Christmas! It’s Christmas

Posted on: 18 December 2007 by Gareth Hargreaves

The highs and lows of Christmas away from 'home'.

On the 10th day of (pre-) Christmas, our daughter said to us, “Is it just me or is anyone else getting really excited?”  Yes and no. As a perennial lover of “Noël”, I don’t wish to place a humbug in the stocking, but a French-style season of goodwill never quite lives up to expectations.

It’s simply not the same, you see. Christmas in the UK was never about model Santas climbing houses ablaze with decorations redolent of small-town America.  Everything here, too, is focused on the 24th rather than the 25th.  Afterwards it’s all somewhat perfunctory. Many even return to work on Boxing Day.

The national obsession with food climaxes in the monumental grande bouffe of Réveillon or Christmas Eve. Often beginning after aperitifs and the traditional evening mass, the meal can constitute up to 15 courses and last into the wee small hours.  It’s a preposterous procession of culinary riches.  Oysters, lobsters, smoked salmon, foie gras, venison and sweet buttery desserts together creating havoc in the Yuletide gut.

It’s mainly, of course, a family affair.  So you feel a little like Mr. Scrooge peering through the window at the Cratchets gathered happily around the table.  Feelings of exclusion inevitably induce home thoughts from abroad.  The logical side of my brain reminds me that family Christmases are not necessarily all they’re cracked up to be.  Didn’t I vow 'never again' after that memorable year when I opened the front door to find my father peering up at me bleary-eyed from the doormat?  Giggling inanely, and fortunately unnoticed, while arguments raged within about my father’s sobriety.  And all this before the presents.

Nevertheless, my brain’s warm fuzzy side sends distress signals about missing out on the family fun.  Thus, periodically, we’ve been tempted to travel at the busiest and most expensive time of year. Hundreds of kilometres on the road, choppy Channel crossings, the mayhem of UK motorways, a few days of living out of bags and rushing hither and thither to spend fleeting moments with loved-ones while all the time, at the back of your mind, lurks the prospect of the return journey.

No, it doesn’t work.  And it’s too much to hope that family or friends will attempt the equivalent.  Therefore we tend now to stay at home and forge our own seasonal traditions.

During the lead-up to the Big Day for example, our daughter usually convenes a sleep-over weekend here, during which the house is transformed into an artistic sweatshop.  Young girls hog the table, creating cards and decorations and presents for parents to a soundtrack of Madonna’s greatest hits.

On Christmas Eve, fortified by gently mulling wine, my wife and I spend the day preparing nibbles for an 'open house' that starts early enough to give French friends a chance to drop in and partake of good cheer before their blow-out begins.  British friends stick around a little longer; the stragglers maybe game for a dance in stockinged feet on our heated sitting room floor.

Christmas Day commences with our daughter’s indecently early appearance at the bedroom door. She joins us in bed for the ceremonial investigation of the mysterious stockings that appear overnight.  After our “traditional” breakfast of coffee or hot chocolate and crêpes, we retire to the tree for the presents – trying to shut out memories of the fateful year when my wife slipped on the frosty ground outside and broke her arm while retrieving a forgotten package from the Peugeot.

And Boxing Day – thanks to a recent initiative of Anglo-American friends – now involves a restorative communal walk.
It may not quite live up to expectations yet, but we’re working on it.  This year, we have British telly for the first time, so yes, I am excited. There probably won’t be much on, but the Queen’s speech may help us to feel slightly more... connected.

The author, Mark Sampson was born in 1954 in London and raised in Belfast.  He has lived in Southwest France since 1995. His family’s straw-bale house was featured in Grand Designs Abroad and his latest book, Essential Questions to Ask When Buying a House in France, appeared earlier this year.  He writes a fortnightly column for 50connect as an ‘ex-pat’ living in France

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