As we celebrate Christmas, we are likely to tell ourselves that we are putting the cares of the year behind us for a while to spend time with family and friends and, as 2017 dawns, many may wish ‘for a better year than the last one’.
There is no denying that 2016 has been difficult. It followed on the heels of a senselessly savage end to 2015 and has included – in no particular order – the uncertainty caused by the Brexit vote, the US presidential result, strike after strike, the refugee crisis, Syria and Iraq, the Bastille Day attack, floods, and rows over burkinis. Whatever your views on any of the above, no one can be in any doubt that there are problems ahead and divisions to heal.
History is not going to look kindly on 2016. But, then, to make History is not why most of us moved to France. Most of us came for a better, healthier, more family-friendly lifestyle and an improved work-life balance – and the question we have to ask ourselves is: has any of that changed? For me, the answer has to be ‘no’.
Perhaps I am growing soft in my father-of-three dotage, but Christmas is when differences between my life now and my life back in the UK are most highlighted.
I am now into my eighth December in France – and have lost almost all the cynicism over Christmas that I had carefully nurtured back in the UK. It is possible that I might even, secretly, enjoy the season of goodwill again.
The endless commercialism killed off my festive joie de vivre in England. The constant calls to spend, and the news reports from the Boxing Day sales that included interviews with people who had spent half their Christmas Day and all night camped outside a shop on Oxford Street so they could be first in the queue when the doors opened.
In the corner of south-west France I now call home, Christmas hit the shops sometime in mid-November. Friends in the UK, meanwhile, have been complaining about the rising tide of festive chocolates since September – and when a certain department store’s TV advert is both an eagerly awaited highlight and, this year, a newsworthy disappointment, it has to be said that something has gone very wrong with people’s priorities.
Here, I am the first to want to visit the Christmas market. I love the sights, sounds and smells – and the happiness and wonder on my children’s faces is, to borrow a line from another advert, priceless.
The statistics are telling. The portion of the average festive budget set aside for food and drink in France is higher than either that of either the UK or the US, despite the fact that the overall cost of French Christmas celebrations are lower.
A third of the average French festive spend of €577 last year went on food, compared to 20% of the UK budget of £796, and just 10% of the $1,018 that Americans set aside for the celebrations.
So, the French spend less on Christmas – and more of what they do spend goes on making the most of a ‘bon moment’ with family and friends. The French concentrate their money and attention on the celebration, not the gift. On being together and enjoying each other’s company. On priceless (there’s that word, again) family time.
That has to be one of the better ways of looking at life, especially when times have been difficult. It is a philosophy more of us would do well to emulate. Yes, 2016 has been tough – but I will take this French view of what matters most any day and, despite everything that has happened this year, I still do not want to live anywhere else.