seem to remember a Catholic friend of mine telling me he knew a priest who could do a regular mass in 26 minutes. I am confident it was not the guy we saw tonight.

Just as we hit the street, on a nice, crisp December night, the bells began banging, and everyone in that part of town knew exactly when the Christmas Eve-Christmas Day service had finished. In the middle of a holy night.


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