Religious and civil traditions have been upheld for centuries in the Principality. They are sometimes linked, rites and ceremonies being accompanied by popular festivities, but the former are more firmly anchored in the collective memory of Monégasques than the latter. They are an integral and exclusive part of the social, cultural and moral heritage.
Once upon a time … right at the beginning of the 4th century … there was, on the Island of Corsica, then a Roman province, a cruel governor who persecuted Christians. It was under these circumstances that Dévote, who had vowed her life to the service of God, was arrested, imprisoned and tortured. She died without denying her faith and her martyred corpse was placed by pious hands in a boat leaving for Africa where she would find, they believed, Christian burial.
But in the very early hours of the crossing, a storm arose. And from the mouth of Saint Dévote a dove made its appearance. The storm then abated. The dove guided the boat right up to the coast of Monaco where it ran aground at the entrance to the little valley of the Gaumates … on a bush bearing early blossoms.
The body of Dévote was piously received by the small Christian community, which lived in the neighborhood. It is on this day, the sixth of the calends of February – for us, 27th January of the year 312 of our era, that Saint Dévote took under her protection Monaco and its inhabitants. A rustic oratory marked the place of her tomb. The faithful, residents and sailors passing through Monaco, went there in greater and greater numbers to venerate the relics of the Saint … and the first miracles took place.
It was then that an evil idea took possession of the mind of an unscrupulous man who, in the dead of night, stole the relics of the Saint with the intention of taking them beyond the seas and selling their powers.
The intended sacrilege was cut short as Providence was watching. A group of fishermen witnessed the robbery and with a few strokes of their oars, made much more powerful by their anger, overtook the thief and his precious plunder. Brought back on to the beach, the thief’s boat was burnt as an expiatory sacrifice. During the sieges, which Monaco underwent in the sixteenth century, the Italian Wars and the Wars of Religion, the relics of the Saint were exposed on the ramparts, inspiring the defenders and spreading terror among the besiegers.
That heroic age has now passed away. However, the cult of Saint Dévote still remains strong in the Principality.
Positive proof of this can be seen by attending the ceremonies and events which take place, as soon as night falls, around and inside the Church dedicated to St. Dévote which was constructed in the reign of Prince Charles III on the site of the original oratory.
Every year on this date, there is a torchlight procession, a religious ceremony and blessing followed by the setting on fire of a boat on a pyre decorated with olive, pine and laurel branches; a picturesque symbolic copy of the boat which the Monégasques burnt in the past to efface all trace of an unpardonable crime !
The evening finishes with a firework display given over the waters of the harbor of Monaco, facing the outlet of the little valley of the Gaumates where the long association between Dévote and the Monégasques started.
The life of Saint Dévote was superbly sung by the Monégasque poet Louis Notari (1879-1961). His poem “The Legend of Saint Dévote” was the starting-point, now more than half a century ago, of a sort of rebirth of the Monégasque tongue. This dialect, with its full-flavored intonations and its amazingly rich vocabulary, has since then been the subject of university theses both in France and elsewhere. It is included in the syllabus of the various schools of the Principality.
Holy Week Processions
The origin of the religious traditions of Holy Week may probably be traced back to the time of the Crusades, when survivors of these distant expeditions to the Holy Land introduced the Christians of the West to the rites of their brothers of the East. Accounts of the first Good Friday Processions can be found in Monaco from the thirteenth century. This ceremony, however, did not take on its full significance until the foundation by Prince Honoré II in 1639 of the Venerable Brotherhood of the Black Penitents of Mercy.
Since that time, this Brotherhood, whose members are Monégasques of all ages and conditions, brought together in the spirit of serene piety and disinterested love of one’s neighbors, each year organizes on the evening of Good Friday, the Procession of the Dead Christ, a traveling evocation complete with all the characters, real or imaginary, of the main Stations of the Cross.
The tradition of the carnival in Monaco probably goes back to the fifteenth century. The carnival, the period between the Sunday of Epiphany and Ash Wednesday, was the opportunity people to enjoy themselves before the long and austere period of Lent.
Young and less young disguised themselves as best they could in old clothes, formed processions, exchanged bawdy cat calls and, holding a large piece of cloth by the corners, threw up into the air an ungainly dummy figure stuffed with straw and rags.
Fights with projectiles, which were often far from harmless – rotten eggs, chickpeas, gravel, oranges and lemons – enlivened the passing of the procession, which usually finished with the burning of the dummy amid general merriment. After this, weather permitting, there was dancing at the corner of the streets or in the fields to the shrill sound of makeshift instruments.
The tradition of the Carnival has been revived over the last thirty years or so with “Sciaratù”. Organized by the Roca-Club, this comic procession with its floats, disguises, enormous dummy heads, fights with confetti and dancing in the open air, which rounds off the evening, takes place in the height of summer to the delight of tourists in search of local color.
Saint John’s Day
On the eve of Saint John’s day, 23rd June, when the gardens of Monaco are ablaze under the setting sun, Monégasques mindful of the customs of their country assemble on the Palace Square.
There are folk groups, surrounding the Palladienne, Monaco’s own folk group, a dynamic gathering of young people, wearing the costumes of the past, singing, dancing and playing the mandolin charmingly. Groups come from France, Italy and Spain to take part in the Monégasques’ Saint John festival.
In the Palace chapel, dedicated to Saint John the Baptist himself, the Prince’s Family attend a service which is also attended by several privileged people such as the Presidents of the Tradition Associations, together with their flags.
At the end of this ceremony, two footmen of the Sovereign’ s Household, each dressed in fine livery and carrying a burning torch, set alight a bonfire set up in the center of the Square.
The people in the crowd applaud with all their hearts. Airs of bygone times accompany farandoles around the flames over which the boldest leap with a single bound.
On June 24, Saint John’s Day, the Feast moves from Monaco-Ville to Monte Carlo.
A procession forms up on the Place des Moulins (Mill Square) where the old olive presses used to operate.
The folk groups form a guard of honor around “Little Saint John” and his lamb. The procession, accompanied by music of its own making reaches the Church of Saint Charles in the parish of Monte Carlo.
After a religious service, the procession returns to the Place des Moulins. A bonfire is set up, the Monégasque national anthem is played and then, the popular and religious feast combined, the great ball of Saint John commences in the open air and continues until late at night.
After Saint Dévote, Saint Roman is the most popular and most venerated saint in the Principality.
The veneration by the Monégasques of this Roman legionary, who suffered martyrdom on August 9, 258 in the reign of the Emperor Valerian, goes back to the sixteenth century when a relic of Saint Roman was entrusted to the Terrazzani family who had a chapel built in which to lay it.
For several centuries, the Feast of Saint Roman took place at the hamlet of les Moulins (“the Mills”) near to the old chapel.
Around 1880, the festivities moved to Monaco-Ville. Today, with the support of the Committee of the Feasts of Saint Roman, we still dance and enjoy cool drinks in the month of August under the foliage of the hundred-year-old trees of the Saint Martin gardens.
The tradition dates back to the reign of Prince Charles III. The date used to vary to coincide with the Patron Saint’s Day of the reigning Prince.
However, when The Sovereign Prince Albert II succeeded his father in 2005, he decided to maintain the National Day on November 19th, St. Rainier of Arezzo’s day, in his honor.
National Day is a time of joy and pride for the Country when the traditions and ideals of the community are celebrated. Monégasques and residents of The Principality attend various events, showing their support and affection for The Prince and his family. Windows, balconies, shops and streets are adorned with the red and white colors of the national flag.
In the days leading up to the “Fête du Prince”, the whole country takes part in a range of activities culminating in a fireworks display in Port Hercule on November 18th. The Princely Family personally delivers care packages to the Monaco Red Cross and to senior citizens. The Prince presides over several medal ceremonies, bestowing prestigious distinctions such as Ordre des Grimaldi (Order of Grimaldi), Ordre de Saint Charles (Order of St Charles), and Mérite Culturel (Cultural Merit) among others.
On November 19, the Prince and his family, along with officials and nationals, attend a morning Thanksgiving mass at the Cathedral, followed by a parade of Monaco’s official corps (police and fire departments, Prince’s Guards, etc) on the Palace Square.
Festivities conclude with an opera gala evening – at the Monte Carlo Opera or the Grimaldi Forum – in the presence of the Princely Family.
In Monaco, until the end of the last century, Christmas Eve was the occasion when all the members of a family would gather at their parents’ home to perform, as a preliminary to the evening meal, the rite of the olive branch. Before sitting down, the youngest of the guests, or the oldest, soaked an olive branch in a glass of old wine. He approached the fireplace where a great fire of pine and laurel branches burned and with his little branch traced the sign of the Cross while pronouncing a few words on the virtues of the olive tree, a source of all kinds of good things. After this, everybody in turn wet his lips in the glass of wine serving as an aperitif before the gala dinner whose main dish was an enormous “brandamincium”, a Monégasque dish of salt cod pounded up with garlic, oil and cream, surrounded by “cardu”, cardoon in white sauce; “barba-Giuan”, literally “Uncle John”, stuffed fritters and “fougasses” flat crunchy biscuits sprinkled with sugared aniseed colored red and white, flavored with several drops of rum and orange-flower water.
On the table covered with a splendid cloth lay a round loaf of bread “u pan de Natale” (the Christmas loaf) on which four walnuts formed a Cross surrounded by several olive twigs.
From this Christmas of olden times, there are still in existence, besides Midnight Mass in the Cathedral, “Barba-Giuan”, “fougasses” and “u pan de Natale” to be found at some bakeries in the Principality.
Numerous traditions, which, lapsed today but perhaps only temporarily forgotten, bore witness right up to the last century either to the religious spirit or joy of living of the Monégasques.
The traditions of Saint Blaise, very popular among country people: the peasants came in procession, often on the backs of donkeys, from the plain of the Condamine or its neighboring hills, to have the seeds of their future crops blessed together with several handfuls of figs; these latter had the power when drunk in an infusion of curing tonsillitis and seasonal colds.
The tradition of the “Mays” with, from the first to the last of this month marking the height of Spring, dances (“farandoles”) round a Maypole, decorated with flowers and red and white ribbons – the Monégasque colors – set up in the very center of the Palace Square.
The tradition of the “pignata” ball, organized on the first Sunday of Lent, which takes its name from the cooking pot which members of the crowd, their eyes blindfolded, tried to break at intervals with heavy blows of their sticks.
The tradition of the “ciaraviyù” (the Monégasque form of the French word” charivari” meaning “row or racket”) that consisted of providing the most unharmonious serenade possible, continuing all night long, under the windows of newlyweds when they formed a far too disparate couple.
Plus many others which the National Committee of Monégasque Traditions, established in 1924, is trying to revive – as it has already revived, to quote only one example, the tradition of Saint Nicolas, the patron saint of good children, on December 8.