Sunday, January 6, 2013

Comme les rois mages

On the Feast of the Epiphany I always find myself thinking of France, where they really know how to celebrate this holiday.

In 2008, for a production of Twelfth Night at Portland Center Stage, I wrote a playbill essay that began with an anecdote of spending Epiphany in France:
It is January 6, 2007 -- my third day as an exchange student in Bordeaux, France. That night at dinner, my host mother, Sévérine, brings out a flat, flaky golden cake with a metallic paper crown on top of it, and slices it into seven pieces, one for each guest. Then things get really crazy, especially to my jet-lagged eyes. Maxence, age 12, crawls under the table. Justine, 16, and her father, Guy, close their eyes tight. Guy turns the cake plate while Justine stands over it with a dangerously long knife. "Arrête!" Maxence shouts at random, whereupon Guy's hands stop moving and Justine stabs the nearest slice of cake. Then Maxence designates to whom she should serve that slice. After this finishes, I find a little porcelain tile in my slice of almond-flavored cake. The guests crown me and hail me as Queen; I suspect they rigged things so that I won, but can't figure out how.
Such are the modern-day vestiges of Twelfth Night, Epiphany, in a historically Catholic part of Europe. It's a night when bakeries from Seville to New Orleans do a brisk business in cakes with a plastic baby inside; when outwardly respectable, bourgeois French people enact an ancient, anarchic ritual. Epiphany, the "twelfth day of Christmas," is an excuse to have one last really good party to end the holiday season. It extends the egalitarian spirit of Christmas for one more night, making servants into masters and dazed exchange students into queens.
(I also wrote an Epiphany-themed blog post in 2008, but I think my playbill essay is more interesting, don't you?)

Nowadays, I count myself fortunate to live in a city where you can buy a king cake at any La Boulange, and to have found a group of friends who indulge my efforts to bring this French custom to our shores. Tonight, I'm headed to the first 2013 Olympians Festival writers' meeting at Stuart Bousel's house, king cake in tow. (Stuart is the kind of person who geeks out about hosting a party on Twelfth Night -- he even directed a production of Twelfth Night a year and a half ago.)

And, to bring this back around to my Francophilia, I was pleased to discover, a few weeks ago, that there is a catchy French pop song from 1971 that uses the Three Wise Men as a metaphor. The song is called "Les rois mages" ("The Wise Men") and was performed by Sheila.

Roughly translated, the chorus means "Like the Wise Men / in Galilee / Followed the shepherd's star with their eyes / I will follow you / Where you go, I will go / Faithful as a shadow / until the destination."

I don't think the French particularly associate this song with the Epiphany holiday (according to Wikipedia, it was originally released during the month of March), but to me, it's the perfect thing to sing while eating your king cake.


Dr.J said...

Happy 2013!
If you want to know a real Wise Men celebration have a look at my hometown "Cabalgata" (Parade) on:
the video id quite amateurish and on 2010 we were already in the middle of the "crisis" but I am told that 5500 kg of candy and over 15000 teddy bears are given to children during the parade.
The French are so mean! only one "surprise" in every cake, in Spain we have at least four!

Keep on writing, my mathematical side is sadly impressed by the steady decline in your archive from 2010 onwards! Good luck Dr.J

Marissa Skudlarek said...

Happy New Year, Dr. J. Yes, there are at least 5 blog posts I want to write... I'm working on it! But I'm busier than ever.