Like all people of any nationality, the French are associated with a number of stereotypes based more on assumptions than facts. The natives of my adopted country are supposedly great lovers and terrible soldiers, well dressed and ill mannered, with good taste and a bad smell, etc., etc. To this list I would like to add one more point: they ought to have a reputation as lousy gift-givers.
I say this because a document recently came to my attention that lays bare an unseemly, distasteful facet of the French mindset: a strong tendency toward pettiness, parsimony and outright cluelessness when it comes to selecting tokens of affection.
As readers who happen to be professors of comparative literature have already figured out, I am referring to the French lyrics of “The Twelve Days of Christmas.”
Before going on, I should mention that there are several conflicting versions of this carol in French. I found one that’s just a direct translation of the English, milkers and leapers and all.
But that doesn’t serve my purpose here, which is to conduct an in-depth social-psychological examination of the indicative divergences between two cultures. For about three seconds, before lapsing into my usual blather of cheap wisecracks based more on assumptions than facts.
There’s also a clearly satirical Québecois rendition in which the lead gift on Day One, the thoughtful symbol of love that the narrator receives every single day for nearly two weeks, is “a big mess of poutine.” For the benefit of readers who don’t know what poutine is, suffice it to say that it’s more easily edible than a live partridge, but definitely not well-suited to delivery or storage in a pear tree.
But the most common version, the one that came up most often in my search results and did not seem to be a parody, deviated drastically, not to say surreally, from the original English.
Granted, the English lyrics are surreal enough, focusing almost exclusively on live poultry and what seems to be human trafficking, but this French variant, popularized by the Swiss singer Henri Dès, describes a holiday season that no one should ever have to suffer through.
Already in the opening line of each verse there’s a small but significant difference. The phrase explaining the source of the gifts is rendered as “j’ai reçu de mon ami” — I received not from my true love, but from my “friend.” Not “special friend” or “friend with privileges,” but just “friend.” From the start, we’re on a lower plane of affection, and as the song progresses it’s easy to see why.
The first entry on the French Christmas list is “un moineau tout en haut du pommier” — not a partridge in a pear tree, but a sparrow in an apple tree. Why the change of species?
I have no problem with apples, as long as they’re ripe and crisp, but a sparrow? The smallest, lowliest, unloveliest of inedible birds, considered by most to be a nuisance? It does not bode well.
This sense of unease is justified on the subsequent days, as explained below. In my comments I am presuming that the gift-giver here is a man and the recipient a woman, based on the use of the masculine form of “ami” and the nature of some of the offered items.
Day Two: deux caramels
Instead of the turtle doves, two caramels. Well, okay, who wants a bunch of flapping, squawking, guano-squirting birds in their apartment? It’s probably against the co-op rules anyway.
So yeah, a few bonbons would be great, but just two measly caramels? The guy probably picked them up for free at his doctor’s office.
Day Three: trois p’tites poules
Now we’re back to the original text: three small hens. It goes without saying that they’re French. So fair enough: this is the traditional gift, for once. But it’s a short-lived trend…
Day Four: quatre pissenlits
Is he kidding us? Four dandelions? A weed that no one even wants on their lawn, let alone in their home?
Could this be a no-budget stopgap measure to save money on Day Four because of the great expense of the precious rings coming up on Day Five? Let’s hope so…
Day Five: cinq gros poussins
Not on your life! No rings — just more chickens. Well, to be precise, “five large chicks.” But large chicks grow into small hens in less than a month, so this is essentially the same gift as on Day Three. Let’s hope to see a little more imagination on the morrow.
Day Six: six poesies
All right! Imagination indeed: six poems. So that’s why the poor sap was cutting corners with weeds and barnyard birds: he was saving up time and energy to write poetry. And not just one poem, but six!
Nonetheless, so far we’re seeing a lot of low- or no-cost homemade presents here. Yes, it’s the thought that counts, but still…
Day Seven: sept pincettes
Oh no! Just when our man was starting to show some class, his next offering is about as unimaginative as you can get: seven pairs of tweezers.
Is the gift-giver trying to tell the gift-getter something about her eyebrows? And even if she’s sprouting excess hair all over her face, what’s the point of giving her five more pairs of tweezers than she can use at once?
But we’ll give him the benefit of the doubt — anyone can make a mistake. On to the next day…
Day Eight: huit parapluies
Eight umbrellas. Hmmm. Maybe they’re in Normandy. Or maybe it’s one for each of the chickens from Days Three and Five. After all, no one likes a wet hen. What next?
Day Nine: neuf bonnets neuf
Nine new stocking caps. I find it interesting that the giver saw fit to specify “new.” It’s already obvious that he’s a cheapskate, but this implies that he seriously considered going with used knitwear instead. Always thinking about the old bottom line…
Day Ten: dix bigoudis
All right — let’s just come out and say it: this guy’s hopeless. Gift for Day Ten: ten curlers.
And I don’t mean ice skating athletes, as in “ten curlers curling,” which would be closer to the song’s original spirit, but hair curlers.
Oh yes, the way to any woman’s heart. What Richard Burton always gave Elizabeth Taylor on their anniversaries.
Only two days to go…
Day Eleven: onze pierres ponces
Why is this not a bigger surprise? Eleven pumice stones. The kind you use to scrape calluses off your feet.
Such a romantic gesture! I’m starting to think that the guy is just stopping off at Walgreens every day to see what’s in the bargain bin.
Imagine the woman’s reaction: “Oh! Thank you, Henri — what a nice surprise. Pumice stones! And a dozen of them! Almost! Well, my feet will certainly be smooth for New Year’s! [Right before they go in rapid succession into your groin if you come anywhere near me at midnight, you cheap-ass jerk!]”
Now we’re thinking, what could Henri have in store on the twelfth day to make up for all this cut-rate crap he’s been palming off as gifts? Maybe twelve golden rings at last? Even one would be nice, especially if it has a rock on it.
But noooooo — or, as we say in French, noooooon:
Day Twelve: douze ventouses
I’m speechless: twelve suction cups. Actually, ventouse has a few different definitions, but the video I found of this version of the “Douze Jours de Noël” shows suction cups on the final day. Like the kind glaziers use to install large panes of glass.
Let’s see: gold, frankincense, myrrh… suction cups! Perfectly logical.
But wait — another definition of ventouse is “bathroom plunger,” which makes a whole lot more sense here: the poor lady needs one, and probably more than a few, because the plumbing in her apartment is all clogged up.
From her flushing his other gifts down the toilet for the past eleven days.
Note to readers: No matter how many days of Christmas you celebrate every year, from zero to 365, David Jaggard wishes you very happy holidays. The next C’est Ironique will appear after the year-end break, on January 11.Favorite
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