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Sharon Revol: Feeling Alien in France at Christmas

Sharon Revol: Feeling Alien in France at Christmas

Sharon Revol
About the Author

Sharon Revol has been living in France for the last 14 years and is married to a Frenchman. Her daily experiences of life in France can be read at pigletinfrance.wordpress.com

The end of the year is a time for family and tradition for most people, but when you’re an Expat things are never quite the same. For one, not all Expats get to be around their family at this time of year and the feeling of loneliness can dampen the seasonal cheer, not to forget that sometimes the host countries traditions or religions are totally different to those that an Expat is used to, making you feel quite alien.

I have been living in France since I was 16 so have had plenty of time to get used to the French way of doing things at Christmas time, but still each year I spend Christmas here, I find myself longing for a Christmas with my family like it used to be back in England.

It isn’t so much that the French are very different in how they celebrate Christmas, of course they have Santa Claus and nativity plays, traditional meals and Christmas parties, but it is the little traditions from my childhood that are missing for me; no carol singers, not sending Christmas cards (the French send out cards to wish a Happy New Year in January), no mince pies, Christmas crackers or Christmas pudding.

But it’s of little surprise these traditions are uncommon here: A Christmas card is sold individually most of the time at a cost of 2 or 3 Euros as opposed to twenty for the same price back in the UK. Mince pies and Christmas pudding whilst delicious to me as a Brit, fall into the category of disgusting English food for most French people who try them and are never finish them, so hardly surprising that the shops don’t stock them.

However, Christmas in France is in no way lacking in tradition and is much less commercial than in the UK. You would never expect to start finding Christmas goodies in the shops at the end of September and Christmas lights do not get turned on until December.

Villeurbanne Christmas Market
Villeurbanne Christmas Market
It’s traditional to visit a Christmas market and children enjoy it almost as much as visiting Santa’s grotto. Each town and village has one where you can indulge in hand crafted Christmas goodies such as candied fruits, homemade foie gras, vast selections of wines and digestifs, artisan chocolates and raclette cheese sandwiches, not to mention handcrafted (and thus very expensive) Christmas decorations, Christmas trees and then a few stalls with Chinese imports of Santa Clause hats and electronic toys.

Mealtimes at Christmas are very decadent and much care is taken in setting the table, with festive table decorations adding that extra sparkle. My first experience of a French Christmas dinner was on Christmas Eve with my now husbands family and is one that I will never forget.

After a few hours of Champagne, exquisitely made nibbles (a bowl of peanuts will not cut it here) and conversation, we finally sat down to start a marathon of a meal which was a tribute to pure indulgence. There was no set menu so to speak of and I couldn’t identify what dish was supposed to be a starter or main course, there were far too many! It was if the food kept leaving the kitchen on a never ending conveyor belt of decadence.

Foie gras with pears was followed by whole lobsters, dishes of home made terrines and pates, scallops and guinea fowl. Not a vegetable in sight! Next to come was the largest cheese platter I had ever seen outside of a restaurant, followed by a table load of desserts: Christmas logs (chocolate and ice cream versions), delicate little pastries, chocolate truffles, fruit tarts, candied fruit and many, many chocolates.

Needless to say that in typical French style, everything was washed down with copious amounts of fine wine matched to each dish and Champagne with the desserts, followed by coffee and liquors and took hours and hours to eat.

There's an art to wrapping presents here!
There's an art to wrapping presents here!
Truly stuffed and half way through the night we all trundled off to bed only to start afresh the next day with a very similar menu, but this time with the addition of a Chapon (a young castrated fattened rooster) and vegetables – at last! Lunch started at noon with more nibbles and lasted until well into the evening. I really missed my afternoon nap in front of the afternoon family film or Queen’s speech, the television wasn’t even turned on and there was no possibility of having a quick siesta!

Christmas presents played second fiddle to all of the food available and were placed delicately under the Christmas tree to be opened after the meal. My French family started opening them on Christmas Eve and whilst not bountiful, they lasted well until the end of Christmas day making the opening of them a long and drawn out process. Which is just as well really, as with all the food and drink that was being consumed, it was absolutely necessary to have some form of exercise in walking to the Christmas tree and back to fetch a present!

This year I am pregnant so I will be pleased to be wearing stretchy trousers as I won’t have the problem of expanding waistband, one less thing to worry about!

Joyeux Noël et une bonne et heureuse année 2011!

Read Sharon's previous columns here

Sharon Revol has been living in France for the last 14 years, is married to a Frenchman and has written business columns in the UK as well as articles about French life for various publications. Her daily experiences of life in France can be read at pigletinfrance.wordpress.com

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