January in Essoyes (2019)

January 27, 2019 at 10:56 am 2 comments


Eglise Saint Rémi, Essoyes

I have always found churches with closed and locked doors, churches that are no longer being used, churches that are no longer open to the public, a sad thing.

To me churches are places for people to celebrate, or mourn, or seek solace. Places for them to gather in community, or kneel alone in prayer. Places they can go to when they don’t know where else to go to gather strength, or wisdom, or courage, or comfort. And sometimes to express gratitude, or joy.

Like most country churches–at least in France and in the U.S., the only two places I know well–these days our church in Essoyes is closed most of the time. It has to be: as a friend eloquently summed it up one day, “Il n’y a pas assez des fidèles. (“There aren’t enough of the faithful”) to keep it open. There are no regular masses, only occasional ones, held on a rotating basis, led by a priest shared with other nearby villages.

But at least in Essoyes the church is still being maintained, and it is still used from time to time, for weddings, for concerts, for funerals.

This month I found myself inside the church on three separate occasions–two of them large public events that filled the church with people–once with people mourning, once with them celebrating. The other time I found myself inside the church completely alone, not exactly seeking solace, but finding it anyway.

The first time was on the morning of January 2, when a funeral service was held for Micheline Cintrat–a much beloved, longtime member of the community who had died on Christmas Day. I wrote about her, and the service for her that filled the church that day, here.

The second time was a few days later, on January 6, which is the church celebration of the Epiphany, sometimes known as the twelfth day of Christmas, and in Mediterranean countries, including France, known as “Three Kings Day.”

I had noticed that the church doors were ajar a few days earlier when I drove past it: this is unusual, though not unheard of.  I wondered idly why they were open, but I didn’t think too much about it. Later that day I read that the church was going to be open every afternoon until January 6, so that people could go inside and see the crèche, the nativity scene. I made a note to do so, but almost forgot to do it. Luckily, I remembered before it was too late. I went there on the afternoon of Epiphany itself, the last day the crèche would be on display until next year, and this is what I saw. dsc07915

I didn’t expect there to be music, but there was: religious Christmas songs being sung in French were softly being played through speakers. Completely alone in the sanctuary, I approached the crèche and spent a few minutes in the first pew, kneeling, enjoying the light streaming in through the windows, the peacefulness, the beautiful music; reflecting on the hopefulness of the Christmas story, thinking about how far short we have fallen of reaching anything like peace on earth. Offering up a somewhat feeble prayer that somehow we could finally, at long last, do better; and trying to suppress the inevitable thought that we never ever will. And, despite the persistence of this probable and depressing reality, I left the church feeling a little bit of that “peace that passeth understanding,” words that were drilled into my head as a child coming back to me now, meaning a slight bit more than they did then.

The third occasion was last night, when I was fortunate to be able to attend a celebration of St. Vincent. St. Vincent is the patron saint of vignerons (wine makers), and there are celebrations all around France at this time of year, led by the brotherhoods (confrereries) of vignerons. Our local celebration began in the church at 5:00 p.m., and the church was once again filled with people, this time to celebrate the excellent and abundant crop of grapes that were gathered this year; to honor and perpetuate knowledge of the traditional practices of making champagne; and to express gratitude for that part of success in winemaking that is due to something beyond all the skill and hard work that goes into it. You can call it luck, or you can call it a divine blessing. But whatever you call it, that part is beyond human control.

It began with a procession of members of the Confreries of the vignerons of Essoyes, as well as from Noé les Mallets and Loches, two nearby villages. They were dressed in traditional clothing, and there were many children involved, including one wide-eyed, and very well-behaved baby who was proudly strolled down the aisle by children not many years older than him.


After the ceremony there was a vin d’honneur —an expression that has wide and diverse specific meanings, but in this case meant a celebratory toast–in the community center, followed by a dinner/dance. I stayed for the vin d’honneur during which the highlights of the previous year were summarized and plans for the coming year were briefly outlined; and several members of the confrereries were given recognition for special achievements or service.

Then the bottles were opened, and the celebration began in earnest. I did not stay for the dinner/dance, so I can’t report on that part of the festivities. However, I can say that the spirit in the room was very convivial when I left. And, knowing France as I do, I am sure that the food was excellent; that the conversation was lively; and that the champagne continued to flow freely for well into the night.

I can’t think of a better way to close this post than with a quote from the program for the church service last night:

Saint Vincent…que le joie inonde notre monde comme la douce pluie irrigue nos ceps! Et si quelqu’orage gronde, que notre pardon et notre humour triomphent! 

(Saint Vincent…would that joy would flood our world, like the gentle rain that waters our vines…And if storms strike, would that our forgiveness and our good humor triumph!)

Janet Hulstrand is a writer, editor, writing coach, and teacher of writing and of literature who divides her time between the U.S. and France. She leads writing workshops in Essoyes, a village in the Champagne region, and teaches “Paris: A Literary Adventure” for the City University of New York each summer. She is the author of Demystifying the French: How to Love Them, and Make Them Love You. She is currently working on her next book, a literary memoir entitled “A Long Way from Iowa.” 


Entry filed under: About Essoyes. Tags: , , , , .

Remembering Madame Cintrat… Demystifying the French, in the U.S. and in France

2 Comments Add your own

  • 1. janehoppe  |  January 29, 2019 at 8:17 pm

    Lovely sentiments here, Janet. I often visit French churches to pray, feel a sense of peace and shelter (abri), and enjoy the beauty. I am sad to learn some are now locked. I always like hearing your descriptions of French village life.

    • 2. Janet Hulstrand  |  January 31, 2019 at 7:05 am

      Thank you, Jane. It’s always nice to know someone is reading, and enjoying, my reports. 🙂


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