La fête des récompenses

Wondering what happened to all these holidays?

La fête des récompenses
Photo by Ariel / Unsplash

Good morning. Today is the festival of rewards. We party.

Today's suit: Jokers (major arcana)

Jokers and card backs. From the Bicycle Stargazer deck.
From the Bicycle Stargazer deck.

Jokers are unsuited and sometimes split into Red (color) and Black (no color) variations, although the deck pictured above does not do this. Jokers represent luck – good and bad – as well as surprise, opportunity, or the unknowns of the future. When there are variations, the red joker is considered a more immediate portent, and the black joker a more distant one. In yes / no questions, red is no and black is yes.

The 78-card tarot deck expands the unsuited cards into an entire major arcana, with each card representing its own symbols and resonances, and each artist adding their own hints and suggestions for intuitive reasoning. Older cartomancy traditions have fallen out of favor because of the lack of these cards, which, let's face it, are the fun ones!

However, this newsletter mostly performs 54-card cartomancy (except on Tarot Tridi) because these readings are intended for a general audience and not a specific querent, and in that setting, the major arcana provide little useful insight, being more attuned to specific intentions, personalities, and situations than the minor arcana, which deal with universal themes and tendencies.

Let's talk about these holidays

So the French "fixed" the calendar by making every month 30 days and tacking 5 onto the end to catch up (sort of) to the Earth's actual orbital position. But why, and what were these holidays intended to be? Why do they have such funny names? And why does the year end along with the summer, so contrary to every other calendar in use throughout history?

First, it's important to acknowledge that the revolutionaries who drafted this calendar fully intended to obliterate history – particularly the church's version of it – so being weird was part of the point. But the naming of the months and seasons was intended to give the calendar "natural" (as opposed to "sacred") legitimacy. Beginning the year on the autumnal equinox not only nearly coincided with the declaration of the First Republic a year earlier, it set the calendar to begin when, as George Gordon Andrews put it in 1931 in the American Historical Review, "the equality of the days and nights was marked in the heavens at the same moment when civil and moral equality was marked by the French people as the sacred foundation of their new government."

So yes, you can sense the nodding along and the evocation of lofty ideals. The French slogan of the times was liberté, egalité, fraternité, and the calendar itself was structured as a paean to egalité. In France, "equality" took on the chest-thumping importance that "freedom" did (and still does) in the United States. But while that's stirring and all, what about fun?

The French Republican calendar, for all its innovations, was short on fun. Today, we have a lot of fun with the plants, animals, and tools assigned to each day, but back then those items were merely supplanting saints, whose stories were much more well known by the general populace and whose exploits were indeed a load of entertainment and the source of many fun festivals and celebrations. St. Nicholas brings presents. Now we celebrate a ... cow and its ... milk?

Even less fun was that work weeks went from six days to nine days until you get a day of rest. I wish a savvy PR woman had been there to tell the lads you couldn't push that and expect lasting popularity. Especially when you could easily keep the structure and do four-day workweeks, give everyone the quintidi and décadi off, and instantly win widespread approval from the masses. I'll celebrate a cow if it represents a weekend.

The five-day year-end sequence of festivals was a chance make up for it, and yet, out of the gates, these days were treated like mathematical chaff. They were named "the first extra day," "the second extra day," "the third extra day," "the fourth extra day," and "the fifth extra day." Wow.

Sensing a missed opportunity, a mere month after the calendar's adoption, a committee put forth new holiday names for these extra days, now known as sansculottides to celebrate the revolutionaries and their non-fancy pants. They were, respectively: talent, labor, policy, honors, and convictions.

Better, but still not much fun? In Year III, "policy" was changed to "virtue" and moved to the first day (arguably a lateral move, fun-wise), and "convictions" became a battleground celebrated, depending on the year and the French person you asked, as "opinions," "choice," or "reason." All of these might be fun for a certain kind of internet commenter, but do they compete with hiding Easter eggs?

There is nothing I can dredge up about how, if at all, regular French citizens celebrated the sansculottides. The whole calendar was a top-down approach at indoctrination, and nowhere is that failure more apparent than in the absolute lack of information about whether or not people enjoyed having six or seven days off in a row at the end of its year. No tales of bygone Bastille-storming reenactments followed by days of drunken revelry. No official documents of how to enjoy these feasts or even what to eat at them. No lasting obscure traditions in small towns that date back to the dozen-or-so times these long stretches of holiday came along.

This is sad, and makes me desire even more to lean into the spirit of the sansculottides and invent elaborate holiday traditions. It's a super fun idea to give everyone nearly a week off right before summer ends. We all want this! Alas, I spent the whole stretch justifying this newsletter's odd aims and contents, and now it's time to get back to work tomorrow.

Perhaps that's the true meaning of the complementary days: you use them to lay around thinking about what you will do with them, and then they're over. That's a cultural norm that I think is nearly universal.

Today's song: "Sans Culottes" by Teddy Powell & His Orchestra (3mins)

If this was traditional sansculottides music, they'd still be celebrated.