La Guiannee

Yeas ago I visited the  small Illinois town of Prairie du Rocher on New Years Eve, the night of la Guignonee, a caroling tradition brought from France, and I heard the Guiannèe song, complete with costumed fiddlers.

I long ago misplaced my copy of  the out-of-print The French Colony in the Mid-Mississippi Valley by Margaret Kimball Brown and Lawrie Cena Dean, probably when I moved to Jordan,  but this week I found a used copy of it, and I was delighted to find that the book has not only a description of the Guiannèe tradition, but a complete set of lyrics in French, along with a translation:

A few French customs survive to this day: on New Year’s Eve, La Guiannèe singers in Prairie du Rocher make their rounds from house to house, singing their traditional ancient song, La Guiannèe, which was brought by the colonists from France.  The singers today gather at a selected meeting place and go to homes where they have been invited.  The first four lines of the song are sung outside the door of the house.  The host then opens the door, inviting the group inside and the entire song is sung to the household and its guests.

Bon soir le maitre et la maitresse et tout le monde du logis
Pour le dernier jour de l’annèe la Guiannèe vous nou devez.
La Guiannèe vous nous devez, dites-nous-le.
Si vous voulez nous rien donner, dites nous le.
On vous demande seulement un èchinèe.
Une èchinèe n’est pas grand chose, ca n’a que de dix pieds de long.
Et nous enferons une fricassèe de quatre-vingt-dix pieds de long.
Si vous voulez nous rien donner, dites-nous-le.
On vous demande seulement la fille aînèe.
Nous lui ferons faire bonne chère, nous lui ferons chaffer les pieds.
Quand nous fûmes au milieu des bois, nous fûmes á l’ombre.
J’ai attendu le coucou chanter et la colombe.
Et le rossignol du vert bocage, l’ambassadeur des amourreaux.
Mai va-t-en dire a má maîtresse qu’elle a toujours le coeur joyeux.
Qu’elle a toujours le coeur joyeux, point de tristesse
Toute les filles qui n’ont pas d’amant, com-ment vit-elle?
Ce sont amours qui la reveillent et qui l’empêchent de  dormir.


Good evening master and mistress and all who live here.
On the last day of the year la Guiannèe is due us.
La Guiannee is due us, tell us so.
We ask only for a backbone of pork.
A backbone is not a great matter, it is only ten feet long.
We will make of it a fricassee ninety feet long.
If you have nothing to give, tells us.
We ask only for your eldest daughter.
We will give her good cheer, we will warm her feet.
When in the midst of the woods, we are in the shadows.
We hear the cuckoo sing and the dove.
The nightingale in the verdant grove, the ambassador of love.
Go tell my mistress always to have a joyous heart, without sadness.
All the girls who have no lover, how do they live?
It is love which wakens her and which hinders her sleep.

Cahokia has a Guiannèe group which joins the Prairie du Rocher group on New Year’s Eve. Ste. Genevieve also has a group and Old Mines, Missouri, the location of Renault’s mines, recently has revived their Guiannèe group.

In earlier days, La Guiannèe singers would have collected food at each stop for their celebration and ball on Twelfth Night.  This ball, on January 6th–Epiphany–the traditional end of the Christmas season, ceased to be held during World War II.  It was revived in Prairie du Rocher in 1976 and is now sponsored annually by La Guiannèe Society on the Saturday closest to the 6th of January.  At the Twelfth Night Ball, a king for the coming year is selected.  A cake with four beans baked in it is cut and distributed to all the men present at the ball.  The first to find a bean in his piece is the king, with the prerogative of choosing his queen.  The finders of the other three beans become his court.  The king and queen rule over all festivities for the remainder of the year.

Since the book seems to be out of print, I will also post some of the maps. Everything is clickable for higher resolution.

On the cover, dressed in historic French colonial era costume, is one of the authors, Margaret Brown, a historian who lives in southern Illinois .

For photos of these areas with colonial French influence, see also my road trip photos from last summer:

French Presence in Illinois: Fort de Chartres
The French in Illinois: Prairie du Rocher
The French in Illinois: Fort Kaskaskia
The French in Illinois: Ste. Genevieve

As a footnote, the Miami-Illinois branch of the Algonguian language spoken by the native Americans in these areas is now extinct, but was preserved by 18th century French Jesuit missionaries and eventually published as the Kaskaskia Illinois-to-French Dictionary. A tantalizing snippet of Maledicta by the International Maledicta Society, Maledicta: the International Research Center for Verbal Aggression tells us the chapter of Kaskaskia maledicta is on pp. 35-39. What were those Jesuits up to?

UPDATE: There is now a YouTube of the Guiannèe song:

9 Responses to “La Guiannee”

  1. Pauline Laurent Says:

    Ahh. This takes me back to my childhood. Every year on New Years Eve, many people came up on our porch and started singing this song. My dad would meet them at the door and invite them in. My dad, Elmer Laurent, loved this event. He lived for it. As every left, he’d offer them a shot of whiskey.
    I was afraid of the costumes and the crowd was pretty noisy. I’ve come to appreciate my French roots and this song. Thanks for sharing it.

    • Leola Robert Says:

      Finally I see english translation song cuz I am deaf. Wondering if Dad sang in French??? I am from Prairie du Rocher, too and I remembered very well.

  2. Pauline Laurent Says:

    Yes, Dad did sing in French. He knew the song in French, but I never heard him speak any French any other time. I think it helped him remember the song when others sang with him.
    Sometimes when he would drink, he would sing the song, even if it wasn’t New Years Eve.

  3. Nijma Says:

    A lot of the people who went on the house-to house tour were professors who had known each other for years. I have heard most wore fancy French costumes, but my professor friend always dressed as a trader, in a red Hudson’s Bay point blanket
    with a turtle shell around his neck. I never did figure that one out. He also had a small flask. He said they always started at the priest’s house because they didn’t want the priest to see how drunk they got after visiting several houses.

    I went one year, but that was the first year they closed it to newcomers. We did have xeroxed copies of the song to practice that were passed around before we left on the trip; I think they came from Margaret Brown (she’s the historian).

  4. Nijma Says:

    Does Hafiz (from your website) have a special meaning?

  5. Pauline Laurent Says:

    Yes, the meaning is that there’s always a choice in our lives.
    Living a fear-based life where our actions are based on fear is a less-than-ideal perspective.

    Choosing “faith” is a much healthier option.

    Do you know what motivates your actions?

  6. Nijma Says:

    Adventure, I suppose, although that often goes along with seeking out situations that are undefined, or even potentially dangerous, where some level of fear would be useful or expected.

    Hafiz reminds me a bit of Rumi.

  7. paulinelaurent Says:

    Yes, I love Rumi, as well. I have a book of sweet poems by Hafix entitled, The Subject Tonight is Love.”
    I try to begin my day with some of his poetry.

  8. Nijma Says:

    The subject tonight is Love

    And for tomorrow night as well,

    As a matter of fact

    I know of no better topic

    For us to discuss

    Until we all


    There are more here:
    including one about a camel.

    And now I have pulled out all my Rumi–The Rubais of Rumi: Insane with Love and The Essential Rumi — both excellent and very readable translations, but infuriatingly silent when it comes to the academic bits about Persian poetry forms like quatrains and such.

    I have also started poking around a little in Google Books for some uncopyrighted Hafiz that I can read outright. That has not gone so well. Apparently there used to be a tradition of using previous translators to make new “translations” that were not translations at all but new poems, and not very good ones at that, based on the general idea of the original poet.

    Now I am into the Gertrude Bell book–imagine her doing Hafiz!–and so far the introduction seems quite scholarly and interesting, but my internet link is infuriatingly slow. If I find anything good, maybe I’ll do a separate post.

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