A perfect day for a burning

Daglan woke up this morning to a thick fog that would have done London proud, but by 10 a.m. all the grey had burned away, and it turned out to be a gloriously sunny day. Perfect, in fact, for our annual chance to watch young children dress up and then condemn a petty criminal to be burned.

I first wrote about this strange tradition on April 10 and 11 of 2011, in a two-part posting called “The judgement of the children.” I covered it again last year, on March 21, 2013. But I think this year’s event was the best we’ve seen so far: a better day, a better criminal.

As always, the school children — not only from Daglan’s primary school, but others in the area, including a day care centre for really young kids — paraded past our house with the figure of the petty criminal, Pétassou. Last year, the parade of costumed kiddies was headed up by a group of drummers. This year,  a tractor pulling Pétassou was at the head of the parade. This year’s model looked like the best we’ve seen (although how he committed so many crimes without arms, I’m not sure), and here he is:

Kids following the creature called Pétassou.

Kids following the creature called Pétassou.

Following them came more children, this time with another creature in tow. My wife Jan and I never really figured out who the second figure was, but here he is, dressed in green, and surrounded by yet more kids:

The mysterious creature dressed in green.

The mysterious creature dressed in green.

Then it was time for some entertainment, so the parade stopped and a juggler stood in Place de la Fontaine next to our house, and entertained the kids by juggling coloured bowling pins. Here are some of the children:

Watching the juggler in action.

Watching the juggler in action.

After the children left our area (accompanied by parents, grandparents, friends and neighbours, and of course teachers), they eventually made their way to the field behind Daglan’s community hall, or Salle des fêtes. The figure of Pétassou was put in place by the tractor, and then everyone formed a circle around it. Here’s the group:

The character Pétassou is surrounded.

The character Pétassou is surrounded.

At this point, the school kids became the stars, singing a number of songs in both French and Occitane. This year’s theme for the kids’ costumes turned out to be “hats,” and the different classes of pupils all had their own special style. The really young ones had these colourful paper hats:

A veritable sea of colourful hats.

A veritable sea of colourful hats.

The older pupils, from Daglan’s own school, wore hats that were decorated with twigs, branches and leaves — perhaps as an homage to spring. Here are some of them:

Hats by Twiggy, perhaps.

Hats by Twiggy, perhaps.

There were some more songs, but eventually we came to the highlight of the whole event — the judgement. To help explain all this, here are some excerpts from the blog posting I wrote some three years ago:

Little by little, we started to understand what was going on. It was a trial — and the children were testifying against le méchant Pétassou (“the malicious Pétassou”), as he was later described in Echo No. 7, the April newsletter of Daglan’s Mayor. So that strange man in the blue suit was someone or something called Pétassou. A question would be something like: “How did you know that Pétassou had eaten all the cookies?” And the response might be: “Because we found crumbs in the cuffs of his pants.”

Now we’ll leave the trial for a few moments, to let you know what I’ve learned about Pétassou. Believe me, it wasn’t easy finding a coherent story, and I checked newspaper articles, other blogs, Wikipedia, our Mayor’s newsletter, and more. What I learned is that Pétassou is a sorcerer, a prototype of Harlequin (Arlequin, in French), a legend, an evil man. He is often associated with rags, and may be pictured as a man covered in all sorts of rags. In one blog, the Pétassou made by the school children in another French village was an octopus. In some stories, Pétassou is responsible for all the crimes that have taken place in an area for a whole year.

Back to the present. Now here’s a photo as today’s trial of Pétassou got started, with one of the school teachers (at the right of the photo, holding a piece of paper with the damning questions) asking the children for their testimony:

The trial gets under way.

The trial gets under way.

Clearly there was no way that Pétassou would escape his fate, no legal technicality that would divert the course of justice. And so the burning began:

The straw below Pétassou starts to burn.

The straw below Pétassou starts to burn.

Even I, as a veteran of these burnings, was surprised at how quickly Pétassou’s clothing caught fire. The flames progressed upwards quite fast:

The flames keep licking higher.

The flames keep licking higher.

Within minutes, Pétassou was reduced to not much more than a wire frame and some ashes. Here he is, in the dying moments:

Almost completely devoured by the flames.

Almost completely devoured by the flames.

So there it was: perfect. Well, except for the fact that I walked through a large area of thick mud on the way back to my car, and spent a good part of this afternoon cleaning my shoes. But we’re finally rid of  Pétassou, at least for a while.

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This entry was posted in Festivals in France, Life in southwest France, Weather in the Dordogne and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to A perfect day for a burning

  1. marshp2013 says:

    Gee, Loren, just as I thought life in Daglan was friendly and comfortable, you go and get all medieval on us. This gave me memories of that old movie, The Wicker Man — check it out if you can find it. Actually, I find it fascinating that in a country as modern as France, they still act out these centuries-old customs — and with kids as the inquisitors! I guess that’s what makes moving abroad so interesting.

    • loren24250 says:

      Hey Paul, you’re right. Just as you think you’re getting all trendy and up-to-date, you stumble across something from centuries ago. Definitely interesting!

      • loren24250 says:

        I just went to IMDB to see about “The Wicker Man” — and in fact there are many, many versions, including TV episodes and full-blown movies. So which is the one you remember?

  2. John Ison says:

    Hard to imagine the political reaction in Toronto if one of our schools did this. At least they offered the kindness of a quick trial, followed by a brutal execution. I guess that’s how petty thieves, or strange people (minorities and heretics), were dealt with in the dark ages.

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