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March 09, 2009
“Have you seen the night watchman of Turckheim?” my host asks.
When I respond that I have not, he jumps up from the table and beckons me to follow.
He drives furiously along the vineyard road in order to reach Turckheim’s town hall at the appointed hour. We arrive as the church bell tolls ten.
A crowd of 100 people has gathered to see a man wearing a black cape and a tricorn hat step out of a half-timbered house. He holds a lantern in one hand and a brass bell in the other. This man comes from a long line of watchmen who have been tucking in this village at night since 1611. I’m told that he is the last veilleur de nuit in France.
For the next 45 minutes, we follow him along the cobble-stoned street circling the fortified perimeter of this 1000-year-old Alsatian town. He stops at every intersection to chant his doleful curfew, first in Alsatian before repeating it in French:
Ecoutez ce que je veux vous dire
Listen to what I want to tell you
La cloche vienne de sonner dix heures
The clock has just struck ten
Prennez soin de latre et de la chandelle
Take care of the hearth and the candle
Que Dieu et la Vierge nous protègent
That God and the Virgin protect us
Me voici de garde que Dieu nous donne à tous une bonne nuit
Here I stand guard that God may give us all a good night.
I fail to see a single light go out. Clearly, he lacks the authority of his forbears.
Still, it’s a tradition well worth keeping, so I add my own small prayer that it continues unabated.
What traditional custom has captured your imagination?