Tuesday, January 1, 2013

A New Year's Tradition: Les Étrennes

photo credit: arias.com
It has long been a tradition in France to give gifts on New Year's Day. The word étrennes (as opposed to the more generic cadeaux) refers specifically to these New Year's gifts, now usually given as signs of appreciation to the doorman, the letter carrier, and others who provide service throughout the year.

In the sixteenth century, Christmas was observed as a religious holiday, so gifts were given at the turn of the new year. So popular was the practice that it took on a poetic form. François I's court poet, Clément Marot (1496-1544), sent short, epigrammatic poems to members of the court at the holiday. Although he wrote étrennes throughout his career, in 1541 Marot published a collection of forty-one of them addressed to the ladies of the court. In each poem, he presents a gift to the lady in question.

For example, to Queen Eléonore (François's second wife and sister of his enemy Charles V) he grants accord between her husband and brother:

Au ciel ma Dame je crye,
Et Dieu prie,
Vous faire veoir au printemps
Frere, & mary si contents
Que tout rye.

Madame, I cry to heaven,
And beg God,
That you may see by springtime
Your brother and husband so happy
That everyone laughs.

To the Dauphine, Catherine de Medici, barren for the first decade or so of her marriage, he grants a child:

A Ma Dame la Daulphine
Rien n'assigne:
Elle a ce, qu'il faut avoir,
Mais je la vouldroys bien veoir
En gesine.

To Madame la Daulphine
I prescribe nothing:
She has what she needs,
But I would really like to see her
On the point of giving birth.

To Marguerite de Navarre, the king's sister, who was one of Marot's staunchest supporters:

A la noble Marguerite,
Fleur d'eslite,
Je luy donne aussi grand heur
Que sa grace, & sa grandeur
Le merite.

To the noble Marguerite,
Flower of the elite,
I give the good fortune
That her grace and greatness

And to Madame d'Etampes, the king's long-time mistress:

Sans prejudice à personne,
Je vous donne
La pomme d'or de beaulté,
Et de ferme loyaulté
La couronne.

Without wronging anyone,
I give to you
The golden apple of beauty
And the crown
Of firm loyalty.

In these brief and often mordant poems, Marot provides us a snapshot of the personalities and the concerns of the French court in 1539 --a literary version, if you will, of the Clouet's chalk portraits. One wonders if the courtiers played guessing games with the étrennes as they did with the portraits.

Though I'm no Marot, I'll follow his lead and wish you all a healthy, happy new year filled with good fortune of every kind!

[Marot's verse quoted from Gérard Defaux's edition, Classiques Garnier (1993). Translations mine.]
This post originally appeared on Writing the Renaissance on January 1, 2009.

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