December 24: Noel

December 24: In my search for my daily photography I often delve into Gallica at the Biblioteque National de France, which is full of treasures such as the two below which present a familiar sight; children visiting Father Christmas. In this picture then by Agence de presse Mondial Photo-Presse, it is Pére Noel and he and the children are surrounded by what look like wooden soldiers come to life, led by a gruff medal-bearing general, sword at his side and fag in his mouth.

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“Paris est un monde et Montmartre en est le pôle… ne laissons pas oublier que, malgré Einstein, le monde entier tourne autour de ces deux pôles là !… ” proclaimed the artist Joe Bridge in 1920 “La Butte is no longer the Butte, so let’s create the Republic of Montmartre”! On May 7, 1921, this republic was officially founded ‘for a laugh’ at a gathering of artists, painters, sculptors, musicians, poets and friends of the arts, in a bond of solidarity and “To do good in joy”, which was the motto of this new Republic. Artists and designers were its founders: Francisque Poulbot, Forain, Neumont and Willette, who became its first president, its headquarters located in the Place du Calvaire, in the Art Nouveau mansion of Maurice Neumont, one of the loftiest in Paris, atop Montmartre.

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Lucien Boyer, songwriter, composes the hymn of the new Republic to the  music of Borel-Clerc in 1923 and its refrain “Mont’là-d’ssus, mont’làsusus, and you’ll see Montmartre …” is heard across the country.

The Republic of Montmartre is populous and poor and without social services. Francisque Poulbot, the “Father of the Kids”, encourages philanthropists to contribute to meet the considerable need by organising promotions at the Moulin Rouge, the Moulin de la Galette, Galeries Lafayette or the Médrano circus. These featured Montmartre personalities such as Jules Chéret, Jean Gabin or the Fratellini and were advertised with posters Poulbot himself designed (above); he was an illustrator and his amusing drawn vignettes appearing in newspapers and magazines of the period, particularly Le Sourire were very popular. The shows collected funds for gifts and meals during Christmas for the ‘Little Poulbots’, the ‘street children’ that he so often drew, and the sick children of the Bretonneau hospital.

That these were popular events is evidenced in the image below, taken at the event in 1922. The dial on top of the contraption on the stage reads ‘Natural’, ‘Charcoal’, ‘Aquarelle’ and ‘Pastel’ and the sign on its rear ‘…GRAPHIE’ might be the last letters of PHOTOGRAPHIE. Is it a prototype of Instagram?

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‘Arbre de Noël’ at the Galeries Lafayette 1922.

A certificate of civic action was awarded to children, inciting the values of honesty, work and cleanliness. Charity supported the creation, in 1923, by Poulbot of the dispensary of the Republic of Montmartre, from which doctors, nurses and dentists performed 1500 consultations a year. To house it Father Arthur, patron of the Pomponnette restaurant which still operates at 42 rue Lepic, donated his poultry sheds; “Too bad, for the chickens… there will always be enough in Montmartre! Meals were also provided by merchants of La Butte in this tremendous example of solidarity.

It is from behind the window of the dispensary at 21 Rue Lepic that we see Pére Noel distributing his gifts to the children in this photograph and the one above taken at the same time, 24 December 1932.

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It was also the site of a competition for child musicians and singers, seen here lining up in at 3:55 pm with their accordions, favoured at the time for the popular musette waltz music, for the audition. The photograph was taken in a later year as there are decorations of vines around the awnings not seen in the other images.

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Getty Images captions a photograph shot at the same time as the one below “On September 10, 1932, on place du Tertre in Montmartre, in front of ‘Conservatoire des gosses’ (Academy for kids), a child strikes up a folk tune of the Butte Montmartre in a celbration to inaugurate the Academy. We can see behind the child Montmartre’s rural policeman.”

Inauguration Of The Academy For Children In Montmartre 1932

Perhaps our ‘rural policeman’ is a fixture of some kind? He either remains in place from September 10 until Christmas Eve, his clothing and beard unchanged, or the Getty date is incorrect and this performance is in fact taking place at Christmas time. It appears the lad  is  being recorded, if that is a microphone and sound equipment in front of the boy.

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Despite the closure of the dispensary in 1936, the social action of the Republic persisted. Frustrating a would-be developer Poulbot and his architect friend Romain Delahalle create a playground for the children of La Butte, the “Square de la Liberté”, and later came the  idea to plant vines there in the Montmartre wine-producing tradition, initiated by the Romans and developed by the Abbesses de Montmartre. If you’ve been there, you may have been enchanted when stumbling upon the vineyard at the corner of the streets of Saules and Saint Vincent, between the Lapin Agile and the old house of Aristide Bruant. The first harvest of “Clos Montmartre” took place in 1934. A new dispensary, supported by  the Republic of Montmartre through various festivals and events, was set up at the Place du Tertre.

Today, the Republic of Montmartre continues “to do good in joy” and to help children of Montmartre and the 18th arrondissement, and in partnership with Cirque Pinder-Jean Richard the Christmas season is celebrated by treating nearly 5,000 children to a fairy-tale show.

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