Today is St. Genevieve’s feast day. She’s honored as the Patron Saint of Paris.
St. Genevieve became a nun at the tender age of 15 and devoted the rest of her life—another 65 years—to Christ. The secret of her longevity may have been her diet. She didn’t eat much more than barley bread and beans, and according to her biography, only twice a week, Sundays and Thursdays. She loosened this restriction at the age of 50 at the request of some bishops.
When Huns Attack
During the Hun invasion of what’s now France in 451, St. Genevieve’s prayers were believed to have prevented the Huns from attacking Paris; they headed toward Orleans instead. (Notice Genevieve is not the patron saint of Orleans…)
The following decade, during the lengthy Childeric siege on the city, Genevieve sneaked through a blockade to bring back much-needed grain to Paris’s starving citizens.
Death did not stop Genevieve from performing miracles. Parisians held a procession of her relics during the deadly plague of 1129 which killed 14,000 people. Spread of the disease ceased almost immediately, and many who were sick were reported to have healed upon touching her relics.
St. Genevieve’s saint day is January 3, but for centuries Parisians celebrated the anniversary of that first procession–November 26, 1129–with another procession in her honor.
Today is the first day of the first month (Vendémiaire, or “grape harvest”) of the French Republican Calendar, which was used between 1792 and 1806.
The French Republican Calendar divided the year into twelve months of 30 days each. Each month was further divided into 3 “decades”—weeks of 10 days each.
But that wasn’t enough to signify the end of the old era. The French went one step further, naming every single day of the year for a crop or plant. (Except for every fifth day, which was named for an animal or tool.)
For example, today, the 1st day of Vendémiaire, is Raisin,which in French means—you guessed it—“grape”.
Vendémiaire 9th is Panais (parsnip), the 18th is Sarrazin (buckwheat), and the 21st is Chanvre (hemp).
Horse, Donkey, and Cattle are also honored in Vendémiaire on the 5th, 15th, and 25th respectively.
Three agricultural tools are honored on the 10th, 20th, and 30th: the Tub, the Wine-Press, and the Barrel. We’re assuming this tub is for wine, not bathing. (Or both?)
There was debate as to whether the new epoch delineated by the calendar would begin in 1789, the year of the revolution, or 1792, the year of the formation of the Republic. The government settled upon the latter, marking the autumnal equinox (September 22) as Year I of the new era.
Vendémiaire 1st occasionally began on September 23, and once on September 24 (in 1804).
Around the time of the creation of the calendar, those wacky French were also establishing new-fangled standards of measurement like the metre (distance), gram (weight) and the litre (volume). Over the next 200 years the Metric System would be adopted by all present nations except Burma, Liberia, and the United States. The Republican Calendar however did not fare so well. It was abolished by Napoleon in 1806.
Nevertheless, today we urge you to imbibe the fruits of the raisin, as we toast to the New Year and to days of Auld Lang Syne. Or as the French would say, “Aux jours du bon vieux temps.”
Les vieux amis du temps passé,
Se sont-ils oubliés ?
Alors que nos coeurs ont gardé
L’amour du temps passé ?
Old friends from long ago
Are they forgotten?
While our hearts have kept
Love from long ago?
The above line was supposedly uttered by Adolf Hitler to his chief of staff Alfred Jodl, referring to his order to General Dietrich von Choltitz, military governor of Paris during the German occupation, not to let majestic city of Paris fall back into Allied hands, except as complete rubble.
In August 1944, General Eisenhower originally refused to divert troops to help the liberate Paris on the Allies’ way to Berlin; however, Charles de Gaulle threatened to take his own Free French forces anyway, alone if need be.
As Free French forces neared, the Parisians launched a massive strike and mobilized for an all-out war with the German occupying forces. The French Resistance and Free French battled the German occupying force for nearly a week in late August 1944, until Choltitz surrendered on August 25, 1944.
Choltitz is one of the most controversial figures of the Vichy France. He is seen as a hero to some for refusing to obey HItler’s orders to destroy one of the greatest cities in the world. However, in addition to having served Hitler and the Nazis faithfully during the war, he ordered the executions of numerous French Resistance fighters and destroyed Paris’s Grand Palais in the final days before the Liberation. His motivations may never be fully known, but fortunately for us, centuries-old Parisian landmarks survived the war and the battle for liberation with minimal physical damage.
On this day in 1944, Charles de Gaulle, leader of the Free French, addressed his newly liberated countrymen from the Hotel de Ville:
We will not hide this deep and sacred emotion. These are minutes which go beyond each of our poor lives. Paris! Outraged Paris! Broken Paris! Martyred Paris! But liberated Paris! Liberated by itself, liberated by its people with the help of the French armies, with the support and the help of the whole France, of the fighting France, of the only France, of the real France, of the eternal France…
We, who have lived the greatest hours of our History, we have nothing else to wish than to show ourselves, up to the end, worthy of France.
Vive la France!
Liberation Day is not a national holiday in France. Rather, the French celebrate Victory Day 1945 on May 8, the anniversary of the official end of hostilities in Europe the day after the surrender of German forces in Rheims, France.
Today (August 16) the town of Palau de Cedagne in Southwestern France celebrates Xicolatada. At 11 am on this date, residents indulge in a delicious cup of piping hot chocolate.
This 300+ year-old tradition grew out of another festival. According to legend (i.e., Wikipedia):
15 August was once a festival day, and the locals would drink quite a bit, to the point that they felt a bit ill the following morning. To feel better, the village chocolatier would offer them a hot chocolate, which he claimed was an excellent remedy. Over the years, this habit grew into a custom, and eventually a municipal association was formed to remember the tradition and to organise the distribution of hot chocolate every year on 16 August, at precisely 11 in the morning.
At the time, chocolate was imported through Spain from the Latin American colonies. Located on the border of Spain and France in the Pyrenees, Palau de Cedagne was perfectly situated along popular trade routes.
Today the hot chocolate brewing follows an age-old secret recipe, cooked up in cauldrons, by a brotherhood of well-trained “Mestres xicolaters” (maîtres chocolatiers).
As a child, I asked my father, “When was the French Revolution?”
He said, “It began in 1789.”
I asked, “When did it end?”
He said, “It’s still going on.”
* * *
Known as “Bastille Day” in English, Fete de la Federation (Holiday of the Federation) is one of the world’s most famous national holidays, but it’s more commonly known as le Quatorze Juillet (July 14).
The Fete de la Federation commemorates the storming of the Bastille on July 14, 1789. Located in the heart of Paris, the fortress was built during the Hundred Years War as the Bastion de Saint-Antoine. After the war, kings used the Bastion to hold the “evildoers”, such as con-men, embezzlers, political prisoners and Protestants.
Over the centuries the large, imposing Bastille prison became the very symbol of the tyrannical monarchy.
By 1789 France was in deep financial doodoo, in part from supporting the American War of Independence. King Louis XVI took the desperate step of calling together a body known as the Estates-General–a gathering of members of the clergy, nobles, and “everybody else”–to help solve the crisis. The Third Estate (the “everybody else” contingent) represented 97% of France’s population (Nobles and Clergy made up the other 3%) but could easily be outvoted by the other two Estates, as had happened the last time the Estates-General convened, in 1614.
“Since 1614, the economic power of the Third Estate had increased dramatically; in 1788, the popular call was to double the number of the representatives from the Third Estate so that they’d have equal voting power in comparison with the other two estates…TheParlement of Paris conceded the doubling question…but then declared that all voting would be done by individual Estates, that is, each Estate would get one vote.”
“Revolution & Tragedies in France”
Needless to say, this didn’t enthuse the Third Estate, which walked out of the meeting en masse and formed the National Assembly, joined by sympathetic clergymen and nobles. On June 19, 1789, the king locked and forbade entry to the meeting place of the newly-formed National Assembly, the Salle de Etats. Not easily dissuaded, the Assembly met on a nearby Tennis Court to take what became known as the Tennis Court Oath. Fearing that King Louis XVI would shut them out of the their new meeting place, members of the National Assembly vowed that they would not disband until they had created a Constitution for a new France, based on the principle that the government serve the people.
Tensions in Paris grew as King Louis filled the capital with Swiss and German soldiers, who were less sympathetic to the French populace than native-born soldiers. The final straw was not a shot or a massacre, but the king’s dismissal of his Finance Minister Jacques Necker. Necker had been instrumental in calling together the Estates-General, in doubling the membership of the Third Estate, and in involving the public in the financial affairs of the nation. The already discontented public saw his dismissal as an attack on their cause, and they feared King Louis XVI’s next step would be the dissolution of the National Assembly.
On July 12, thousands of Parisians marched onto the Palais Royal where a journalist and lawyer by the name of Camille Desmoulins jumped up on a table outside a cafe by the garden and was said to have yelled,
“Citizens, there is no time to lose; the dismissal of Necker is the knell of Saint Bartholomew for patriots! This very night all the Swiss and German battalions will leave the Champ de Mars to massacre us all; one resource is left; to take arms!”
In recent years, the debate about whether the besiegers of the Bastille sought to free political prisoners, or to take the weapons stored there, has favored the latter. There were only seven prisoners in the Bastille at the time of the siege. After a violent clash between the angry armed crowds outside the Bastille and the forces that guarded it, the crowds stormed the fortress, freed the prisoners, took the munitions, and reportedly decapitated the Bastille’s governor and placed his head on a spike.
The 500 year-old symbol of French royal tyranny had come to an end; the following month the National Constituent Assembly gave birth to the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen. A document which declared equality not only for all French citizens, but for all men, for all time.
Exactly one year after the storming of the Bastille, Paris hosted the first Fete de la Federation in memory of the event. Hundreds of thousands or spectators gathered around the Champ de Mars to watch soldiers and national guardsmen of France’s 83 departments march, after which King Louis gave an oath to uphold the new Constitution. He would lose his head two and a half years later.
June 6 marks the anniversary of the 1944 Allied invasion of Normandy that precipitated the long and brutal campaign to liberate Western Europe from Nazi power.
The invasion, also known as Operation Overlord, involved the landing of approximately 160,000 Allied troops, including U.S., U.K, Free French, Canadian, and Australian forces, in a single day along the heavily fortified Normandy coast. The day was scheduled to be June 5, but unfavorable weather conditions forced the landing back a day.
Contrary to popular belief, D-Day doesn’t stand for Debarkation Day.
“In fact, it does not stand for anything. The ‘D’ is derived from the word ‘Day.’ ‘D-Day’ means the day on which a military operation begins.”
Operation Overlord referred to the entire operation from the initial assault on June 6 to the crossing of the River Seine on August 19. Operation Neptune referred the beginning of the invasion, covering the assault on the beaches, and ended on June 30.
Then there was the lesser known “Operation Fortitude”. Operation Fortitude entailed a massive invasion through the narrowest point in the English Channel by the “First US Army Group” led by General George S. Patton.
Operation Fortitude was, needless to say, entirely made-up. A fictitious assault created to mislead the Germans into thinking the invasion would occur at another location. Secrecy was essential as the Germans had 55 divisions at their command in France, and the Allies could only land a maximum of 8 at any one time. Keeping the world’s largest invasion a secret was a feat almost as remarkable as the invasion itself. It required the Allies win complete dominance over UK airspace—Allied air forces suffered tremendous losses in the two months before the invasion in order to make this so. It required the UK to ferret out all German spies within their ranks and region and to force known spies to send misinformation back home.
The deception went so far as to set up a fake base for the “First U.S. Army Group” in England opposite the suspected landing site, complete giant rubber tanks, cardboard weapons, a paper mache oil pump, and scripted radio chatter.
General Patton was an obvious choice for the fictitious assault. The Germans assumed Patton—one of the U.S. most capable generals—could lead such an operation. However, Patton had been disciplined for a “slapping” incident, something the Germans found difficult to believe was true. (It was.)
“Fortitude succeeded beyond anyone’s wildest dreams. Long after June 6th, Hitler remained convinced that the Normandy Landings were a diversionary tactic to induce him to move his troops away from the Pas-de-Calais…He therefore kept his best units in readiness there, until the end of July…”
Within five days, over 325,000 troops had landed in Normandy.
The exact number of casualties and soldiers killed on D-Day itself are difficult to ascertain due to the large scale and complexity of the operation, and the conditions under which it was fought. Traditional estimates put the number of Allied casualties at 10,000 with the number of deaths accounting for a quarter of that. More recent estimates have put the number of dead alone at over 4400, a little over half of that figure Americans.
“These men came here — British and our allies, and Americans — to storm these beaches for one purpose only, not to gain anything for ourselves, not to fulfill any ambitions that America had for conquest, but just to preserve freedom… Many thousands of men have died for such ideals as these… but these young boys… were cut off in their prime… I devoutly hope that we will never again have to see such scenes as these. I think and hope, and pray, that humanity will have learned… we must find some way… to gain an eternal peace for this world.”
It’s been a while since the Europeans have really gone at each other, outside of a football match. Which is a good thing, because when they do go at it, they tend to bring the rest of the world with them.
Such was the case in 1939.
Following Germany’s invasion of Poland on September 1, 1939, Britain’s (and France’s) entry into the war on Poland’s behalf guaranteed that the Commonwealth would follow, including lands as distant as Canada, Australia, and India.
The territorial possessions of Britain, France, Germany, and Belgium in Africa ensured that the African continent too would become one vast battlefield.
And Germany’s alliance with Japan eventually drew the United States into the war in Asia and the Pacific. Even more than first, the second conflagration earned the title World War.
The tragedy of September 1, 1939 was matched only by the exuberance of May 8th, 1945. To this day, May 8th is remembered in much of Europe and the world as Victory Day, or Victory in Europe Day. [It was already May 9th in the Soviet Union by the time news of peace hit there.]
The Allies invaded German-occupied France on June 6, 1944, a date immortalized as D-Day. Paris was liberated on August 25 of that year. Allied forces pushed their way toward the German interior over the next seven months—the U.K., U.S., and France from the West, Russia from East. It wasn’t until April 30, 1945, with the Russians on the outskirts of Berlin, that the once-invincible Hitler committed suicide in a bunker in Berlin.
A week later, German General Alfred Jodl signed the “instrument of surrender”. The following day, May 8, the German government ratified the surrender, ending the brutal six-year war that had devastated Europe.
British Prime Minister Winston Churchill addressed his people with the following…
“The German war is therefore at an end. After years of intense preparation, Germany hurled herself on Poland at the beginning of September, 1939; and, in pursuance of our guarantee to Poland and in agreement with the French Republic, Great Britain, the British Empire and Commonwealth of Nations, declared war upon this foul aggression. After gallant France had been struck down we, from this Island and from our united Empire, maintained the struggle single-handed for a whole year until we were joined by the military might of Soviet Russia, and later by the overwhelming power and resources of the United States of America.
“Finally almost the whole world was combined against the evil-doers, who are now prostrate before us. Our gratitude to our splendid Allies goes forth from all our hearts in this Island and throughout the British Empire.
“We may allow ourselves a brief period of rejoicing; but let us not forget for a moment the toil and efforts that lie ahead…”
“I personally do not know a single Frenchman who can remember the day the war officially ended in Europe. But they all remember D-Day. And their parents remember—often with tears in their eyes—the day the Great War ended, 11 November 1918…Despite all the propaganda, most Frenchmen did not consider 1945 a ‘victory’…
Dallas suggests, that despite remembrances and images of V-E Day celebrations, for the average person, be they in France, England, the United States or elsewhere, May 8 passed much as other days. The end of the war was a series of events, and ‘Victory Day’ was not as a defining a moment as history recalls…
“For the vast majority of Europeans, all this talk about VE-Days’, ‘VJ-Days’ and ‘V-Days’ was a matter of argument for politicians and, later, historians. The ‘day the war ended’ was the day the bombing stopped, the fighting ended, a loved one came home; or the day one realized the people one most cherished would never be seen again…” (Dallas)