The music flowing from the University of Southern Maine’s Lewiston-Auburn Campus sent a clear message to the area’s Franco-American community – all I want for Christmas is “vous.”
The Mariah Carey mega-hit wasn’t actually on the set list at the French language singalong of Christmas favorites on Wednesday, December 14. The songs were mostly drawn from early 20th century standards and older folk traditions.
“Franco-Americans really like to celebrate Christmas and part of their culture is the richness of music and French songs, French carols,” said Doris Bonneau. “This is an opportunity to use your French. The words are all in French, for the most part.”
Bonneau is the treasurer and past president of the Board of Directors for the Franco-American Collection at USM. The Collection hosted the sing along to further its mission of preserving and celebrating Maine’s Franco-American heritage.
The event was open to the public. Many of the people who accepted the invitation were senior citizens. Some of them moved slowly to their seats with the help of walkers. But once the show started, their faces lit up and they swayed to the music.
“When they’re in French, it’s not like English. It takes you back to Canada or to your grandparents,” said Gail Lawrence. “A lot of the people that come here, the white-haired people, they remember their Christmases on the farm or mostly their grandparents, when they visited them. So yeah, it does take us back.”
They have Lawrence to thank for that feeling. She performed traditional French songs around the Lewiston area for years with Les Troubadours, but the group petered out as members left. Lawrence brought several of them back together to lead the sing along.
A piano provided the only accompaniment for the singers. Behind the keyboard sat Jeannette Gregoire, Lawrence’s 91-year-old mother. When some of the less fluent guests stumbled over an unfamiliar French word, Gregoire guided them back into the song with the familiar melody.
Anna Faherty has benefitted from that kind of help in the past. She is the archivist for the Franco-American Collection. Thinking back to her time as a college student studying French, she recalled how music eased the learning process.
“We listened to songs because it can be a good way for your brain to understand how words are used in a different way than regular reading out of a book,” Faherty said.
Starting with the first sing along about 10 years ago, organizers tried to appeal to as many people as possible, regardless of their fluency or age. All around were reminders of the Christmas traditions they had in common. Wreaths and garland hung from the normally bare walls of the function room. The top of Gregoire’s piano was awash in red poinsettias.
One corner of the room was reserved for the refreshment table, piled high with French meat pies called tourtières. The combination of spices in each pie was unique. Rather than keep the recipe a family secret, several bakers printed out their list of ingredients to share.
Between the food, the decorations, and especially the music, the intended effect is the same as a visit from Dickens’ Ghost of Christmas Past.
“To be reminded of those warm feelings you had of growing up in French families at Christmastime, I think that’s the goal,” said Bonneau.