Here in the Morvan the festive season is almost over. First there was Le Réveillon on Christmas Eve, with foie gras and oysters and standing room only in church. Christmas Day came and went, with turkey and bûche de Noël and, for new expats, the baffling absence of Christmas crackers, not to mention mince pies and Christmas pudding. God bless the British Corner Shop, which sends all this and more all over the world. Neighbours borrowed our cottage (www.charity-cottage.org.uk, see below) to accommodate their overflow of Christmas visitors.
Boxing Day is rather an anticlimax in France. My trusty online dictionary translates it as le 26 décembre.Indeed, December 26 is just another working day. Not everyone, even in the UK, associates the Feast of Stephen, when Good King Wenceslas looked out, with December 26. I came across a delightful website from a junior school in Kent.
New Year’s Eve, however, signals another bout of merrymaking here: Noël and le Saint-Sylvestre are islands of jollity with ‘business as usual’ in between.
Our French friends are mystified when we tell them how John and I see the New Year in. We decline party invitations: we have a date with Musikantenstadl, which Wikipedia describes, rather unexcitingly, as “a live television entertainment program broadcast in the German language throughout Austria, Germany and Switzerland”. It goes out several times a year on ARD, the German equivalent of BBC1. We received Musikantenstadl for many years in Suffolk, and John adjusted our rather limited satellite system to make sure we received his favourite programme in France.
The Musikantenstadl website www.musikantenstadl.tv/stadl does not seem to offer an English translation, but think of the old White Heather Club on New Year’s Eve, without the bagpipes, and you get the gist. The Silvesterstadl edition features four hours of oompah bands and dancing, punctuated by sketches and interviews. There is always a double act with two funny men in drag – John calls them Gert and Daisy, which shows his age – whose appearance on our screen is a signal for a loo break, as their gags are delivered in a (to us anyway) impenetrable Austrian accent. The climax of Silvesterstadl is a fireworks spectacular over the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin. Click here to see some of the antics they get up to. After an hour of dirndls, lederhosen, folk-dancing, oompah music and good clean wholesome fun, I usually retire to my study to catch up on my thank you letters, returning in time to toast the New Year; but John is spellbound throughout.
And so we come to Twelfth Night, Epiphany, the last of the Twelve Days of Christmas: the feast of the Three Kings. Before we came here in 2005 Twelfth Night was merely the signal to take down the Christmas decorations, check the Christmas card list and polish off the thank you letters. Here the star attraction is the Galette des Rois. This circle of rich buttery puff pastry with an almond cream filling – the mot juste is frangipane – conceals a fève, a little ceramic favour. Whoever gets the slice with the fève is crowned King or Queen for the evening.
There is a traditional song, sung as a canon like Three Blind Mice or Frère Jacques.
J'ai la fève, je suis roi.
La couronne est à moi.
Le roi boit, le roi boit,
J'ai la fève, je suis roi!
A free translation could be,
Mine the favour, mine the crown.
I’m your king of high renown.
Pour the wine, drink it down!
Mine the favour, mine the crown.
You may enjoy watching Raymond Blanc making a Galette des Rois here.
He adds pears, a variation which sounds delicious but which I have never come across. Everything else is as we do it here, down to the paper crown.
There are Christmas cards in the shops here, but nothing like the number that an average family in the UK would send and receive. Charity cards are unknown. My recycled cards, each with its smug little label announcing a 20p donation to Combat Stress, are much admired but never emulated.
Well, Christmas cards are like popcorn, You put some maize in a sturdy saucepan with a little oil, turn the heat up and clamp the lid firmly down. Shake the pan and wait for the explosions. Soon you hear a few timid little pops, followed by several more, then a positive fusillade of machine-gun fire which gradually dies down until you hear the last pop, and finally silence. You turn off the heat, lift the lid and wow! Your pan is full of popcorn. You turn it out into a bowl and debate whether to add butter and salt, or sugar.
There are, however, always a few grains of maize sulking at the bottom of the pan. You throw them to the birds: you can’t win ’em all. Well, Christmas greetings in our household are like that. There are the early ones – we received our first card in late November – and the latecomers, which as I type are still trickling in. Even email greetings seem to follow the same pattern, like a bell curve. But the equivalent of the grain of maize at the bottom of the pan is the hoped-for Christmas greeting which never arrives.
Some friends get in touch with us only at Christmas. Their cards arrive every year, often with a newsy letter. When nothing arrives, we become anxious. It is courteous and kind, when someone dies, goes into a nursing home or is otherwise unable to maintain contact, to go through the person’s address book and pass on the sad news. There is so much to do in such circumstances that this chore is easily overlooked. God bless the wonderful people who during 2014 took the time and trouble to let us know that Gladys, Val and Malcolm had died and that Lloyd had gone into a nursing home. We are, however, still wondering about several other people…If you have had a death or other major upheaval in your family, could you please find time to go through that address book?
On a happier note, here is the music for J'ai la fève. Enjoy!
Together with husband John, Rosemary Border Rabson emigrated to the Morvan in rural Burgundy in 2005, where few other Brits have ventured. Rosy's chief preoccupation is Charity Cottage, a holiday cottage which she runs in aid of Combat Stress. The holiday cottage, in their garden at Maré le Bas in the Morvan, has its own website, www.charity-cottage.org.uk which has links to Combat Stress.
Rosy and John Rabson are taking bookings for Charity Cottage, the home-from-home in rural Burgundy which they run in aid of Combat Stress, the Veterans' Mental Health charity.
Click on www.charity-cottage.org.uk and start planning your relaxing break now!