I'm dreaming of a French Christmas | Emily Commander
NODDY Holder bellowing ‘It’s Christmas!’ in every shop, boisterous office parties, carols on the doorstep and turkey with all the trimmings – memories of a traditional British Christmas will always invoke strong emotions for those who have moved to France.
For many expats, the festive season here is given added poignancy because of the physical distance separating us from our families. What is more, despite our shared Christian heritage, the traditions that the French and the British associate with Christmas are really rather different.
That being said, there is plenty to enjoy in France at this time of year and France’s traditions can soon become your own once you get used to them.
If this is your first Christmas in France, our writer Emily Commander’s round-up will help you navigate the differences.
Back in the UK your diary was probably full to bursting with Christmas events, frequently building up to the obligatory office Christmas party. We know this is an event designed to humiliate us, and yet still feel compelled to attend, decking ourselves out in dubious knitwear, musical ties and light-up earrings. The sight of our bosses in paper hats is so traumatic we feel compelled to drink vast quantities of paint-stripper masquerading as wine, causing loss of inhibition so we make a spectacle of ourselves on the dancefloor and are obliged to hide under our desks the next day.
The French December diary gives people considerably more room to breathe, and poses less threat to the liver. You might find yourself invited to a celebration at work, but it will almost certainly involve a meal of at least three courses, and the focus will be on the quality of the oysters on offer rather than the booze.
In fact, apart from the odd glass of fine wine, you are unlikely to see much alcohol, and what there is will be sipped decorously. It will be a convivial affair. There might be children present. You will chat, mostly about food. Then you will leave, sober enough to drive home.
2. Christmas cards
Whether suspended on an elaborate series of ribbons, or stacked unceremoniously on the kitchen worktop, most British homes are to some extent buried under a mountain of cards during the Christmas season.
Card-writing practice varies from family to family. At the ruthlessly impersonal end of the spectrum, some of us print out batches of cards on the computer: at the other extreme, some of us spend hours crafting our own designs. Then there is the writer of the Christmas round robin, bearing tidings of over-achievement from the bosom of their family.
Christmas cards may be met with a blank look in France. This is because the French card season does not begin until the New Year, when it is traditional to exchange good wishes (voeux) for the year ahead. Cards can be exchanged right until the end of January.
These days many French people consider card-giving to be a bit old-fashioned, so if you are hoping to festoon your home with good wishes, think again. You are far more likely to have an exchange of good wishes in passing on the street; to hear them being exchanged on the radio, or to receive them en masseat a ceremony organised by the mairie (good fun if you like long speeches…).
Even the most secular of Brits will know a Christmas carol or two. Whether we prefer it sung by neatly-ironed choristers or by raucous crowds of revellers in the pub on Christmas Eve, all of us are partial to a bit of Hark! The Herald Angels Sing. Indeed, Christmas is probably the only time when such a normally restrained nation will tolerate mass singing without first dousing the vocal chords in alcohol.
In France, there are ‘songs’ that are sung in church at Christmas, but ask even the most dedicated attendee what they are, and they will struggle to produce even an opening phrase. Children learn secular Christmas songs about petit papa Noël at school, and these are dutifully rendered in mournful-sounding dirges before the end of term. If you’re looking for musical Christmas cheer, you’d be better off gathering round the piano at home.
4. Nativity plays
In the UK church attendance has been on a steady decline for some time, and yet most British citizens will not need much prompting to recount the Christmas story. This is largely due to the continued popularity of the school nativity play. Nobody is sure whether this tradition persists for the benefits of the children or the parents, who turn up in droves to see their child’s star turn as fifth lobster (à la Love Actually) or to laugh at a furious-looking Virgin Mary dangling baby Jesus upside down by his left leg.
In France, there are occasionally re-enactments of the nativity scene in church on Christmas Eve, called une crèche vivante. These are, of course, heavily supervised – and the baby Jesus is treated with due reverence.
In France, on answering your door during the month of December you may find yourself confronted by a fireman or postman in full uniform. They are there to sell you calendars to raise money for their own organisations – in my experience generally full of pictures of ageing firemen rescuing cats - and will usually ask for a donation of whatever cash you have on you. The number of people liable to knock on your door seems to increase steadily year-on-year.
6. Mince pies
As is the case with marmite, British citizens are trained in the appreciation of mincemeat from a tender age. By the time they reach adulthood, they will be capable of digesting three or four of these little delicacies each day throughout the entire month of December.
Expats wishing to indulge their love of mince pies in France will have their work cut out - unless they live in an area that has a high level of British infiltration, they will not succeed in finding a single one of Mr Kipling’s offerings for sale.
Jars of mincemeat are, if anything, even scarcer. The only option is to bake mince pies from scratch. Don’t even think of evangelising, though. The vast majority of French people, if they can be persuaded to try a mince pie in the first place, will recoil and laugh about your weird culinary tastes.
7. Christmas Eve
If you have ever had difficulty in persuading your over-excited children to go to sleep on Christmas Eve, you can do no better than to move to France, where many families celebrate the 24th just as extensively as they do the 25th.
So, instead of traipsing down to the pub to await Christmas, embrace French traditions by inviting your family round for a big Christmas Eve meal. You should prepare multiple courses consisting of as many delicacies as possible (think oysters, smoked salmon, foie gras…).
At midnight you should head to church to celebrate mass with a few uninspired songs, and when you come back the best news of all is that you don’t have to wait until morning to open some of your presents…
8. Shoes and stockings
In France, Père Noël would not have a clue what to do with a stocking left hanging from the chimney. Instead, children leave out their shoes for him to fill with sweets and little toys.
On the plus side, unless your children are particularly big-footed, this custom could well save Father Christmas some money each year. On the down side, you might want to suggest to him that he deposits only wrapped sweets in there.
9. Christmas lunch
In the UK ‘Christmas lunch with all the trimmings’ has a specific meaning: turkey, roast potatoes, parsnips, sprouts, pigs in blankets, cranberry sauce and gravy followed by Christmas pudding with brandy butter. Nearly every household consumes the same meal at the same time and, as a consequence, it is not unheard of for two people to be found wrangling over the last turkey in Tesco on Christmas Eve.
French Christmas lunches are no less filling, but the rituals and trimmings are different. For a start, if you want turkey, you need to make sure that you order it from your butcher well in advance, as, far from being forced to compete for the last turkey, you may be the only household planning on eating one.
It is worth buying in a cleaver for the occasion, as your bird may well come complete with head, legs and all its innards in place. If you manage to lay your hands on cocktail sausages and bacon for your pigs in blankets, you will be among the very fortunate few (try it and see).
French families eschew the British practice of treating things that they would normally never touch (Brussels sprouts, for example) as rare delicacies. Instead they aim for luxury: over the Christmas period supermarket workers will clear shelves of workaday items and you will find in their place entire aisles of oysters, local artisans offering up their foie gras for tasting, and sommeliers advising shoppers on the best champagnes.
As for Christmas pudding, oh là là, le pudding, as it is called over here, is rather heavy. If you want to be authentically French, opt instead for one of the upmarket yule logs that make their appearance everywhere in December.
In the UK, no festival is complete without people making a complete fool of themselves. This is epitomised by the Christmas cracker which contains an absurd paper hat (which it is obligatory to wear), a terrible joke, and a small piece of meaningless plastic designed to irritate parents everywhere. Don’t waste your time asking for the cracker aisle in a French supermarket. There aren’t any. After all, why on earth would you want to look stupid on such a special day?