Monday, December 19, 2005

Holiday Time

France is nominally a Christian country. Although separation of Church and State is enshrined both in French law and in daily practice, some national holidays – as well as school vacations - are based on the traditional Roman Catholic Church calendar: for example, Easter Monday, Whitmonday (lundi de Pentecôte), the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin (le 15 aout - Assomption), and All Saints' Day (Toussaint) spring immediately to mind.

Known in French as les fêtes de fin d'année, the holiday season at the end of the year encompasses both Christmas and New Year's and can be considered to extend to Epiphany, on January 6th (yes, the Twelve Days of Christmas !). Upon arrival, the American expatriate here is surprised – even dismayed, sometimes dumbfounded - to find that some facets of the traditional American Christmas and New Year's are simply not reproduced here. The French celebrate in other ways and, of course, over the years a winnowing process takes place: just what will the expatriate keep for her/himself from the American festivities, and which French holiday traditions might s/he adopt ?

The short answer to the first question is that one preserves the holiday traditions that one is comfortable with. Frequently some modification takes place, due to local circumstances.

Take caroling, for example: the French are not prone to gathering in groups and moving from house to house while lustily belting out "We wish you a Merry Christmas !", "God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen !" … or even Petit Papa Noel. On the weekends before Christmas, homesick Americans can find Carol services and gatherings at American churches (American Cathedral and American Church of Paris) and well as at least one English house of worship (Saint George's Anglican). There are also Christmas arts, crafts and bake sales at these institutions – and others, including the American Wives of Europeans Annual Holiday Bazaar - during the weeks preceding Christmas. For several years now the Choral Society at American Cathedral has put on a wonderful Handel's Messiah Singalong at the beginning of December. Clearly Americans looking for traditional Christmas activities can find them relatively easily and quickly, if they so desire. One need not remain isolated.

Sending Christmas cards to all and sundry is also a tradition unknown here. One will not find a huge selection in the shops, no matter how hard one tries. However, the French do traditionally send greeting cards (Bonne Année only) during the month of January. By the way, here it is considered unlucky - as well as very bad form - to wish someone a "Happy New Year" before the New Year has, in fact, rung in. However, one can extend one's New Year's greetings throughout the entire month of January – as long as they arrive before January 31st, that's OK. The French certainly know how to take the stress out of such things. In Amerloque's experience, American expats are quick to seize the advantages of the French system, even going so far as to send French New Year's cards back to the family in the States, much to the receiving family's disapproval.

Long term expat Americans en mal du pays equip themselves expeditiously with recipes for Christmas cookies (and appropriate traditional cookie cutters !), wassail and eggnog, all of which are absent from the French tradition … and the shops.

Ah, the shops, and the shopping ...

There is no Thanksgiving here, so there is no kickoff day to open the Christmas shopping season, such as Black Friday in the USA. Sometime in November, generally after Toussaint but before Armistice Day (le 11 novembre, a national holiday), department stores and shops begin unpacking, installing and unveiling their Christmas decorations and products. The increased commercialization of Christmas seen in America, the United Kingdom and other Western countries over the past few decades has been mirrored here. Hence the media is filled with items about best-selling gifts (le palmarès des ventes), dangerous toys (les produits non-conformes), addresses of the "best" places to shop, and other information designed to separate the consumer from her/his euros without too much pain. Shopping is very much an individual affair, and an expat can do in France exactly what he or she would do in the USA.

As in America, along with the shopping come the open-air Christmas decorations, of which there are many to be seen and appreciated, from simple Christmas trees (les sapins de Noel), with artificial snow and presents, to city-sponsored outdoor Christmas lights on lampposts and buildings. Some of the designs and colors are uniquely, inimitably French; in Paris the lights on the Champs-Elysées are always worth a visit. Nativity Scenes (les creches) and the associated figurines (les santons) are usually fairly elaborate. It's always enjoyable to view the decorations at the major Parisian department stores ... just like in New York, Chicago or LA !

Now, the second question: which French holiday traditions might an American expat adopt ?

In the USA, Thanksgiving is a time when families come together, while, in France, Christmas is that time. Hence the Christmas Eve dinner (le reveillon de Noel) is a special moment when all the members of the family gather 'round the table – perhaps after having attended a Midnight Mass or other service – to feast on traditional French dishes, ending up with the Yule log cake (la bûche de Noël). After opening the gifts found under the tree on Christmas morning, the family shares the Christmas Day luncheon / dinner, which nowadays usually includes turkey. New Year's, on the other hand, is an occasion to make merry with one's friends. New Year's Eve festivities (le reveillon de la Saint-Sylvestre) are generally devoted to eating, drinking and partying well into the morning hours. Many restaurants have special menus for both the Christmas and New Year's reveillons and it is not unusual for childless French couples (or emptynesters !) to simply dress to the hilt and go out for a great meal and celebration at a nice establishment – sometimes at considerable expense.

Given the vast variety and top quality of French foods, the American expat rapidly discovers - depending on the region and the weather - that traditional fare such as smoked salmon, caviar and foie gras can be amply complemented by simple boudin (blood sausage) or boudin blanc (white pudding), escargots (snails) and specialties such as cornues, springerle, Winachtsbredele and fougasse (one of the thirteen traditional Provençal desserts).

In Amerloque's experience, the expat adopts the partying and the food with nary a qualm – and why not ?

The cornucopia of French foods is huge and takes more than one lifetime to discover. A French food tradition worthy of note – and adoption if one wants to be part of French life forever - is the inordinate attention paid to the price of the truffle (la truffe), an essential ingredient in many a holiday dish. Weeks before Christmas, the media begins speculating on the quality of the truffle in the current year … Was there enough rain ? Was it not too dry this year - almost droughtlike – for a bumper crop ? Are there fewer truffes this season, or will it be a bounty year ? The focus then shifts to the local farmer and his truffle-sniffing animal, traditionally a pig. More and more dogs are being trained as truffle hounds, and the media is always ready to run a report on a local rustic (usually down Sarlat way) who has switched from pig to canine. Then come the inevitable reports about "foreign" truffles, from China, Italy or an unnamed "Eastern European" country, and their perceived – or real - lack of quality. The culmination of the truffle saga, every year, is inevitably the first day of the truffle market in the Perigord at the beginning of December: a secretive business run on words and handshakes among those in the know, virtually closed to outsiders – but one which the media penetrate so that the price per kilo can be triumphantly announced to the waiting world. Knowing the (usually astronomical) price of the bit of truffle one is eating adds a decided fillip to the Christmas boudin and paté.

Not yet a nationwide tradition – but rapidly becoming one – is the Christmas Market. Based on the German Christkindlmarkt with its Saint Nicolas, glühwein, gingerbreads, wooden market stalls, Black Forest-like Christmas decorations and inimitable folksy atmosphere, the marché de Noel is particularly well developed in Alsace and Lorraine, in the east of France – for obvious historical reasons. The attentive marketgoer can find glassblown ornaments, holiday handcrafts (including puppets and nutcrackers and cuckoo clocks), jewelry and, naturally, a staggering assortment of cookies, cakes, muffins, strudels, nuts, crepes, chocolates and beverages. In the past decade or so, millions of tourists have been drawn to Alsace to visit the numerous Christmas Markets in season; in recent years, municipalities and organizations throughout the France have jumped on the Christkindlmarkt bandwagon. Instead of lasting weeks, though, local markets might last an afternoon, a day or a weekend. They vary widely in quality and commercialism and, while most cannot but weakly rival the "real" markets in Eastern France and Germany (apparently the one in Mayence, i.e., Mainz am Rhein, was particularly beautiful this year: "the equal of Nuremberg", according to a expert member of Amerloque's immediate family who has just now returned, ecstatic …), they offer a uniquely French and European experience for American expats who wish to deviate slightly from the beaten track. Sometimes one will even find that any profits from a city-organized marché de Noel are used to help the less fortunate: solidarity in action.

Finally, the French economy takes a significant breather during the Christmas season. Moreover, school holidays usually begin on the weekend before Christmas and generally end several working days after New Year's. In America, members of a given family might arrange to "be home for Christmas" for a few days. Here, with five weeks paid vacation the general rule, many families arrange things so that members can take the entire Christmas week off together, perhaps on a skiing holiday, ... or simply at the country house (la résidence secondaire). Amerloque, among other expats, has wholeheartedly adopted this French tradition.

Of course, each American expat has her own story, his way of celebrating Christmas, depending on factors such as job, current financial circumstances, family ties, location in France, interest in Christmas and time spent in both the USA and France. More or less emphasis is placed on American and French traditions, local and national - choices are much more personal and relevant, when two cultures coalesce in celebration. Amerloque has found that binational families try to combine the best of both worlds and develop unique traditions, so that each Christmas past - and each holiday season - can be remembered with happiness as each member grows older.

Joyeux Noël !


Text © Copyright 2005 by L'Amerloque


Blogger tazey said...

Personally, I couldn't care less about truffe noire or truffe blanche, unless there's chocolate involved. :)


5:34 AM  
Blogger benoit said...

joyeuses fetes to you, the wise man of SF's blog !!! ;)

12:35 PM  
Blogger L'Amerloque said...

Hi benoit !

Many thanks, Benoit !

To you Amerloque extends the best wishes of the holiday season, too !


12:44 AM  
Blogger Flocon said...

Here's a link that you may find of some interest...

2:25 AM  
Blogger Sandrine said...

Hey, what a nice post. Very interesting, and sooo true. I wish you the best for this new year. Hope you had a lot of gifts for Xmas...

3:35 PM  
Blogger Chris Knepper said...

A great write-up! I've catalogued my own expat experiences, mainly oriented to families with kids, here:

8:04 AM  
Blogger Chris Knepper said...

forgot the link

8:05 AM  

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