By MARK EVANS
COVID-19 has managed to do what the American Revolution, the New Madrid Earthquakes, the Civil War, the Great Depression and two world wars could not do. It has sidelined Ste. Genevieve’s centuries-old La Guignolee custom.
Concerns about the novel coronavirus are keeping the troupe from traveling from spot to spot this New Year’s Eve, as has been the long-standing local tradition.
Just when the La Guignolee (or LaGuiannee) was first performed locally is not known. It was definitely part of the local French Canadian culture by the time the Spanish arrived in the late 1760s, though, and has remained a tradition since.
Migrating from France to Canada and then down into the Louisiana Territory, the custom originally consisted of the young men of a village dressing up in bizarre costumes and going door to door, begging food in the song.
Below is a common translation of the lyrics:
Good evening master and mistress,
And all who live with you.
For the first day of the year,
You owe us La Guignolée.
If you have nothing to give,
A chine of meat or so will do.
A chine of meat is not a big thing,
Only ninety feet long.
Again, we don’t ask for very much,
Only the oldest daughter of the house.
We will give her lots of good cheer,
And we will surely warm her feet.
Now, we greet you,
And beg you to forgive us please.
If we have acted a little crazy,
We meant it in good fun.
Another time we’ll surely be careful
To know when we must come back here again.
Let us dance La Guenille,
— La Guenille, La Guenille!
Ste. Genevieve and Prairie du Rocher,Illinois are the only u.S. communities still practicing the ancient rite.
The practice has attracted attention. In December 2019, Missouri Life magazine did a large spread on the Ste. Genevieve troupe, when writer Even Henningsen traveled with the troupe, as it sang and imbibed offerings at various watering holes. Pete Papin, long-time leader of the group, recalled that Henningsen got into the spirit of things and was “really happy” by the final stops.
His account gave statewide readers a great glimpse of the old tradition.
Others have also been drawn to study the tradition.
Dr. Anna Servaes, a teacher of French and Spanish at Schools of the Sacred Heart in Grand Coteau, Louisiana, has found that phenomenon fascinating.
Like Henningsen, she traveled with the La Guianee troupe one New Year’s Eve to observe the spectacle personally while working on her Ph.D. dissertation in Francophoners studies from the University of Louisiana-Lafayette.
Since the dissertation led to a book, Franco-American Identity, Community and la Guiannee, through University of Mississippi Press.
Others have also studied and been fascinated by the Paw Paw French, a rural dialect of French that most Frechmen cannot understand.
In fact, Pete Papin enjoys telling the story of his grandfather and longtime troupe member Albert Papin, who was a French translator for the U.S. Army during World War I. He sang the La Guignolee song for local French, who could not make head nor tail of it.
Pete Papin said it cane from “poor, hill people” in France and is still sung here by “poor hill people.”