…wiz bows of ‘olly, oh la la la la la la la la (as the Franglais version might sound). Joyeuses Fêtes! is the sound currently resonating through the country, though I can’t hear it as I’m across the pond happily tucked up at Momma Bear’s house awaiting our big family day tomorrow (25th), where no sprout will be left uneaten and no wine bottle left unturned.
Well, I use the word ‘resonating’, the sound is really more like a bored kind of whisper – according to a recent poll, the French care the least about the festive period in all of northern Europe, so it’s a wonder they put up tinsel at all. Whereas us anglos shop for presents like people possessed, shovel down dinner whilst wearing jovial paper crowns and play Christmas songs and festive films on loop, on the other side of the channel, it’s all a bit tamer. Here’s a bit of information if you fancy changing your celebratory style to be a little more French.
A much more minimalist affair, there are far fewer traditions that need adhering to at this time of year in La Belle France. Christmas cards are out, as are crackers, carol singers, Christmas pud, Christmas cake, mince pies, brussels sprouts, the Queen’s speech (obviously) and the slap-your-thigh gender confusion that is pantomime. Walk around some streets in Paris, even in the very centre, and you might not realise what time of year it is at all.
In fact it has only been since the second world war that the winter festival has really taken off, and the modern day population are still slightly resistant to the new style of celebration. The French barely take much time off, don’t even have names for the reindeer yet (only Rudolph), and have only just got into the gift buying spirit. 40 years ago, you got an orange in a sock, and that was your lot. But thanks to the various cultures of Europe gradually bleeding into each other, and the increasing Americanisation of France, festive fever is finally taking hold.
You can forget circling the 25th on the calendar though, the Catholic majority French peak a day early on the 24th, traditionally having their big meal on the night of Christmas Eve (after Midnight Mass for the falling numbers that still go). If there are children to entertain, the presents are left until Christmas morning, but leaving carrots for the reindeer and a whiskey for Santa just isn’t the done thing. As home decorations go, the tree has arrived and is here to stay, and any family worth their salt have a nativity nestled in the corner somewhere (though they’ll never beat my Mum’s knitted version).
In a country with a culinary reputation as sharpened as in France, food of course takes centre stage, and it’s traditionally enjoyed amongst the family. All the French delicacies are wheeled out, including foie gras and Champagne, and fruits of the sea. Imagine oysters, lobster, prawns and caviar – with no expense spared on the pleasures of the mouth. It varies a little from region to region though, with oysters top of the menu in Paris, whereas in the ‘provinces’ (i.e. anywhere other than the capital) turkey with chestnut stuffing might be preferred, or the delicious sounding ‘chapon’, or specially castrated cockerel. Yum.
For dessert there are no fire safety issues for our Gallic cousins as the Christmas pudding is shunned in favour of a Bûche de Noël or Christmas log. In Provence you get 13 different desserts to honour Jesus and the apostles, though no cheesy Christmas feel-good films to veg in front of after the eating’s done. Parlour games ditto, the French are far to refined to reignite old family feuds over a few hours of Charades.
The folk up north know how to let loose a little more than the stuffy Parisians, but being raucous doesn’t mean being bad – those who overstep the line in the run up to Christmas are liable to get a beating from Père Fouettard or ‘Father Spanker’ (those saucy French), Père Noël’s nemesis who punishes the backsides of anyone naughty. It sounds an awful lot like a Carry On film to me, but despite the threat involved probably preferable to actually watching the real thing.
And that friends, is how it’s done. I wish you a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year wherever in the world you are, and see you next week for my final post of the year!