At the weekend I was invited to Gravelines on the coast of the North of France (between Calais and Dunkerque) to witness a very special and rare event – the birth of a giant.
A recent survey found that the people of the region of Nord-Pas de Calais are the happiest in France and I have to say in my experience any excuse for a party here and they’re off! If there is no excuse for a party – then they make one…
Giants are quite common in the north of France, they have been around for centuries. Giant models that it is said represented biblical figures in the old days but which over time have come to represent local heroes or animals, more folklore that bible.
Giants have their own “lifestyle” – often giants from neighbouring towns get together, they marry, they die and they have children.
In Grand Fort Philippe (on the coast of Gravelines) on Saturday La Matelote Giant was due to give birth to a baby and the whole town turned out in celebration.
TV stations turned up to film her arrival, newspaper photographers and journalists were there and at 15.00 we gathered outside the Musée Maison de la Mer at Grand Forte Phillipe.
There were bands, giants everywhere from towns and villages all around, dancers and a jubilant crowd.
On the makeshift podium the Mayor of Gravelines stood, waiting to make the announcement of a new giant baby. Miss Grand Forte Philippe, the local beauty queen said a few words, the Mayor said a few words, there were various dignitaries – it was all very formal.
The baton twirlers danced for the crowd to some crazy hyper dance music, their sticks lifted away by the wind, their glittery eye shadow flashing in the sun that had at last decided to come out.
The Mayor then welcomed the “midwife” to the stage. Dressed in her nurse’s uniform, she took the microphone and announced that “the baby is born… it is a little girl and both mother and baby are well. The baby weighs 12kg and 500g and she is 2m 32cm tall. Her mother La Matelote is very happy with her family of four children – two boys and now two girls”.
A cheer went up and a round of applause. Then a moment of hush and we stood basking in the warmth of this very French moment. La Matelote was carried out into the crowd, her make up was immaculate and she was serene looking and proud – everyone cheered.
Then came the baby. Dressed in a long white gown, blonde hair and also wearing a little make up, she was carried to the podium where a priest stood waiting to conduct a blessing. He welcomed Soeur (her given name) to the family of Grand Forte Philippe, he rejoiced that the baby was in the image of her mother and asked God to bring her joy. Her godfather and godmother stepped forward to meet their new godchild.
The crowd applauded, the priest scattered holy water over the crowd and it was time to parade and show Soeur hew new home! For a secular country I often find it strange just how much religion there is at some of the festivals but it definitely leant an air of gravitas!
The dancers and bands marched off; people dressed in various costumes of yesteryear mixed in with the bands and the giants who were dancing and twirling. At the town hall a baptism was performed, sweets were distributed, another parade and then a glass of wine to toast the baby and a dinner dance.
The occasion was half serious and half tongue in cheek, tradition and heritage are held dear in this part of France but above all this was an event to be enjoyed – it may be many years before a new giant is born.
One day Soeur will marry and have children of her own and the traditions will live on…