Handel’s Messiah: Christmas in Versailles

Handel’s Messiah: Christmas in Versailles

Now that Bandit was settled in and The Hybrid was officially/unofficially on the road, it was time to set my sights elsewhere.  Christmas was right around the corner but aside from Dominique, I still didn’t know anyone in Chartres.  For me, the holidays never held any great sway.  It was always my mother who embraced the holiday spirit.  Amidst the tumult of the move, I hadn’t even thought to buy a Christmas tree.  The only outward sign at my house that Christmas was fast approaching, was hanging on my front door – a set of gold and copper balls, used primarily to distinguish it from the other apartments.

The building is set up somewhat like a maze with 3 separate structures adjoined by a tunnel of corridors and ramps. For some unknown reason there are no markings anywhere to designate neither the occupant nor the apartment number.  I had purchased a very cute door mat when I first moved in and the ornaments happened to match them perfectly so I never took them down.  It never fails when someone visits my house for the first time that they crack a joke about Christmas having passed or my negligence at removing my decorations.

Although Christmas was absent at my house, Centre-Ville was decorated like a winter wonderland.  There were quaint wooden booths everywhere with vendors selling everything from le vin chaud (hot wine) to roasted chestnuts to crêpes. They created a mini patinoire (ice skating rink) in the center of town and everything was ablaze with light. The city sparkled.

I’ve always been a bit solitary and that year more than most I was extremely melancholy.  This was the realization of a dream. I spent my time walking the streets and peering into shop windows. Christmas is much less commercial here than in the states and it allowed the reality of my living in France to really take hold. I wanted to savor the moment. Until then, there hadn’t been a second to breathe.  I knew there were still a million things to attend to but, for once, I allowed myself to exhale and to take stock of all that I had accomplished.  It was bittersweet.

Because my family was so small, I never experienced the particular brand of celebration that tends to accompany large family gatherings over the holidays.  As a result, I fiercely guarded our few traditions.  My mother was a classically trained musician. I grew up in the church listening to hymns and classical music.  It shaped my affinity for music from a very young age.

Every Christmas Eve for midnight mass, we traveled to Trinity on Wall Street, where she was a professional vocalist. We would sit with the choir and watch mass from the rafters.  To this day, the smell of frankincense evokes powerful memories from my childhood.

My mother would often conduct performances with other choirs and Handel’s Messiah was a staple at Christmas. Over the course of my lifetime, she performed The Messiah so frequently that I knew every piece from memory and she could conduct every voice without ever looking at a sheet of music. It just wasn’t Christmas without The Messiah. This was one tradition that I couldn’t bear to give up.

Before I left New York, I tried to visit Trinity one last time to sit with the choir and hear them sing – even if it was only for rehearsal. But it wasn’t to be.  That part of my life had to remain in New York.  But Handel, I was certain I could bring with me to France.

I searched everywhere.  Surely the Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Chartres would be performing it.  The Messiah is such a beloved piece for Christmas.  But I found no mention of it on their calendar.  After searching for some time, I came across a performance in the Château de Versailles. The perfect setting.  I didn’t give it a second thought and purchased the ticket immediately. Handel’s Messiah in the Château de Versailles. It seriously didn’t get any better than that.

I decided to dress up for the occasion. Although very common in New York, I wasn’t certain what the dress code should be in France.  But it didn’t matter, I wanted to give it the appropriate gravity for the moment.  I wore a long sleeve silk blouse with a quilted floor length black skirt and high heeled boots.  But within minutes of arriving at the Château, I regretted this decision.  High heels and cobblestones are not a recipe for success.  Given my penchant for accidents, it’s a small miracle that I survived the walk to the Château intact. (There were quite a few close calls)

I arrived with only twenty or so minutes before the performance was set to begin.  There was a queue already formed to enter la Chapelle Royale. I was led into a grand hall.  It was absolutely breathtaking and befitting of the performance to come.  Everything was gilded and ornate.  The ceiling, so high it seemed endless, was covered with frescos and created the perfect backdrop to the music.  The performance was flawless. It was by far, the best performance of the Messiah I had ever heard.

As expected, the night was one giant trigger for me. Knowing how much my mother would have loved it added to my malaise but I decided nevertheless to make it an annual tribute to her for as long as I remained in France.

The performance was a wonderful commencement to my first Christmas in France. Dominique and his wife, knowing I was alone, invited me to spend Christmas Eve with them. I accepted without hesitation. It was my first invitation and I was excited to see what a true French Christmas was like.  I wouldn’t be disappointed.

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