Starting the new year, the French way
As soon as Noël is over, the time for étrennes is around the corner. Etrennes are presents given at the start of the year, and in my childhood I used to receive a small gift, usually a coin that I would use to purchase the latest issue of my favourite comic magazine, Spirou.
The favourite comic magazine of my youth, Spirou
Since the 18th century, when you give your postman his étrennes, he gives you a calendar which you hang in your kitchen until next year. When we lived in Grenoble, the postman we had was quite a character, and the season of the étrennes provided us with an entertaining opportunity to catch up with what was happening in our neighbourhood. For he was a real gossip and had a fantastic memory.
Throughout the year he would note everything that went through the letter boxes in his rounds. “How is your family in Australia?” he would ask. “The stickers they put on your children’s birthday parcels are really cute. You know the ones with the koalas? Have you heard about Mrs so-and-so? She was in hospital last week for her varicose veins and poor Mr so-and-so was looking quite miserable, he doesn’t even know how to boil an egg…”
This one-way conversation would take place while we were choosing a calendar. We were on the first floor of a six storey block of apartments and if we were lucky he would start on our floor and work his way up. That way, we would have the first choice of calendars. On other years, he would do the opposite by starting on the sixth floor and work his way down and the only calendars left would the ones with ferrets or industrial landscapes. The other drawback was that he would be completely drunk, having had an aperitif at everyone’s place and we wouldn’t understand a word he was saying (but perhaps that was a grace).
One of my favourite post calendars, starring the inimitable 2CV, or deudeuche
No matter how reluctant we were to give him a drink, worried about his ability to get home in one piece on his moped, we knew that he would record everything in his note book: how generous we were with our étrennes (“Have you had a bad year? Last year you gave me five Euros more”) and aperitif (“You know Mr. so-and-so? He only gave me une menthe à l’eau!”) So to minimise the damage, we would give him something less strong than pastis, like a glass of Beaumes de Venise, a sweet fortified wine that he fancied. I think he must have had a guardian angel, for even if there was snow on the road, he would always get home safely.
Beaumes de Venise wine that our postman drank when he came to collect his étrennes.
After the postman, it was the turn of the fire brigade, always well behaved in their impeccable uniforms. Isabella, my wife, is a nurse and she always wondered why étrennes were only for facteurs and pompiers. I agreed with her, but where do you stop? There are other professions like teachers that are worthy and yet undervalued in French society.
A fire brigade calendar
One day, there is a loud knock on our door, I look through the eyepiece and see three firemen. I say to Isabella softly so we can pretend that no one is home: “Haven’t we bought the fire brigade’s calendar already?” The knock becomes more insistent, “Pompiers, c’est une urgence !” As I open the door, they rush through our hallway and kitchen, climb out of our kitchen window and smash our neighbour’s window, as the captain explains “We fear for your neighbour. We had a call that there was a smell of gas and your neighbour didn’t answer her door”. It was dinner time and it took a while to calm down our frightened daughters, Amélie (five) and Anaïs (two). But luckily for our neighbour, the firemen intervened in time and were able to save her.
Bonne année et bonne santé !