19 April, 2011

The judgment.

First there's the band, then there's the burning. 

Actually, first there's the makeup.  Mothers and fathers, dipping into trays of facepaint, turn a few classroomsful of tykes into shooting stars, black holes (!), astronauts, rocket ships and aliens.  All the while, the drumbeats and singing grow more persistent and compelling as the musicians approach the school.
We just celebrated carnival this past weekend here, due to the vagaries of the French school holiday system.  Next year, it'll be a month earlier.  But this year we danced and threw confetti, made faces and took photos of our children under a June-worthy April sky.  The theme was the universe, give or take a planet.
I was intially dubious about the little black holes, secretly pitying them in their dreary garb.  With their dyed T-shirts ripped into long strands, they resembled depressed--perhaps even seasick--octopus.  But of course their teacher had a plan.  The five-year old black holes held hands with the stars and the astronauts, coiling their way through the crowd.  Every time their teacher yelled "Big Bang!" they scattered in all directions, their costumes swirling away from their bodies.  And then they would all return to orbit her beaming, painted face. 
Confetti got everywhere.  Some of the village matrons threw candy into the air. Everyone enjoyed the percussion, with the exception of my son the astronaut, who decided it was Too Much and that he definitely did not like dancing.  But he went along anyway, solemn eyes, paper helmet and all.
Earlier in the week, it felt like high school again, only with a better soundtrack: we parents were creating the two and a half meter high alien, this year's unlucky Pétassou, which you can see here on the float, being hauled by tractor.
An Occitan (Langue d'Oc) word, Pétassou is derived from petaç, which means a strip of fabric used in piecework.  In a few rather forgotten parts of the Cévennes, one can still find a designated village person who capers about at carnival time dressed as the petassou, fully disguised from head to toe and draped in colorful rags.  This person, a sort of comical, teasing bogeyman, has special powers, as legend would have it, to cleanse the village of its year's worth of bad luck and accumulated sins.  This rather pagan ritual has been celebrated--with all sorts of attendant symbolism--since at least the Middle Ages.  Or, as a friend put it "depuis la nuit du temps" (since the night of time).

Today, in many parts of southern France, the ritual of Pétassou has evolved into something a bit more Guy Fawkesian in approach.  An effigy is made, who represents all the things that went wrong with the world in the past year.  The older children shout accusations, point fingers--and condemn him.  This time, one girl yelled about having to leave to go to junior high.  Another blamed the Pétassou for her father being in a wheelchair.  The accusations can be highly specific or quite general.  There was blaming over the war in Libya, the tsunami in Japan--and global warming.  Regardless of the charge, the ruling was the same: burning, no chance for appeal.  Next, the cardboard rockets and other costumes were dumped on the brush and branches, then the fire is lit.  A Pétassou in effigy still feels pretty pagan.
After the bonfire, I tended the drinks table at the school cafeteria.  Really, I should call it the bar.  This was an experience to be filed in my "Only in France file": along with the organic juices and iced tea, I was serving whiskey cokes, wine, beer and eau jaune.  At school. The last beverage is a simple cocktail, pastis on the rocks with a generous splash of water, which magically turns the clear amber alcohol creamily opaque.*  It's an acquired taste, which many around here seem to have fully acquired.  It also makes for limber dancing.
Le pastis, c'est comme les seins : un, c'est pas assez, et trois, c'est trop. (Pastis is like breasts: one isn't enough, and three is too much.) --Fernandel (vaudeville actor and singer from Marseille)
*If you're intrigued, make an eau jaune and add a bit of red Grenadine syrup, to make a cocktail Tomate.  And let all your sins and disappointments be burned away, whether literally or figuratively.


  1. Fantastic! What a fun celebration! And I agree that alcohol makes any school event (or child's event) go smoother. Back in the early days of our parenting, my husband and I decided to supply a case of beer at every one of our child's birthday parties. Makes for a much better time for the adults.

    One is not enough and three's too many...hilarious.

    I've been meaning to email you. We are all healthy over here...finally!

  2. Hello Rose,
    It just seemed funny on school premises, but only to me. No one got embarrassing, and the party shuttered far earlier than I would have thought...it felt like a summer party, only with some kind of pagan elements. The kids were thrilled and exhausted by the end, of course.

  3. Oh, you just brought me back 22 years with your pastis reference. I remember it well! Your school events sound MUCH more fun than ours. ;)


Thanks for visiting my blog and joining in the conversation!

Related Posts with Thumbnails