In the voyage of discovery that has been my so-far seven years in France, I’ve encountered many a curious and endearing custom. At this time of year, that cultural apprenticeship turns festive, and I’ve learned an awful lot about how the French embrace the Christmas period, not least their baffling fondness for holding on to their Christmas trees for dear life until the summer months, refusing to let them go until every last needle has fallen.
This year though, my education intensifies as I’ll be spending my very first Noël in my adopted homeland. Mostly, I’m not going to lie, I’m looking forward to the good food, Champagne and feasting, not to mention the best French lesson a person could have, spending Christmas Eve as I am (the Queen ‘turkey’ on France’s December calendar) around a table with 15 authentic locals. English will be as rare during that meal as a flaming Christmas pudding, bread sauce and paper hats.
But it dawned on me the other day, with every Christmas card I wrote, that the glaring lump of coal in my Gallic Christmas stocking, was the French Christmas soundtrack. Or more accurately, the lack of it. I may be denied seconds by my hosts when I proclaim that the music culture in France is one of the country’s weakest points (at least when compared to the motherland’s efforts), and it seems that even a dollop of festive cheer hasn’t been enough to get the nation’s songwriting heavyweights to lift up their pens. Back in the UK anyone who’s anyone has a Christmas song under their belt. Even East 17.
There are some that exist of course, we’re not talking full-on Scrooge here. One of the most well-known and best loved is the tinkling classic Petit Papa Noël, though anything by Bing Crosby knocks that right out of the snow. Jingle Bells loses most of its Christmas charm when translated into its French version Vive le Vent, more a meteorological observation in lyrical form as it celebrates that, erm, delightfully biting winter wind. Even French legend Jonny Hallyday has had a couple of pops, but I’m not providing you with any links to save your ears.
The religious crowd get their fix with some classics carols, but these, and most of the holiday song efforts are mere translations of various international versions, with lyrics forced in like stuffing in a plump bird. For a gal who’s used to The Pogues, Nat King Cole, Chris Rea and Shakin’ Stevens keeping me nodding through Christmas dinner, I simply won’t be having a wonderful Christmastime in the music stakes this year. And don’t even get me started on the glaring Wham!-shaped hole, though in retrospect given the crazy-warm December weather this week, Club Tropicana may be more appropriate than Last Christmas.
I promise I will try to get in the spirit and not spend the 24th pining after Elton John et al (though I’m sure the oysters and foie gras will go some way towards helping), but I can’t promise I won’t try and teach my fellow French revellers how to sing Fairytale of New York when my head is merry with bubbles. By God, they’d better know how to play Charades….