A few years ago I had the pleasure of visiting the Bibliotheca Bodmeriana in Geneva (a must-do for historical bibliophiles), where the eyes feast on marvels such as a full codex of the gospel of John and a Gutenberg Bible. Among the rare court documents that Martin Bodmer collected over his lifetime sits Elizabeth I’s Christmas gift list for her courtiers; names and gifts descend in order of rank. Looking at it, you have a glimpse into Elizabethan holiday ritual. It occurred to me as a French seventeenth-centuryist that I knew little about Noël at Versailles. I turned to the fountainhead of anecdote about the Sun King’s reign: the Duc de Saint-Simon.
Louis XIV’s outspoken courtier talks about the holiday several times in his 15-volume memoires of the court. Two mentions are incidental and occur because another important event he is describing happens to take place around Christmas. A third that briefly details holiday ritual (Chapter LXXI) is tucked into a description of the religious skepticism of Louis XIV’s brother, Monsieur, Le Duc d’Orléans. Saint-Simon sets his story of the prince’s ungodliness at midnight mass in Versailles’ chapel—three midnight masses to be exact—to which Monsieur accompanied the king. The memoires describe the beauty of the atmosphere as charmed, even for Versailles: music that surpassed the opera, magnificent decoration, and extraordinary lighting. Palace celebration, trimming and all, revolved around the mass.
In the midst of this “brilliant scene,” Monsieur sat reading what looked like a prayer book. A lady-in-waiting was moved by the vision of the Duc immersing himself in the spirit of the night and remarked on it. As Saint-Simon recollects it, the Duc responded, “You are very silly, Madame Imbert. Do you know what I was reading? It was ‘Rabelais,’ that I brought with me for fear of being bored.” So much for holy music and fabulous decoration. On Saint-Simon’s read, no manner of divine celebration could stop Monsieur from “playing the impious, and the wag,” not even Christmas at Versailles.
Christine A. Jones teaches French 17th/18th-century literature and culture at the University of Utah. She writes on fairy tales, porcelain, dance and wine.