Festive memory: Merrymaking and Celebrations
In the St. Lawrence Valley, official celebrations were the only times the settlers got to rest since their weeks were long and laborious. Fortunately, there were many celebrations. They included popular or religious feast days, village festivities or family evenings, festivities that were forgotten or always celebrated... People celebrated often and, occasionally, the events would last several days.
With this new series of chronicles, discover some of the celebrations of the past and rediscover the origins of festivities that are still popular today. Celebrate with us over the next few weeks, from St. Catherine’s Day to New Year’s Day, and from Epiphany to Mardi gras!
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St. Catherine's day
In Quebec, not so long ago, the feast days of the saints were celebrated, often with great pomp. One of these feast days was St. Catherine’s day, celebrated on November 25 in the liturgical calendar. What were the origins of this religious and popular feast day, often referred to as the feast day for “old maids”?
Originally, St. Catherine was considered the patron saint of young girls. In the 4th century of the Common Era, when she was still a virgin, she was martyred. She was condemned to torture on the wheel, and then decapitated after refusing to marry the Roman emperor, Maximinus.
Following this, the adoration of St. Catherine probably started in the Middle Ages and spread throughout the West through the crusades. At this time, it was tradition to cover the heads of the statues of saints during certain religious ceremonies. St. Catherine could only be decorated by a virgin, an honour that young girls did not want to retain for long for fear of being teased. This gave rise to the popular Quebec expression “coiffer la Sainte-Catherine”, which referred to women who had reached the age of 25 and were still unmarried. Once again, young ladies did not appreciate this teasing expression.
St. Catherine’s Day at Maison Saint-Gabriel...
It has now become a tradition to celebrate St. Catherine’s Day at Maison Saint-Gabriel. Once again this year, we invite you to visit us to celebrate this feast day as our anscestors did.
On the agenda: activities, story-telling, music and, of course... Marguerite Bourgeoys and her delicious St. Catherine’s toffee (based on the 300-year-old recipe of the Sisters of the Congrégation de Notre-Dame). It’s a date you won’t want to miss!
The adoration of St. Catherine crossed the Atlantic and was implemented in North America by the first colonists. St. Catherine’s day was celebrated from the early days of the French regime. It appears that the tradition of making St. Catherine’s toffee, a famous molasses-based treat which is eaten as part of the festivities, started at this time. According to legend, Marguerite Bourgeoys, the founder of the Congrégation de Notre-Dame and first educator in Montreal, invented this well-known sweet in order to reward her students.
However, it was in the 19th century that St. Catherine’s feast day was celebrated with the most pomp. This festivity marked the end of the harvest and the start of winter. It was an ideal time to organize memorable evenings filled with dancing, story-telling and feasts!
Finally, St. Catherine’s day was celebrated a few days before Advent. It was the last opportunity for celebrating before this period of fasting and restrictions. To learn more about this preparation for Christmas, we invite you to return on November 30, 2004.
- PROVENCHER, Jean. C’était l’automne. La vie rurale traditionnelle dans la vallée du Saint-Laurent, Montréal, Boréal Express, 1984, 236 p.
Preparing for Christmas: Advent
In the liturgical calendar*, Christmas is part of a cycle that is divided into two periods: a period of preparation for the arrival of Christ and another period of celebrations. Advent is the preparatory period, namely the time when we wait for Jesus. The Latin term, adventus, means advent, solemn arrival, arrival...
The period of Advent marks the start of the liturgical year. It starts on the fourth Sunday prior to Christmas, which means that it starts either at the end of November or the beginning of December. In 2004, for example, this period starts on November 28.
The tradition of Advent was started in the 4th century of the Common Era, by Christians in Gaul and Spain. However, it was not until the middle of the 6th century that Rome officially celebrated this liturgical period. At the outset, Advent lasted six weeks, but Pope Gregory the Great reduced it to four weeks, to set it apart from Lent, the 40-day period that precedes Easter.
In preparation for the arrival of the Messiah on Earth, Advent is a period of penitence and conversion. In reality, it is a confident and joyous period. It announces the arrival of our Saviour and “his powers of sanctification that must transform our human lives in keeping with his”.** Therefore, it is a time of rejoicing for Christians. During this four-week period, they pray more and attempt to live their faith more profoundly. Although it is referred to as the “Winter Lent”, it is not an obligatory period of fasting, with the exception of the last week. During that week, the Wednesday, Friday and Saturday are set aside for fasting.
Up until Vatican II, the celebrations surrounding Advent did not change much. Our ancestors celebrated this period much as the first Christians did. In the church, the rites place a great deal of emphasis on the texts of the Old Testament. In fact, these texts are marked by a long period of waiting for the arrival of the Messiah on the part of the Old Testament Prophets, particularly Isaiah, as well as by John the Baptist in the New Testament. Finally, Advent stresses the importance of the Virgin Mary, the mother of the Messiah. She is referred to as the Advent Virgin.
The end of Advent marks the start of the holiday season that runs from Christmas to Epiphany. To learn more about Christmas in times gone by, we invite you to return on December 14, 2004.
* The ecclesiastical calendar combines two calendars, which cover the entire year: the temporal and the sanctoral. The temporal calendar celebrates the major events in the life of Christ. The sanctoral calendar highlights the anniversaries of the most important saints, almost 200 in all.
** BEAUMONT, Henri. “Rites et liturgie. De l’Avent à l’Épiphanie.”, Cap-aux-Diamants. Vol. 47, Fall 1996, p. 15
- BEAUMONT, Henri. «Rites et liturgie. De l’Avent à l’Épiphanie.», Cap-aux-Diamants. Vol. 47, automne 1996, p. 15-18.
- «L’Avent et Noël. Du premier dimanche de l’Avent à l’Épiphanie.», Fêtes et saisons. No 506, décembre 1995, p. 9-15.
Christmas in days gone by
The first Christmases in New France were hardly joyous times. The harsh winters, the material precariousness of the colonists and diseases – primarily scurvy – cast a pall over this festivity. During this period, in Quebec City as in Ville-Marie (now Montreal), the feast of the Nativity was marked by sad events. Champlain passed away on Christmas Eve in 1635 and the first Christmas in Ville Marie took place in the midst of flooding which threatened to destroy the settlers’ homes. It was only as of the 1650s, a period when colonial development really started, that material conditions were sufficient for celebrating Christmas appropriately.
Under the French regime, Christmas was above all a religious festivity. In keeping with tradition, friends and relatives visited one another on New Year’s Day to exchange wishes and gifts. Christmas celebrations focused on the midnight mass. Following that celebration, during which everyone would admire the nativity scene placed in the heart of the chapel, people would get together at veritable feasts to celebrate and dance, dressed in their finest attire. The colonists had a reputation for being very festive and the Church condemned the slack morals and abuse of alcohol that occurred at the time of the sacred holiday each year. This feverishness can be explained by the fact that Christmas coincided each year with the end of hard agricultural work. The holiday season started and constituted one of the few rare periods of leisure and relaxation that the settlers enjoyed. Finally, it should be noted that, during the colonial period, Christmas was also a date on which several contracts ended. In general, various debts such as loans and rent were also paid on December 25.
After the conquest, French-Canadians continued to celebrate Christmas in keeping with their ancestral customs. As a result, in the country, the midnight mass and the Christmas Eve party that followed (“réveillon”) were celebrated in the traditional manner until the 1930s. Nevertheless in the 19th century, as a result of the increasing influence of the Anglo-Saxon elite, new elements such as the Christmas tree and the legend of Santa Claus were added to the festivities. Moreover, with the industrialization that started at this time, the first commercial aspects of the holiday appeared in the cities. Mass production introduced greeting cards and manufactured toys, among other things, along with the first department store catalogues.
The 1950s and 1960s saw the end of the Christmases of days gone by. The decline of religion, the baby boom and the constant increase in consumerism transformed tradition. Today, the festivity focuses on exchanging gifts, something which used to be done on New Year’s Day. However, the strong elements of the celebration, such as gathering with loved ones and starting a period of rest and relaxation, have remained.
Even today, Christmas initiates a cycle of festivities including New Year’s Day. To learn more about New Year’s celebrations in Quebec, we invite you to return on December 28, 2004. Meanwhile, we wish you a very Merry Christmas!
- BEAUMONT, Henri. «Rites et liturgie de l’Avent à l’épiphanie», Cap-aux-diamants. No 47, automne 1996, pp. 15-18.
- FORTIER, Yvan. «Une fête venue de la nuit des temps: le 25 décembre», Cap-aux-diamants. No 47, automne 1996, pp.10-14.
- LEBEL, Jean-Marie. «D’où viens-tu bergère? Nos cantiques de Noël», Cap-aux-diamants. No 47, automne 1996, pp.28-33.
- MONTPETIT, Raymond. Le temps des fêtes au Québec. Montréal, Les Éditions de l’Homme, 1978, 285 p.
God bless the New Year
Artiste: Edmond-Joseph Massicotte Titre: La bénédiction du jour de l'An, 1912 Technique d'expression: Photolithographie avec rehauts d'aquarelle et de gouache Dimensions: 22,2 x 31,2 cm (papier) 21,2 x 30,2 cm (image) Collection: Musée national des beaux-arts du Québec No d'accession: 34.759 Nom du photographe: Pierre-Luc Dufour
All cultures celebrate the arrival of the New Year. The date varies according to traditions, but it is very often at the beginning of spring. In the West, since Julius Cesar’s reform of the Roman calendar in 46 BCE, January 1 has marked the start of the year. However, it was not until our modern calendar – the Gregorian calendar – was adopted in 1582 that January 1 actually became the first day of the year. Prior to that, depending on the period and the country, the beginning of the year was Christmas, Easter or March 25 (namely nine months before the birth of Christ). January 1 also had a religious flavor since that date corresponds to the circumcision of Christ in the Roman Catholic liturgical calendar, a meaning which been essentially forgotten today.
In French North America, the tradition of celebrating the New Year developed slowly since the first efforts at colonization failed and the first settlements were very precarious. It was not until the second half of the 17th century that the colonists started to celebrate the New Year as they did in the mother country. From that time until the 1940s, the celebrations changed little.
Prayer for paternal blessing
In Quebec in days gone by, the paternal blessing was one of the most moving times of the New Year. It reaffirmed the father’s authority and preceded the mass which the entire family attended before going to share a meal with the grandparents. It was a significant gathering at which the following prayer was generally recited:
May God bless you and
grant you health and happiness
throughout the coming year, in the name of the Father,
the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
From the time of New France, New Year’s Day has been first and foremost a time for visiting visit relatives and friends and offering them gifts and presents, called étrennes in French. Early in the morning on January 1, many men would stroll about the village wishing people a Happy New Year and kissing the mistress of each household. The women welcomed these wishes and offered visitors a small glass of alcohol and pastries. This tradition of kissing was described often – with some surprise – by visitors traveling through the country and by the British, shortly after the conquest. Some found the familiarity of this ritual shocking. Nevertheless, this tradition remained popular until the 1930s. Moreover, as of the 19th century, the tradition of visiting one and all on New Year’s Day gave birth to the sending of greeting cards. This tradition, which was first introduced to the middle class people living in cities – who bought personalized calling cards for New Year’s Day – quickly became popular with everyone.
As for exchanging gifts, this tradition was widespread at all levels of society, even among members of religious communities. Gifts took the form of pious objects, alcohol, food, and other treats that highlighted the New Year. Children looked forward to this time of year, enjoying oranges, candies and toys. It was only as a result of the influence of the English and American cultures that the giving of gifts gradually and then completely shifted to Christmas Day. The same happened in the case of greeting cards.
Finally, in addition to being one of the most popular social holidays, New Year’s Day also had a major religious character with the traditional paternal blessing. New Year’s Day was an opportunity for the oldest child in each home to ask the family patriarch to bless the entire family. With a great deal of emotion he would bless his offspring, who would be kneeling before him. This traditional “scene” was common until the 1960s.
In Quebec, 40 years ago, the feast following New Year’s Day, which was celebrated by all, was Epiphany, also known as “Little Christmas”. To learn more about the origin of this celebration, we invite you to return on January 11, 2005.
- MONTPETIT, Raymond. Le temps des fêtes au Québec, Montréal, Les Éditions de l’Homme, 1978, 285 p.
Epiphany or the Feast of the Magi
“On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshipped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold and of incense and of myrrh.”
(Matthew 2:11, NIV)
Artiste: Edmond-Joseph Massicotte
Titre: Le traditionnel gâteau des Rois, 1926
Technique d'expression: Photolithographie avec rehauts d'aquarelle
Dimensions: 21,8 x 31 cm
Collection: Musée national des beaux-arts du Québec
No d'accession: 69.402
Nom du photographe: Patrick Altman
Epiphany, also known as the Feast of the Magi, is celebrated on January 6, although in certain countries it takes place on the first Sunday following New Year’s Day. Traditionally, Epiphany celebrates the day on which Christ was shown to the world and comes from the Greek word epiphaneïa, meaning appearance or manifestation. After the shepherds from Bethlehem, the Wise Men (or magi) were the first to visit the Messiah’s place of birth, to adore him and offer him gifts. For this reason, popular tradition quickly associated them with this celebration.
An very widespread tradition for the day of Epiphany was the making of the King’s Cake. On that day, people would make a large cake, somewhat similar to a brioche, in which a bean was hidden. The individual who finds the bean in his/her portion of the cake is named king or queen of the day.* This monarch for a day had “absolute” power over the other guests. This ritual resulted in a great deal of merrymaking since the guests had to ask for permission to drink or get up and had to sing when ordered to do so, with his/her majesty’s orders bounded only by the limits of his/her imagination.
The Legend of the Three Kings
The Three Wise Men are mysterious individuals; although we know little of their origins, popular and religious traditions have expanded on them over the centuries. In Biblical terms, only Matthew mentions them and he simply says that they came from the East. He does not say how many there were and, above all, he does not indicate that they were kings. He simply called them “magi”. It was not until about the 4th century that certain texts referred to them as three kings, based on the number and value of the gifts offered to the Baby Jesus. Then they were given the names Melchior, Gaspard and Balthazar. Finally, in order to provide a symbolic representation of the universality of Christ’s message, tradition assigned a different nationality to each. Thus, one is yellow, one is white and the third is black.
The tradition of the King’s Cake dates back to at least the 14th century. It was, in fact, at that time that we find the first mention of the custom by the Bishop of Amiens, in France. Although the link between this custom and the celebration of the Three Wise Men seems direct, it is not certain. It is believed, rather, that the roots of this tradition date back to the Roman period when people often entertained themselves by electing a king during festivities. This celebration, which became popular throughout Europe, was brought to French North America by the first settlers and the tradition was celebrated in a traditional manner until the 1960s.
Finally, the Feast of the Magi is an important religious celebration. It is an obligatory feast day and the faithful are required to attend mass. It ends the cycle of Christmas celebrations. It is followed by several other feast days such as the Holy Family Sunday, but it is the last major feast day before Mardi gras and the celebrations pertaining to Easter.
Like the Feast of the Magi, St. Valentine’s day is another religious and popular feast day in the calendar. To learn more about this celebration of unknown origin, we invite you to return on January 25, 2005.
* It should be noted that in certain parishes in Quebec, both a bean and a pea were placed in the cake. The bean designated the king for the evening and the pea, the queen.
St. Valentine’s Day
St. Valentine’s Day can trace its roots back to a variety of sources that combine popular traditions and religious beliefs. St. Valentine’s Day first grew out of a Christian tradition that commemorated the death of Valentine, a Roman who was martyred on February 14, 270. Following that, February 14 became the date for celebrating the anniversary of all saints named Valentine. It was only in the 15th century that the religious festival gradually made way for the day of lovers.
It was, in fact, during medieval times that the tale of the martyred St. Valentine was embellished. It was said that, shortly before his execution, St. Valentine sent a message to his beloved, the jailor’s daughter, and signed it “From your Valentine”. That gave rise to the tradition of sending greetings, called “valentines”, on February 14. The legend became all the more popular since Valentine’s Day corresponds to the start of the period when birds mate. During this epoch of courtly love, it didn’t take much more for ladies and young girls to court people with love letters, tokens of their love or, very often, official marriage proposals.
St. Valentine’s Day also has Roman roots. In fact, most historians associate St. Valentine’s Day with the Lupercales festivals celebrated in ancient Rome on February 15. At that time, the Lupercales festivals honoured Faunus Lupercus, god of herds and shepherds and marked the beginning of spring. For the occasion, a “lottery of love” was held, drawing the names of boys and girls who would form couples for the coming year. As in the case of several liturgical festivals, the Church replaced this pagan festival with St. Valentine’s Day. It should also be noted that one of the most powerful symbols associated with St. Valentine comes from Greco-Roman mythology, namely Cupid, the god of love, know as Eros to the Greeks.
There is little evidence of how St. Valentine’s Day was celebrated in French North America during the colonial period. In fact, the tradition of St. Valentine’s Day became popular in North America during the Victorian era, with middle-class Anglophones in Canada and the United States. It was at that time that the business of manufacturing greeting cards first flourished. Such cards were made by various artists and were often highly ornate. At that time, cards and love letters were sent to one’s lovers. However, after 1900, when post cards became popular, it became tradition to send greetings of love and friendship to all loved ones: parents, friends, etc.
Today, although this festival is still very popular with young and old alike, St. Valentine’s Day is undoubtedly most popular in the United States. In fact, following Christmas, this is the celebration that results in the most correspondence.
Unfortunately, unlike St. Valentine’s Day, not all fast days have traveled down through time to the present. Thus, one feast day which was once extremely popular has virtually disappeared today: Mardi Gras. To learn more about this festival, which was one of the most popular barely 40 years ago, we invite you to return on February 8, 2005.
- Valentine's Day Love and Romance Through the Ages - La Saint-Valentin - L'amour et la tendresse,
[En ligne], 2004. [ http://www.museevirtuel.ca/Exhibitions/Valentin/ ]
- Le Petit Larousse illustré 2002. Paris, Larousse, 2002, 1785 p.
The “fat” days
Artiste: Edmond-Joseph Massicotte
Titre: Le mardi gras à la campagne, 1911
Technique d'expression: Photolithographie
Dimensions: 21,9 x 31,1 cm
Collection: Musée national des beaux-arts du Québec
Nom du photographe: Pierre-Luc Dufour.
At least since the medieval times, the “fat” days end the cycle of celebrations that started with Christmas. They culminate in the evening of “Mardi gras” which is the last occasion, apart from the Mi-Carême (literally, the middle of Lent), for major celebrations before Easter Sunday. Depending on the region and the time, this period of abundance started on the day after the Feast of the Magi or a few days before Mardi gras (also called Shrove Tuesday in English). Thus, during the time of New France, reports indicate that this period lasted seven days, whereas during the 19th century it officially started on the Saturday preceding the big festival.
The fat days announce the arrival of Lent, the 40-day period that precedes Eater and is a time for penitence and conversion when the faithful must fast and abstain from eating meat, sugar or other treats. During this time as well, other restrictions applied and dancing and festivities were prohibited. Therefore, the “fat” days resulted in several memorable evenings, when people stuffed themselves on the meat that they would be forbidden with the arrival of spring, and attended numerous dances and cotillions.
The Mardi gras ended this cycle of dance-filled evenings. It was celebrated on the evening before Ash Wednesday, marking the official start of Lent, which ends with Easter. In addition to eating like kings, singing and dancing, the guests were invited to don costumes for the evening of Mardi gras. Wearing masks or covering their faces with soot, men and women roamed from house to house to drink a glass and dance with their hosts. It was customary for the hosts to try to guess the identities of their guests, who were not required to identify themselves. In order to make matters totally confusing, some guests would go so far as to trade clothing with their friends.
At about 10:00 p.m., the merrymakers would go to the home of a family member and stay there for the evening. The festivities did not continue past midnight since Lent started at that time. However, a few tireless party-goers would break this rule, as did those who used the excuse that they had no clocks. Yet, they risked being singled out by the Church, which condemned the excesses of the “fat” days or, worse yet, of being visited by the devil in person. At least that’s what several legends from the 18th and 19th centuries tell us.
Finally, the “fat” days also resulted in several winter carnivals including parades and sports demonstrations. In Quebec, the Quebec City winter carnival, which has been celebrated there since 1894, is probably the most popular of these festivities, although the tradition spread throughout French North America, to places such as Louisiana, where the Mardi gras parade is still extremely popular. On the other hand, Mardi gras is essentially no longer celebrated in Quebec.
On the calendar of celebrations, Mardi gras is followed by the Mi-Carême, which is celebrated on the third Sunday following Ash Wednesday. It is essentially the same as Mardi gras. On Isle-aux-Grues, the Mi-Carême is still celebrated in keeping with past traditions. To have an idea of the originality of these popular celebrations during the time of our ancestors, we invite you to visit the official site of the municipality of l’Isle-aux-grues.
The next chronicle will feature Mi-Carême (which literally mans the middle of Lent), a celebration that was welcomed by all since Lent was rigorous. To learn more about this original celebration, we invite you to return on February 22, 2005.
- PROVENCHER, Jean. Les Quatre saisons dans la vallée du Saint-Laurent, Montréal, Boréal Express, 1996, 605 p.
- DESAUTELS, Yvon. Les coutumes de nos ancêtres, Montréal, Les éditions Paulines, 1984, 55 p.
A joyous break in the middle of Lent
After people had thoroughly celebrated Mardi gras, Ash Wednesday started the lengthy Lent period. People from the ages of 21 to 60 were required to respect Lent. This involved fasting every day except for Sunday. And there was nothing random about this. People were allowed one meal per day, generally at noon. Mornings and evenings, they limited their intake to very light foods. Lent was also characterized by severe restrictions concerning leisure and social activities.
But this period of penitence and privation was interrupted by a day of celebration. In fact, the third Thursday after Ash Wednesday, people celebrated the Mi-Carême (literally the middle of Lent) which provided a joyous break for all. During the evening, as in the case of Mardi gras, everyone took part in a party, either at their home or at the home or a neighbour.
As in the case of Mardi gras, the children returned home early from school and would don disguises and wander about their neighbourhood in the hope of receiving a few sweets. The adults would finish their work earlier and join the young people in their round of visits. In preparation, the women would cook up a storm as they did for major festivals and the tables would be laden with platters containing all kinds of delicacies, from stews and fricassee to pies, cakes and crepes. Everyone would have an excellent appetite – after all, they’d been tightening their belts for 23 days. Needless to say, the plates would be emptied in the blink of an eye. Since alcohol was also permitted, people willingly imbibed.
While the household rang with the clinking of plates, a sweet odor would tempt noses sharpened by a lengthy fast, the scent of the Mi-Carême toffee. On a stove or in an oven, molasses and maple syrup would boil with a most appetizing sizzle. The woman of the household would stir the mixture from time to time, with a large wooden spoon, as the precious liquid got thicker and thicker. In just a few more minutes, the “merrymakers” could eat toffee to their heart’s delight. At that time, it was impossible to think of a Mi-Carême or St. Catherine’s day without toffee.
On several occasions during the long, lively evening, a heavy pounding would make everyone gathered in the home jump. Someone was knocking on the door. In the doorway, men and women who were wearing masks (or had blackened their faces with soot) and strange clothing would interrupt the celebration. In French this was called “courir la Mi-Carême”, which refers to neighbours and friends coming along to join the group of merrymakers. In certain regions, an old woman with a nasal voice would make an appearance, personifying the “Mi-Carême”.
When the “Mi-Carême” arrived, it was tradition to offer this old lady a small shot of rum, to help her warm up. Once she had slaked her thirst, she would make a tour of the main room. Stopping in front of each person there, she would place her large, dark, cloth bag on the floor and take out a mysterious white paper cone. Everyone received a gift, depending on whether they had behaved well or poorly. People who have been good would receive candies or sweets. People who had been naughty would receive frozen potatoes or nut shells. The old lady would often make very impertinent comments about each individual. Her role entitled her to a certain amount of honesty that would entertain those gathered and embarrass her target.
The children waited for their turn impatiently, but also with a certain amount of trepidation, since their misdeeds were announced for all to hear, to the amusement of their parents.
Once the paper cones had been distributed, the party continued with a round dance without musical accompaniment. During Lent, boisterous celebrations were avoided. Despite this, everyone managed to have a good time.
The next day, people once again became serious and ardently continued their Lenten activities. Soon it would be time for Holy Week, filled with a wealth of popular rites and highly dramatic religious ceremonies that culminated in Easter. The best of all spring celebrations, Easter brought an end to this period of sacrifice.
This is the final chronicle on Celebrations in St.Lawrence Valley.
- PROVENCHER, Jean. Les Quatre saisons dans la vallée du Saint-Laurent, Montréal, Boréal Express, 1996, 605 p.
- DESAUTELS, Yvon. Les coutumes de nos ancêtres, Montréal, Les éditions Paulines, 1984, 55 p.