How do you celebrate Noël?

I'm dreaming of a...If there is one holiday I’m religious about, it’s Christmas. This has nothing to do with any religion (although I still believe in Santa). But having grown up in a family that made a big deal about Christmas, I cannot conceive of spending December 25th any other way than with a turkey in the oven and presents on the tree. Cue Bing Crosby, jingle bells and ho, ho, ho.

Living in France makes it challenging to celebrate Christmas my way. First of all, there’s my husband. His idea of the perfect holiday is on the ski slopes. Every year, he trots out the idea of going away somewhere, preferably to a mountain lodge, instead of doing our usual gifts and celebrations. And every year, I nix that (at least until the 26th).

Then there are his parents. Like most French people, their concept of Noël focuses on le réveillon. This is the traditional celebration of Christmas and New Year’s with a long meal on the day before the event, in this case on the 24th. It’s an extravagant feast involving oysters, smoked salmon, foie gras…and, of course, fine wines. The meal can go on for hours. Small children are sent to bed then awoken after midnight to open gifts from le Père Noël.

My idea of Christmas involves a whirl of last-minute preparations on the 24th, then getting up early on the morning of the 25th to open Christmas stockings and presents. We start the day with champagne and orange juice, followed by brunch and a lull to enjoy quiet pursuits and get the dinner ready (in Canada, this would be a 20-lb plus turkey that needs several hours in the oven). By the time we sit down to enjoy our Christmas dinner, the party is mostly over for the French.

Over the years, I’ve tried various ways of bridging the two traditions in our home but it never seems to work very well. My in-laws are vaguely perplexed by our way of doing things, and I find it mildly depressing to try to conform to theirs. Which is why half the time we solve the whole issue by going to visit family in Canada.

But not this year. This year, we are going to stay right here in France and have two Christmases. Which only makes sense. After all, we have dual everything else: cultures, languages, nationalities. We even had two weddings.

So we’ll go out for the réveillon on the 24th. There’s a little hotel in the mountains about an hour from where we live, run by cousins of my husband (and the early exposure to altitude will make him happy). My beaux-parents will stay there and we’ll join them for a festive Christmas eve, exchanging gifts à la française. We’ll even be able to enjoy the champagne – safe in the knowledge that one of our adult children is the designated driver.

We’ll hang out the stockings when we get home and then spend our Christmas day in the traditional way. Which is to say making a huge mess, filling our gullets with goodies, then roasting like chestnuts over the fire while loudly arguing about everything from our favorite dessert to the name of that song we used to sing. We’ll probably even Skype in family from Canada to add their 2 cents.

Hopefully, this way everybody will be happy. Or as happy as any normally dysfunctional family can be while spending time together and trying very hard to enjoy themselves.

How do you spend Christmas? However you celebrate, Joyeux Noël à tous!

Fête des Lumières

lyon-fete-des-lumieres-bougies-490One of my favorite local French traditions is La Fête des Lumières – Festival of Lights – that takes place in Lyon every year around the 8th of December.

It is said that the city of Lyon was spared from the plague by the grace of the Virgin Mary in 1643. The tradition of lighting candles in return for the favor goes back to the mid-1800s, around the time the city erected the Basilica of Fourvière in her honor – perched atop the city’s highest hill and featuring a statue of the Virgin that seems to watch over the city and its central square, Place Bellecour.

I remember feeling homesick and a little bleak that first year we moved to Lyon after settling in France. The end of October came and went with nobody celebrating Halloween – I searched all over and couldn’t even find a proper pumpkin to carve for the kids, which I found strangely depressing. And then it was November, which for me is always the hardest month of the year – it’s cold and dark and you know the shortest days of the year are yet to come.

LumignonsColoresSo I was thrilled to learn about the Fête des Lumières. The tradition is that on December 8th the Lyonnais fill their windows with ‘lumignons’ – candles in squat glass holders – of different colors. Like most city-dwellers, we lived in an old apartment building with several tall French windows to line with candles. Everyone participates so the effect is quite stunning, with entire facades lit by candles. Then you go out and walk around and perhaps head over to le vieux Lyon, the old town, where les illuminations (light displays) are the most elaborate. The air is fragrant with the smell of roasted chestnuts.

The event has grown over the years, and according the city of Lyon now attracts some 4 million visitors. It’s been a few years since I last went but even then, the crowds had gotten too big for my liking. They now spread it over several days so as to get the most tourists in as possible. Some of the light shows are positively spectacular though – so if you don’t mind crowds, it’s worth planning a trip to Lyon in early December to catch the displays.

Fête des Lumières, LyonLa Fête des Lumières is perfectly timed to mark the start of the Christmas season – along with the collection of lumignons, I know it’s time to get out my holiday decorations and get serious about shopping.  Even though we moved away from Lyon a few years ago, I kept the candles and light them every year.

I’m not a religious person but I give thanks each year for this lovely tradition.

Tempête de neige

Snow covers a Metro sign and tree branchesHow five centimeters of snow turn the fearless French into a bunch of sissies

My belle-mère (mother-in-law) called early one morning in January with the breaking news: “’Have you seen what’s happened in Paris?” she demanded. “No,” I replied, imagining a terrorist bomb or worse, a train strike.

“They’re completely snowed in. At least ten centimeters.” In France, snow in Paris is major national news. Next thing you know the army will be called in to rescue stranded commuters.

“Imagine,” I said. “Snow, in January.” This prompted a diatribe about how it was all very well for Nordic countries, but in France they’re not equipped for snow, at least not in the city.

Full disclosure: I grew up in Canada. As a citizen of the great white north, it takes more than a few flakes to keep me down. But after a few years in my adopted country I have begun to understand that snow in France is different.

The French love the snow. In its place, on the ski slopes in the Alps or the Pyrénées. Everywhere else it is that most detested of meteorological phenomena, the one that knocks this country firmly on its derrière.

Every winter all eyes turn to Météo France with the announcement of the dreaded tempête de neige. A state of ‘vigilance orange’ is declared, sparking off a series of measures designed to protect the French from the evil frost. Snowy weather bumps all other news stories. Schools are closed, people are urged to leave their cars in the garage and if possible, to stay home.

It may be for the best. For all their machismo behind the wheel in most weather, the French have little clue how to drive in the snow. A couple of centimeters of white stuff on the ground is enough to cow most drivers. They reduce their speed to a crawl, brake constantly or stop by the side of the road to put on chains.

I have never seen anyone in Canada do this, at least not in the city. Chains and studs are illegal in many areas as they quickly destroy the road surface.

Much as I hate to admit it, my mother-in-law is right: France is not prepared for snow. They don’t salt the roads enough for one thing. And for another all those country roads with the signs that say ‘verglas fréquent’ do ice up surprisingly quick when the temperatures fall below zero.

I cannot help but chuckle when I see my proud compatriots taken down a peg or two in wintry weather. Most days driving in this country is not for the faint of heart. A simple lane change can feel like a game of chicken – it goes against the very fiber of the French to let you in. Driving at the speed limit is grounds for obscene hand gestures and appels de phare as other drivers recklessly pass. Heaven help you if you dare to drive in the left lane on the motorway.

So forgive me for enjoying my day in the snow. Bonne route!