Joyeux Noel, New Hampshire style

Special to the Sunday News
December 22. 2012 10:16PM

Owner Cathy Kuliga, left, and waitress Analia Normandin show off Belmont Hall's homemade pork pie in Manchester. It's made using a recipe from Kuliga's grandmother. (DAVID LANE/UNION LEADER)
For Nashua's Georgi Laurin Hippauf, one of the best memories from Christmases past is of bundling up and heading out to Messe de minuit, or midnight Mass.

As a kid, just being outside in the middle of the night was a thrill. But in the French-Canadian churches that Hippauf attended as a child and young adult, midnight Mass was an event.

"The carols were all sung in French," recalled Hippauf. "And the Mass was in Latin and French. It was sacred, and there was beauty and pageantry. It was beautiful."

In many of New Hampshire's Franco-American communities, Christmas Eve was the high point of the holidays. Traditions that united neighborhoods played out during all-night celebrations that were planned weeks in advance.

And midnight Mass was the bridge between the anticipation of Christmas and its arrival.

Today, it's not always easy to find a midnight Mass on Christmas Eve, never mind one celebrated in French. Hippauf is a member of the St. Louis de Gonzague parish in Nashua.

"It's part French, part Asian and part Mexican," she said.

And while Hippauf welcomes diversity, like other Franco-Americans she feels it's important to preserve the French-Canadian culture that's helped shaped New Hampshire's history and growth.

Some immigration scholars point out that relationships with cultural traditions are a generational matter. Many immigrants maintain customs while second-generation families often shed them and embrace all things American.

But third-generation Americans sometimes go in search of their roots, and a recent wave of interest in Franco-American has swept the state. There is a growing number of French language classes, movies, events and groups of people who get together just to enjoy speaking French.

And the holidays bring a wealth of memories of Franco-American traditions, some lost to time and circumstances and others that are alive and well.

Tight-knit community

Goffstown resident Maurice Demers remembers growing up on the West Side of Manchester, in a French-Canadian neighborhood that was so tight and so insulated, as a child it took him a while to realize there was a world beyond his immediate surroundings.

"I thought everyone was French and everyone was Catholic," he said with a laugh.

Like Hippauf, Demers said Christmas Eve was the big night of the season.

"My mom would send us to bed early and then wake us up for midnight Mass at St. Anthony's," said Demers.

After church, the serious celebrating began.

"We would have all-night celebrations," said Demers. "It was called the réveillon, which means the awakening. Kids, adults, neighbors and friends would share special foods, gifts and company.

There was also the wait for Papa Noel, who sometimes is depicted as a taller, slimmer Santa with a slightly more elegant red suit.

But Demers remembers Papa Noel as the same fat and jolly guy who sometimes uses the alias Father Christmas.

"After all, he ate French food," said Demers.

Savory treats

Families traditionally served tourtiere, a savory ground pork pie that everyone has his own special way of preparing. Demers' father-in law had a small meat market where he made and froze tourtiere months ahead of time.

But many people still preferred to make their own. Hippauf today uses the basic tourtiere recipe to make turkey stuffing, which she calls French stuffing.

"It's a recipe handed down from my grandmother," she said.

Hippauf said there's one simple and basic ingredient that makes French food stand out above other traditional holiday foods.

"When I roast a turkey, I never use butter," she said. "We use salt pork. That's the big secret. That's what permeates the turkey and gives it its flavor."

Hippauf described Franco-American cuisine as rich, but refined.

"Whether it's French or Franco-American, it's authentic," she said. "The ingredients are all real."

Demers also recalled having salmon pie, another rich and savory dish that marked the holidays.

"Most people would put some type of egg sauce over it," he said, sighing wistfully.

Adele Boufford Baker, a former president of the Franco-American Centre, now located in Goffstown at St. Anselm College, said there were always pork and salmon pies on Christmas Eve while she was growing up. And those typically were followed by her mom's special sugar cookies, which were stenciled with wreaths and other Christmas decorations.

And then there was the Buche de Noel, a yule log cake that's still easy enough to find in many local bakeries today.

"It's kind of like a jelly roll, only stuffed with wonderful cream and sometimes jelly," she said.

Hippauf said that a Buche de Noel was a dessert that often doubled as a centerpiece for many holiday tables.

And Baker recalled her mother decorating the cakes with "mushrooms" made from meringue.

Tradition and change

Then as now, Franco-American families' houses were spruced up and decorated for the holidays with trees and wreaths. And almost every family had a treasured nativity set that was set up under the tree.

In Franco-American homes, Christmas was centered around family, but there was also a certain level of formality. Everyone wore his best clothes and was on his best behavior.

"We never went anywhere without hats and gloves," said Baker.

And, she added, there was tremendous respect for elders, grandparents, great-grandparents, uncles and aunts.

Baker recalls going to midnight Mass at St. Jean the Baptist Church because her uncle was the choir master.

"It was the most magnificent service," she said. "We all knew all the French carols. They used to have the most beautiful rendition of 'O, Holy Night.'?"

Baker was the first among the children in her family to figure out the mystery of Papa Noel, who in her family was portrayed by one of her uncles. One year, as he was dressing up as Santa, her uncle forgot to take off an onyx ring that she recognized.

"I was the oldest in the family, and I kept that secret," she said with a laugh.

While she enjoys all of those memories, Baker said, she also loves her watching new traditions unfold in her family. Nowadays, she loves watching her grandchildren track Santa's global gift distribution on the family computer.

"We'll go to my son's house. He'll have an open house, and the children will watch Santa on NORAD," she said. "Those are our 21st century traditions.

"We cherish out French traditions and we are very proud of our heritage. But we also welcome new traditions."

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