Noël chez nous

When you make your home in another country, no matter how much you love it, there is always something you miss. For me it was Christmas.

Everything about the end-of-year holidays in France was different. Starting with the calendar. On Christmas Eve, while we were hanging our stockings and laying out cookies and milk for Santa, my French friends and family were still at table, eating things like oysters and foie gras.

They didn’t have stockings but Santa mysteriously slipped in and left gifts for the little ones while the parents supped. On round three of champagne the adults would wake them to open their gifts and then send them back to bed. At least that’s what people told me: I never saw this with my own eyes. As a parent, and still an overly excited child myself, this was all wrong. How could the kids sleep at all knowing they had new toys to play with?

I'm dreaming of a...

We always did our own thing at Christmas in France, keeping up the traditions that I grew up with in Canada. In our house we played the traditional songs, stuffed our stockings and ate our turkey on the 25th. It was a compromise of sorts: my French in-laws would join us for a special meal on the 24th but Christmas Day was mine. My French family didn’t care much; they weren’t religious, Belle-Mère always reminded me.

Neither was I, but Christmas, while purely cultural, was sacrosanct. The magic of those mornings as children when we woke at dawn and were kings for a day. I needed to replicate that for my kids and somehow also for myself, even though the older I grew the more impossible it seemed.

Against the protests of my husband (The mess! The expense! What a waste!), we always had a real tree, which I decorated profusely. Unfortunately the French don’t believe in watering their trees so we never managed to avoid it drying out and having all the needles drop before New Year’s.

Candy canes were nowhere to be found so it felt like our stockings were missing something. There were no cinnamon buns for breakfast and I wasn’t up to making them from scratch so we had pain-aux-raisins or panettone. Washed down with a mimosa, no matter how early the hour, a tradition my family in Canada had recently instated. Belle-mère would raise an eyebrow, saying something about how we were starting early — at least until I offered her a glass. There is no better way to start a special day than a champagne breakfast.

It was impossible to get a turkey, at least in the early days, so we would have a chapon or pintade (capon or guinea fowl), which the butcher always assured me would be better tasting but didn’t do it for me. And there were never any leftovers, the best part of the turkey!

My husband could not conceive of a celebratory meal without a cheese course so that was another break from tradition. On the upside, the traditional yule log was always easy: the French ‘Bûche de Noël’ is excellent and in plentiful supply in every pastry shop over the fêtes de fin d’année.

There was rarely any snow in Lyon, although we sometimes got a few wet flakes or a powdery dusting. While the French howled about the horrors of the roads, I privately rejoiced.

On the whole, we did pretty well. We certainly didn’t starve. And I managed to ensure an  abundance of wrapping paper and gifts, treats edible and drinkable, that called up the Christmases of my childhood. Most importantly, I created a Christmas tradition for my kids.

What we couldn’t replicate was family and friends. No matter what, I always missed my tribe at Christmas. On alternate years, whenever we could, we went back to Canada for the holidays. Got our dose of fa-la-la and excessive consumption and were happy to settle for a simpler version the following year. And so it goes.

This Christmas is a Canada year for our family (the first in four since we’ve been back) and I am especially happy to be going away. It is pouring rain as I type this, the strikes over pension reforms are ongoing, the UK just voted themselves out by end of January and frankly, I’m done with the news. I’ll be switching off for the next few weeks and hoping to be back with my spirits revived in January.

Wishing you all a happy, healthy and most jolly of holidays. Hope to see you soon in 2020!

36 comments

  1. margaret21 · December 13

    That’s really interesting. One of our favourite times in France was Christmas – simply because it was so un-commercial and understated compared with the UK, where it seems to begin earlier and earlier each year, and become more and more of a shopping fest. We loved that you could go out to eat on Christmas Day and just have a good meal at normal rates without ‘jollity’ being rammed down your throat. We have equally positive experiences in Spain, where my daughter lives. I MIGHT begin a few Christmas preparations this week – quite soon enough I think! Although I have long since made the cake, pudding and mincemeat – traditions which I shared with French friends, and which I know one or two have continued with since our departure.

    • MELewis · December 13

      I do see what you mean. As time goes by I become nostalgic all over again for those simpler Christmases. I agree the shopping fest in the anglo world (even more in Canada!) feels empty. Making things is wonderful — I love the smell of mincemeat pies. I’ve not done much of anything except online shop this year as we are travelling, but I will enjoy a few homebaked treats that others have made. Glad you enjoyed and hope you have a lovely Christmas!

      • margaret21 · December 14

        Thank you – you too, however you celebrate it.

  2. pedmar10 · December 13

    Well we are a traditinal family Catholic and my French roots are deep, we do follow traditions and we do eat the 24 and give the gifts the 25 with another lunch meal with family; and mine goes even deeper we do celebrate Epiphany on 6 January only we do not give a second gift ::) The Three Wise Kings go on a horse ride in many city centers of Spain I look forward to the one in Madrid.

    • MELewis · December 13

      I know how much the Epiphany means in Spain. A former colleague of mine was married to a Spaniard and every year she would complain about how much work it was to buy all those gifts! 😂 Hope you enjoy all the celebrations and manage to get to Madrid without too much trouble if the strikes are still on in France! Happy holidays!

      • pedmar10 · December 13

        Oh yes strikes is an entertainment lol will be long. Cheers

  3. midihideaways · December 13

    Have a wonderful Christmas break and a fantastic family celebration!! Safe travels and look forward to catching up with your blogs when you are back!!
    P.S. Real Christmas trees have a lower carbon footprint than the plastic ones 🙂

    • MELewis · December 13

      That is a very good point! Thanks for your wishes, Andreas, and all the same to you and yours. I look forward to reading you in the new year.

  4. acflory · December 13

    I grew up in Australia with a European Christmas, so all the important stuff happened on xmas Eve and Christmas day was leftovers and kind of meh. Once I married and had an Offspring of my own xmas turned into Christmas, thanks to a large extended family via my in-laws. So then we had two xmases, one on the 24th with Mum and Dad, and one on the 25th with everyone else [and hoards of kids]. These days? Minimal fuss…please!

    • acflory · December 13

      Grrr….p.s.! Have a wonderful trip and a great holiday. See you in 2020. 😀

      • MELewis · December 13

        😂 Thanks Meeks. Wishing you and the offspring the best of end-of-year holidays until then!

      • acflory · December 14

        A bientot!

    • MELewis · December 13

      I think it doesn’t matter which day or how you celebrate, as long as it means something to you. I must say that I’ve become less anxious about the whole thing of late — minimal fuss sounds about right!

      • acflory · December 14

        I’ve never done it but…one of these years, I’m going to book a restaurant and go there for xmas! Relax, eat, relax, chat, Relax…and leave someone else to clean up. 🙂

  5. weggieboy · December 13

    In 1971, I visited American friends in Paris around Thanksgiving time. We found a turkey, not a Butterball turkey with a huge breast, but a skinny one closer in size to the wild ones. We searched the city for necessary ingredients, found no cranberries let alone cranberry sauce, no Bell’s seasoning so “winged” it with fresh herbs, and settled with bread-based dressing on a two votes to one on which family traditions to follow. The feast featured more French elements than American, of course, yet turned out to be a feast to remember, even without pecan, pumpkin pie, green bean casserole or yams.

    • MELewis · December 13

      Enjoying what you have for what it is: that’s the whole trick, I think, and I wish I’d realized it sooner. We get so wrapped up in expectations and ‘must have’s’ that we sometimes miss the whole point. Yet all those things you mention are indeed lovely and I will enjoy them while I can! Happy holidays to you and the kitties. 😻

      • weggieboy · December 13

        It’s all about attitude, I think. We approached it like a scavenger hunt, trying to find components of an American holiday, yet open-minded about the potential to create a new tradition if necessary. The blend of three family traditions and the French components was, as noted, memorable! It was very democratic, too, since there had to be votes on which traditions to follow. How American!

  6. Mary Katherine · December 13

    What a lovely post. My husbands parents are from Germany, so we feast and exchange presents with them on the 24th, then have homemade cinnamon rolls and mimosas with presents at my sisters on the 25th- the best of all worlds! I do remember a certain hollowness about Christmas’s abroad in my earlier years, but it had more to do with missing family. Have a wonderful trip and plenty of falala!

    • MELewis · December 13

      ‘Hollow’ describes the feeling well. Not sure if there’s word to describe the opposite — overload? I may be posting about that once we’re back, lol. But seriously, this is one time of year that is all about family and I am grateful to be able to share it with mine. A holly jolly to you and yours!

  7. francetaste · December 13

    I had spent many Christmases in Europe, including in Paris, but I had never seen a Christmas like the one with my in-laws. Hours on end at the table, with champagne and presents and fireworks at midnight. No Christmas carols–only ’80s pop. They all got dead drunk and stayed until it got light, dancing and making a mess. Staying up all night is “proof” of having had a wild and crazy night. It was New Year’s Eve with presents.
    Later, with our kid, the adults would insist that even young ones needed to stay up. Evil step-sister, 22 years senior, declared that she stayed up all night from the age of 3 and could remember it. N’importe quoi. By 9 p.m., our kid would be tired and irritable and start whining and crying. “Spoiled,” the adults tsked. I was at fault for having trained my small child to go to bed at 7.
    There was also the aspect of presents. A month or two before, each person would distribute a detailed list, with size, color and above all brand name of what was expected. The point of giving gifts is to show the recipient that you had paid attention to their interests/wants/needs. It’s not to do their shopping for them.
    When I grew up, Christmas Eve was with one grandma, and one present came from Santa, who miraculously appeared just as our uncle left the room and missed him. On Christmas morning, we would have other presents, and then we would see the other grandma and other cousins. Lots of singing of carols. When we got older, we went to midnight Mass, for wonderful music.
    This year we get to avoid the in-laws. My kid is thrilled. Better a small Christmas than a soulless one. We hope to find a charity to volunteer with.

    • MELewis · December 13

      That perfectly describes the experiences of other non-French friends who have suffered through Christmas with their adoptive families. 80s pop! Gah…added to the long hours at table, sounds about insufferable. Hope you enjoy the time with your core family unit and find something suitably charitable to be part of the mix — you are the soul of generosity!

  8. Becky Ross Michael · December 13

    I suspect it’s our holiday state of mind that counts most, no matter where we are. Enjoy your Christmas in Canada!

    • MELewis · December 13

      So true. My holiday state of mind is on the up since I posted this morning. The rain even looks like it might turn to snow! 🙂

  9. Suzanne et Pierre · December 13

    First of all, have a great trip back to Canada. There isn’t much snow on the ground in Toronto this year but it has been brutally cold so far. Hopefully for you, there will be more snow in the forecast before you arrive.

    While in France, we came back home for Christmas except for the last year because we were coming back for good on Jan 2. So we were invited to join the Christmas Eve dinner with one friend’s family and then we did New Year’s Eve with another friend’s family. It was interesting and fun to compare the different traditions from what we are used to. I think it is very good that you tried to keep the Canadian traditions alive for your kids so they could relate to it when you were coming to your Canadian family for the holiday seasons. (Suzanne)

    • MELewis · December 13

      Thank you, Suzanne. This time around we will also be introducing my son’s French girlfriend to Christmas Canadian-style — it will be interesting to see her reaction! Whenever we come to Toronto it’s almost always a green Christmas, so no big expectations there. But we’ll also be spending a few days in Québec where I hope that we’ll have a chance to see a bit of snow. In any case, it will be nice to spend time with family and see a different side of things in Canada.

      • Suzanne et Pierre · December 17

        Quebec City should have some snow. They have some now and a bit more is expected this week. It has been cold lately everywhere so the snow they have should stick. Have fun and enjoy your time back home.

      • MELewis · December 17

        We’ll be in QC for new year’s. Fingers crossed! ❄️☃️

  10. eyelean · December 13

    One thing that I can’t stand these days is the shopping madness. Even sneaking out to the store last Monday at 3 it was already mobbed! I can’t deal with the parking lots either. I used to think maybe I shouldn’t do so much online shopping but now I don’t know what else would maintain my sanity.

    I’ve gotten used to our French Christmases with the in-laws but they seem pretty “soft” compared to others. And since a grandchild came into the picture things have gotten started a little earlier, presents included, or they’ve been held till Christmas morning. But we did put him to bed at the in-laws last year and picked him up the next morning. I’m not a fan of waking him up in the middle of the night. We do our presents at our house Christmas morning. I’d like to keep the magic of Christmas morning too. Glad to hear you’ve managed to pull it off.

    • MELewis · December 16

      Definitely the madness I can live without and for me, online shopping (despite its growing pains and many delivery quirks that need to be ironed out) is a life saver. I am fine with Christmas decorations and whatnot from December onwards but definitely not before. As of this week it officially feels seasonal.
      Glad you are able to hold firm on traditions for your little one. I think you can achieve a best-of-both balance and still stay sane, as long as you adjust your expectations. Happy holidays to you and your family!

  11. Katherine Wikoff · December 13

    Lovely post. I didn’t realize that French Christmases were simpler. I like that! And making treats instead of buying things.

    Have a wonderful visit this Christmas in Canada! You’ll no doubt get your fill of snow—and then some!—depending on where you are. We’re American upper Midwest, so we get all the “Alberta clippers,” as they term them here. Lots of snow swiftly followed by low, low temperatures and lots of wind. Good weather to stay cozy inside during! And with a real tree glowing with lights and smelling of pine . . . perfect!

    • MELewis · December 16

      Thanks, Katherine! We definitely get less snow in Toronto than you Midwesterners (I lived in Minnesota as a teen and remember it well!), but hopefully we’ll get a few flakes at least when we visit Québec for New Year’s. In any case, Christmas on your side of the Atlantic always feels special to us. Happy holidays and enjoy your cozy times by the tree!

  12. Garfield Hug · December 15

    🎅Merry Christmas….peace and joy🎅🎅❤😀

    • MELewis · December 16

      Merci! And all the best to you and yours for Christmas and New Year’s in L’il Red Dot! 🥳

  13. Joanne Sisco · December 15

    Merry, merry Christmas, Mel. I hope your travels are easy and uneventful. I wish you an abundance of happy moments with your tribe and all the things about Christmas that you love the most!! 🎁🎅🏼🎄💕

    • MELewis · December 16

      Thanks for your wishes, Joanne! Uneventful travel is the best we can hope for but probably unrealistic. Still, fingers crossed, we’re avoiding strike-bound Paris and flying through Amsterdam this time. I’ll be grateful to arrive and put my feet up after a bit of Christmas madness. All the best of the holiday cheer to you too!

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