A Christmas Carol by Françoise Ega,
A Native of the French Island of Martinique
(Written while living in France, in Provence)
Translated from French by
Dr. Hélène N. Sanko, John Carroll University
In the quiet village of Olives, in this corner of Provence located at about ten kilometers from Marseille, and framed by the little town of Allauch on one side, and the residential district of Trois-Lucs on the other, someone had made the mistake of constructing Low Income Housing. The villagers were saddened to see construction builders destroy local bushes and uproot hawthorns.
Farmers, in love with this corner of the land, were trembling with rage to see old olive trees, twisted by age and bent by all the winds that blew there, torn without pity and piled up among the reeds that had also been sacrificed.
The only things left after this cruel destruction were the little arched bridges which leaped over the Canal of Marseille, and not far from there, the GOURS.
An oasis located at about two hundred meters from the city.
The landscape offered softly rolling hills, from Pounche, from another greening village of Trois-Lucs, from the Olives, which gathered in the natural flats, gloriously graced with a real lake. The place smelled of thyme and rosemary. Sometimes the shepherds would drive their sandy sheep to pasture...
During the summer, bathers would come to wet their feet in these pale sea-green still waters. Only an imposing rural residence perched on top of a slope guarded that particular space which had been abandoned for years.
The heirs, after the death of the old owners, had left these surroundings vacant... A well surrounded by lilacs, a big chestnut tree, well-designed alleys, laurel trees and lilies spoke in favor of the deceased.
Long ago, this place which overlooked Gours had been well kept and dominated a neighboring pine grove.
But already, gangs of children from the Low Income Housing would set bushes on fire. Called in haste, the firemen would manage to limit the damage and here and there, spots of leprous land would downgrade the landscape. In spite of that, it remained a sanctuary, and the adults who wanted to relax or simply admire this free standing paradise, would always find a suitable spot.
Neighboring farmers' properties bordered these vacant lands, and these farmers carefully watched their properties in order to keep away the carefree trespassers. The farmers would appear from the pine grove or under the oak trees at the moment least expected, breaking an amorous embrace, catching the children hanging in the fig trees, protecting as best they could their blooming olive trees.
This would not prevent the people from the Low Income Housing to come back the following spring and gather branches of almond trees. So there was a standing conflict between them and the natives. It reached its peak at Christmas time because the traditional Christmas tree was no more than a young pine that the city people would go and choose among the hundred pines in the quiet of winter.
And so it was, in the freezing cold of that Christmas morning, while their children were still asleep, two of these city people had gone to the Gours. The winter had long ago discouraged people from taking walks. Warmly wrapped up, they made their way over dead leaves which like a carpet hid the familiar paths and softened their steps as they quietly walked worry free.
From time to time the man would say: "Look, how about this one!"
Maria would stop, but not approve. She would walk on the edge of the pine grove, checking with her glove-covered hand the young pines, each one as beautiful as the next. Finally she saw the one she liked, a young pine tree, a foot taller than she, already stocky and covered with pine cones, a true rival of a real pine.
François found it too bulky. He calculated that it would take a good fourth of the living room. Maria would not hear of it and François began to saw the tree. The noise of the tool broke the quietness of the air and a few birds flew away. Magneu, the farmer, became concerned.
Some of the large branches of the pine tree François was cutting down leaned toward the property limits of this suspicious landowner.
"So, it is not enough that you chase the snails and cut the fennel. You see bigger now! It has been five years that I know it! Yes Sir! I was almost there when it was born! I know it and it knows me. And this summer I stood in the shade of its branches and I watched all these foreigners degrading the Gours! Don't you ever stay home? Even in the middle of winter?"
He was facing François and Maria, rolling his angry eyes; his beret pushed backward covering his silvery hair. In spite of this bitter cold, he had not buttoned his woolly shirt and his skin had turned red.
Surprised, François mumbled:
"But this corner of the countryside belongs to no one! There are plenty of pine trees everywhere."
And with a circular wave he showed Magneu the borders of the lake.
"Ah! yes! They are everywhere! Even downtown on the Canebière at this very moment! And it is this one which grows almost on my property that you are destroying!"
"By God! Do not shout this way! I want to make a Christmas tree for my children. That is why we are taking this tree. It is not that we like to destroy anything. Besides, we are not the only ones looking for pine trees. Just listen!"
As a matter of fact the noise of several saws could be heard. Magneu listened and said:
"All the same. It hurts to hear all that! Alright, finish cutting this one down. The worst is that the day after the Eve, the whole neighborhood is covered with dead pine trees!"
He was speaking with such conviction that François felt guilty and said:
"I am only borrowing it! You see I am cutting it level with the earth, where the roots are!"
Magneu had already left.
"Let's go!" said Maria. "There is a hunter looking for a catch for his Christmas dinner; he might mistake us for a wild boar!"
The man carefully tied his green package and with his wife's help carried it to the city: there he felt better. From all sides people had joined him, coming from the path of La Valentine, Pounche, the hills of Allauch and Fondacle. They were arriving with pines of all sizes, transported on their motorbikes, on their backs, on beds of branches and on makeshift carts. The narrow city streets were filled with joy. People would call each other, compare their pines. Under an open shelter, someone had even opened a stand where people were bartering.
François and Maria's children welcomed the pine with shouts of joy and it made its entry into the apartment. They placed it in a big pail of water.
To make it stand straight, they placed a few rocks at the bottom. And while everyone was putting up decorations, François was painting the pine cones with a silvery product and Maria, on top of a step stool, was hanging balls of every color. The conversation was about the farmer Magneu, the Gours, the trees he was defending. Before long, the tree became named "Magneu's tree."
The man said to his children:
"You should have seen Magneu's tree on the hill; it was really the best; it's a blessing that your mother saw it!"
And the woman added:
"Of course it was the most beautiful and the fullest! My God! We will have to replant this 'Magneu's tree'! I would like to see his face when the farmer will find the tree at the same place: the day after tomorrow we will bring it back to the Gours!"
Everyone applauded and the tree became very important in the house; it would survive. All day long, everyone accepted to be without heat; the furnace was set at its lowest so that the tree would not risk loosing its needles.
[Santons de Provence]
It was snowing abundantly and nobody wanted to go to church for Midnight Mass. Without interruption, the family would spend Christmas Eve between the Nativity scene figurines displayed at the foot of the decorated tree and the usual pieces of furniture. The pine tree took a new dimension. Christmas Eve would be spent near it. It was the guest. The only one. Nobody in the building would knock at the door because people were too busy with their own Christmas trees. Maria sat on a chair facing the Christmas tree. She was reciting a passage from the Bible, from Psalm 44:
"My heart utters solemn words: it is to a king I dedicate my poem..."
François was the only one listening. The children had left the nativity scene and were looking for gifts because it was midnight. They were busy unwrapping the packages their parents had so carefully prepared. They were impatiently crumpling the papers selected to stimulate their curiosity. In an instant, the surroundings of the pine tree looked like the hall of a physical plant. They marveled at the toys and one by one their slowly drifted into a happy sleep.
François sadly noticed the emptiness that filled the air when the children fell asleep.
"If the pine tree were not here tonight, you would think that Christmas Eve happens only in fairy tales."
He went to the window and exclaimed:
"It's all white outside...There are at least two feet of snow...with such a cold, and all the neighbors behind closed doors, there is only one thing to do: go to bed."
Maria joined him but she could not stop feasting her eyes at the postcard sight of the lamp poles lighting the city.
Noël! A White Christmas, just like the one she had wished for!
The parked cars in front of the buildings had disappeared under the snow. The garbage cans, the keeper had set out had also disappeared. Here and there they looked like little icebergs. The neighboring meadow was all dressed up. All the junk left by the passing gypsies had vanished, leveled under the white carpet. Everything was neat, clean, renewed. Overwhelmed by such beauty, Maria exclaimed:
"My God! This is so beautiful!"
She realized that she was alone, exhausted. François was sleeping like a log. She, however, did not feel like sleeping. She turned off the light and returned to her chair and gazed at the tree blinking at her, all decked up with its garland of electric lights. There was a coming and going effect of light, and at a regular pace, the shadow of the tree seemed to touch her.
"It is dancing," she thought, "it is dancing with joy."
She found herself humming a waltz: "The exquisite moment, which enchants you..."
And the tree was inviting her to a dance and she was dancing.... dancing....
Translated by Dr. Hélène N. Sanko
Summer 2000/ Summer Fellowship/ John Carroll University
For information about Santons de France, Provence, see