Prairie du Rocher is the only place in Illinois that will on New Year’s Eve celebrate a French custom which was brought to Illinois in 1699 and has been performed yearly by the residents of their native countrymen since the middle ages.
The French, who settled in the Prairie du Rocher-Kaskaskia-Cahokia area, surrendered themselves with all the religious, political and social customs of their native France. Among their social customs relating to the New Year was La Gui-annee.
The celebration of La Gui-annee had been a social custom in France 500 years before these people brought it to Illinois, and in that early day was an answer to certain social conditions of the time. The performers were the poor who sang with sacks in their hands and hopes in their heart of a gift of food for their New Year’s feast.
From the records of old St. Louis, La Gui-annee was being sung there in 1804. However, there was no pressure of poverty at the fort but the singers were in costume and carried baskets as well as sacks. They were using the occasion to collect food and wine for serving at a masked ball which was the next social event of the New Year.
At Prairie du Rocher La Gui-annee is strictly a social event. The residents turn on their porch lights to invite the singers. The performer s are costumed and sing one verse outside the house; the house-holder invites them in and they start their sung over. After it is finished, the singers and those present exchange New Year’s greetings and the hostess serves refreshments.
To imagine how it was, let us go back. It is 7:30 P.M. New Year’s Eve in Prairie du Rocher
You are waiting on a residential street not too far from the business district-all the houses have their porch lights on-as you look up and down the street, you see the houses bright and cheerful, still wearing their Christmas decorations. You are standing with a group of people, they too are waiting – you hear the distant murmur of voices and looking in the direction of the sound, see a shadowy group of people – you watch as they walk up the street toward you, the lights of a passing car falls upon them and you can see that they are in costume-there is someone walking ahead, leading them up the street.
The scene excites you and you find yourself trying to visualize how it would have looked two hundred and seventy three years ago-log cabins, candles flickering in the windows-a sleigh going down the street; but you have no time, you must watch to see which of the houses they will choose for their first call.
They turn from the street and go through an opening where once hung a wrought iron gate, and up the walk-they stop and stand at the edge of the porch.
You notice that everyone has become quiet – it is the strange silence of anticipation – you see him raise his arm, and you hear a cane tapping time on the porch – you say to yourself, this is La Gui-annee. The musicians start to- play and sing the first verse. As they finish, the musicians start over; this time the costumed group behind him repeats the verse.
The householder, with a flourish of surprise, throws open the door and invites them in. After they enter, you again hear the music and the song. This time they will sing it in its entirety to the “Good Master and Mistress of the house and lodgers all.”
You lean on the wrought iron fence, close your eyes and shutting out the words you cannot understand, listen to the music. It is folk music, plaintive and simple. Such music, you realize, always remains interesting and delightful – the song is ended.
Bon soir la maitre et la maitress Et tout le monde du logis Pour le dernier jour de lannee La Gui annee vous nous devez
Good master and mistress of the house And the lodgers all, good night to you For the last day of the ending year The La Gui annee is to us due.
Si vous ne voules nous rein donne dites nous le. Nous vous demondous suelemant one echinee, Une echinee n’est past gran-chose Elle n’a que quatre pieds de long; Et nous enferens une fricassee De quart-vingt-dix pieds de long
If it is nothing you will give then let us know, We ask only a pork back-bone you should bestow. A pork back-bone is no great prize ‘Tis only four feet long, in size With it we make fricassee. That ten and eight feet in length shall be.
Si vous ne voluez nous rein donne dites nous le. Nous vous demandons seulement la fille ainnee: Et nous lui ferons faire bonne chere nous lui ferons chauffer les pieds
If you don’t want to give us anything please let us hear, We only ask the oldest daughter to appear. With jolly good cheer we will her greet and we will warm her chilly feet.
Quand nous fumes aux milieux des bois nous fumes a lombre, J’ai attendue le coucou chanter et la colombe; Et le rosignol du vert bocage L’ambass-adeur des amoureaux, Va aller dire a ma maitresse Qu’elle ait toujours le cour joyeux Qu’elle ait tourjours le coeur Joyeux, point de tristesse Mais ces jeunes filles qu’ont pas d’amants comment font elles Ce sont les amours qui les revillent Et qui les empechent de dormir
When we were in the midst of the woods in shaded groves. We listen to the cuckoo sing and the turtle dove. And the nightingale of the bower green. As herald of love will go and say. That every my heart is joyous gay My heart is ever filled with joy, and sorrow not. But all the young girls that are loveless; what is their lot? It is love’s effects that keeps them wake, And will not allow them rest to take.
Nous suppliant la compagnie D’vouloir bien nous excuseer Si nous avous fait quelque folie C’etait pour nous deennuye.
We supplicate the Company it was for our recreation. If we have committed any folly to be willing to excuse us. You hear the clamor of happy voices and laughter, as greetings and good wishes for the New Year are exchanged. You look past the Christmas wreath in the window, and see the hostess with her tray; the faces of the people tell you that La Gui-annee is a warm and friendly occasion.
Soon the jovial group, accompanied by their observers, will stop at another house and repeat this performance. Thus goes La Gui-annee about the town and into the early hours of the New Year.
A look into the past of the character of the early French settlers shows that they were not ambitious for wealth or knowledge, but, as one historian describes them “were content to take the world as it came and endeavored to extract all the enjoyment possible out of life and to avoid its unnecessary cares. All were devout Catholics and punctual in the discharge of their religion duties. They were eminently a social people. Instead of settling oh separate farms, like the American pioneers, they clustered together in villages so that they might have the greatest opportunity for social contacts. Their physical wants were easily supplied and the great part of their lives was given to pleasure. The young people delighted in the dance, and this cheerful and innocent diversion was actually carried on under the eye of the Priest and the aged patriarchs of the village who frequently sympathized with the spirit of the gay assemblage. Old and young, rich or poor, met together in good feeling and with merriment. It was the usual custom to dance the old year out and the New Year in. The numerous festivals of the Catholic Church strongly tended to awaken and develop the social and friendly disposition of the people. On the morning of the Sabbath they were always found at church, but the rest of the day was devoted to social past times and hospitality and generosity were common virtues.
“Their costume was peculiar. Blue was their favorite color and handkerchiefs of that hue usually adopted the heads of both men and women. No genuine French-man in early times ever wore a hat, cap or coat. The “capot”, made of white blanket, was the universal dress for the laboring class of people. In summer the men wore a coarse blue material and in the winter, buckskin. The women wore deerskin moccasins and the men a thicker leather. With that natural aptitude for dress, which seems to belong peculiarly to their nation, the women caught up with the fashions of New Orleans and Paris with great enthusiasm and adopted them, as far as they were able. Notwithstanding their long separation by immense wilderness from civilized society, they still retain all the suavity and politeness of their race. It was said that the roughest hunter, or boatmen among them, could at any time other gay assemble, with the courage and behavior of a well-bred gentleman. The women were remarkable for the sprightness of their conversation and the case and elegance of their manners.
“The French were on friendly terms with the Indians and they could easily adapt them-selves to any circumstance, making themselves at home by the camp fires of the savage. When with modes of life and dressed like them.