Last year was the first time in 6 years that we didn’t go to spend Christmas with family. We stayed home - just the 3 of us because my beau son was with his mum - and we did Christmas in our style, our rhythm. This really meant that we did things more ‘English’ style than French. Presents opened on the 25th and big Christmas lunch.
The most important thing to know here is that my husband’s birthday is the 24th December and his family have always celebrated Christmas in the evening of the 24th. This has always baffled me (and when Mr French was a kid always felt short-changed by only getting 1 present. Bless).
And so since arriving in France I started to decode this Christmas Eve tradition. When is Santa supposed to arrive? What do you do on the 25th? Why don’t you leave the 24th to your son and do Xmas on the 25th?
I soon came to realise that Santa magically passes at l’heure d’apero - thanks Santa - and all the kids were distracted and herded into another room whilst the presents were gathered under the tree. Then Voila, look the presents are here! I remember my first French Christmas I nudged my stepson to say thank you for the presents and I got a death stare from Mr French. ALL the presents are from Santa and none are from the parents. Big faux pas, Karen. But why do all the presents come from Santa??
It was just all so weird to me not to mention that kids aren’t stupid. Do they really believe that Santa happened to come by the house just when Auntie Clare wanted to show them something in the garage? The answer is probably yes…but not for long. Also, how do you explain to the poor kid that Santa didn’t give her that new bike she wanted but he did to little Lucas down the road? Problematic.
The biggest thing that this way of doing things was missing for me was the anticipation. Going to sleep on the Christmas Eve was so exciting and wondering what Santa would bring all added to the magic of Christmas. Even when I didn’t believe in Santa anymore the joy was in the anticipation and build-up through Christmas Eve. Mr French loves to tell me that some Frenchies do celebrate Xmas on the 25th and the Catholic traditions are still prevalent everywhere in France where they would go to midnight mass and then open gifts on the 25th. It seems to me that it’s those who believe in God who celebrate on the 25th and the non-believers on the 24th. Not that it matters. Mr French’s birthday still got smothered by Christmas because it was the day the family came together (and according to my belle mere when you could go and see other family on the 25th). And so, when we stayed home for our first family Christmas and kept the 24th for my husband’s birthday and the 25th for present opening it was for Mr French’s birthday but also for me to touch base with my English traditions.
It’s probably worth noting here that we don’t particularly care about Christmas. We aren’t religious, Mr French would be happy either way I reckon and for years now I have baulked at the way Christmas has become a capitalist holiday. The gifts I offer should have a direct correlation between value and how important the receiver is to me. Read: I often felt that it wasn’t enough. What a pack of bullshit. And yet this pull was strong, I would either overspend or disconnect and for a long time, I had wanted to instil a more meaningful ritual into this festive time of year. And yet, with my new life in France, I was learning my family’s way of doing things. I missed the magic of how my family did things: the morning of the 25th, the crackers, the turkey. I missed my family. And I was missing the meaning.
So, when we gathered in our own home for the first time to celebrate Christmas my son was too young to be over-excited hook, line and sinker into what this time of year means. Plus my husband had been vegetarian for over a year and this meant a new Christmas menu. I had never cooked a traditional Xmas meal. Being the youngest and last to start a family it was always my Mum, then my sister or my Dad when we celebrated with him. Last year was the first time it was all down to me. It was fun, there was no pressure and, as my upcoming podcast guest on I am French said, ‘Cooking takes practice. You don’t do it once and then stop’ (Kate Hill, Season1, Ep 6).
Cooking a vegetarian meal (I cooked a nut loaf btw) without other family - mine or Mr French’s - around made me reflect on the expectations that come with Christmas. Whether we celebrate on the 24th or 25th, go to mass or eat Turkey or have Christmas crackers our expectations are there and I think they come from how our families have always done things. It’s familiar. We’ve practiced it and we come together at Christmas and our desire to come together is what brings the meaning. We show up because these people are important to us. Plus, crackers are a tradition.
For those who don’t know what I’m talking about: Christmas crackers are festive table decorations that make a snapping sound when pulled open, and often contain a small gift and a joke as Wikipedia describes. PLUS a paper hat that we wear whilst we eat. Yes, we all look silly, it’s a silly tradition and I still remember my Dad would wear his every Xmas meal almost insisting on wearing it.
There’s the memories. The feelings of home and belonging. We have these memories intertwined with Christmas: being at home, the smells, the feelings and I felt that I belonged. Being new to a country and family all of those things were inherently missing. But last year, just the 3 of us, I was at home and I did belong. Even if the nut loaf was different and not what I was used to (and I have to say not great as it was the first time I made it. There was also a distinct silence on WhatsApp when Mr French shared a picture of the meal. I read that silence to mean, ‘Glad I’m not having to pretend I enjoy that!’ Again, culinary expectations even though I would bet money that my family would agree with the sentiment of what I’m writing here. It didn’t look festive in the way we have come to expect or how we have done things. And I’m ok with all of that). I was experimenting with how to make my house a home. How to create new traditions and memories and also find my place between the traditions of my past and the traditions of my new country. Even if they manifested Santa at Champagne o’clock. Ha! So French!
This year my in-laws are coming to us as well as my belle sister and her husband to be. (Don’t worry, it will be Covid sensible and I will air the house religiously). My only stipulation was that Christmas present opening will happen on the 25th. The 24th will be for Mr French’s birthday. This is most challenging for my beau son, who has already announced that he will probably not sleep on Christmas Eve because he will be so excited. So cute. I’m mindful that he doesn’t feel that he doesn’t belong with a new tradition thrust upon him meaning he has to wait EVEN longer for presents! So, there may or may not be 1 present for the kids to open each on Christmas Eve as a way of blending to the 2 traditions, we’ll see. We’ll be cooking some vegetarian dishes and some meat and definitely stuffing. What? I haven’t mentioned stuffing? It. Is. Amazing! Go google it and try some this Christmas. I still find Paxo (the popular brand for stuffing) here in French supermarkets and I thank the Lord of stuffing makers for that!
Anybref, after this year of madness, grief and turmoil I will be glad to come together with family and break bread. I am grateful that we have all come through this year relatively unscathed and I know not everyone can say that. I’ll attempt more new veggie recipes and try to find healthy options for some traditional dishes. I’ll be mindful of the pull of those old ways that serve no purpose any more and try to remember that it’s all a work in progress.
I’ll look to be present and connect to my family around me and soak up the joy with which the kids will be bouncing off the walls. Champagne in hand, maybe a silly hat, trying to steal an hour to do yoga, Facetiming my family in England and being deeply grateful. I’m finding my place - one Franglish Christmas at a time.
In 2014, I packed up my life in London and moved to rural France, oh, and I didn’t speak French. Fun! I’d met my husband-to-be on Facebook (I know, crazy!) and since he had a young son he wasn’t going to up-sticks and come to the big smoke. So, I took the leap and found myself in the countryside. With the cows. Oh la vache!
I spent a good few years learning French like a toddler aka listening A LOT and trying to piece together the complicated minefield that is the French language. (Now I know why toddler’s sleep so much. Brain. Working. Non. Stop.) I get by ok now with the lingo but I still remember how my limited French made me feel disconnected, invisible and unable to share my humour and personality.
I have navigated pregnancy and the birth of my son here, being a step-mum, making friends and finding work. I’ve struggled with the enormous changes that came with moving here, enjoyed the more seasonal way of life, laughed a lot (my husband even made me laugh the day after my Dad died), cried with frustration at my inability to control my life and even understand how l'administration francaise works. I’ve made great friends but struggled to really feel a part of a community. I’ve been lonely, isolated and that wasn’t helped with bouts of mental health issues (post-partum anyone?).
I’m a yoga practising, marmite eating, Kale growing (Yes, Kale has a capital K because it is King), Erykah Badu loving Londoner who is an actress, deep tissue masseuse and healthy eating advocate after a chronic health issue in my early 20’s.
KarenFrenchinFrance is where I talk about all these things and more: my life in France, my discoveries about myself and the French and what it’s like living in France. I started the podcast I am French in 2020 to talk with other non-Frenchies about life in France. Check it out here!