If I could sum it up in one word it would be….humble. I use this word a lot when describing the French. Why? Well compared to the UK consumerism and excess (as ever trying to follow the American model) their celebrations seem so much more precise, to the point and relaxed. Now don’t get me wrong, they max on out on the village and town decorations with, I think, far more class, style and substance than the UK.
Really? Well yes, have you seen the tree (I know we’ve been given it since the end of the second world war from Norway and all) in Trafalgar Square? Who ever just flings those lights on and says job done needs a good talking to. It’s so lame. I mean this is a major capital city, arguable the capital city of the world, London. Tourists the world over come to experience the magic of Xmas in London. They’re expecting lights and Hugh Grant wrapped in tinsel. Well they’re not getting it at Trafalgar Square that’s for sure. Convent Garden fairs a bit better on the tree front, however, New York’s not quaking in its boots anytime soon nor is Paris or the rest of France for that matter. Gilets Jaunes or no Gilets Jaunes – the Xmas decs have remained in tact.
Even the Xmas tree where my kids go to school is far superior, as are many towns and villages in Normandy, all talking as much pride and effort in their own displays.
I used to take the kids to our local Xmas light switch on in November (I will come back to that) – it was soooo bad it was compulsive viewing. The best thing about it was that you saw all your mum chums from school and it was a truly local event where the kids would see many of their friends. The road wouldn’t really be shut they would just hold up the traffic. There was a lame countdown, a few carol singers outside a pub and Santa would arrive on a back of a landscaping truck with no attempts at decoration. The company name was for all to see and Santa’s grotto was a pop up tent with a computer swivel chair. A bit of tinsel on top of said tent outside the old Woolworths that changed to Smallworths and has subsequently shut down. Yarp that was South Croydon putting as minimal effort in as possible and guaranteed some of the lights were a bit dodgy flickering on and off from the outset.
We’d get a balloon, get a glimpse of Santa on the back of the truck and then head for fish n chips at the best take-away in town. Many of my fellow mum friends dumped this poor show for a much up market version of Xmas, at the well to do village up the road and who can blame them? Even I succumbed one year.
So back to France. Well, firstly they do all the normal stuff we do but it just doesn’t start in August! I am pretty sure it will get early and early each year. This is our second Xmas here and I’m pretty sure all the chocs were out in December last year. This year they were in stores the last week of November. However, by UK standards this is very late but this is what I love – Christmas when it’s meant to be…… in December!
The Xmas lights in the town don’t even go up until the first/second week of December. That’s when you know Xmas is coming. So yes, it is later but the events that take place are excellent, not crowded and generally don’t cost anything. There will be numerous little Xmas markets in the various villages/towns (normally on the same weekend) where you can visit Santa. He naturally arrives on a horse-drawn carriage, tractor or quad bike but not a landscaping truck!
There are live nativity plays, amazing free light displays (see BEAUCHENE we visited last year) and pop up ice-rinks in town (Avranches) or by the seaside. The one at St Malo in Brittany (about 1 hour 20 from here) costs as little as 5 euros for little ones and 7 euros for older ones with an unlimited time limit. No one blowing a whistle telling you your 30 mins is up. I imagine this and have no idea if they do this in the UK so please feel free to tell me how it works.
There was an early evening Xmas carnival which included magical giant bears, firework displays with Santa falling from the sky and children’s carousel in most towns. I mean they really do make lots of effort. Naturally, there are church services as well. All of these events are FREE and you don’t stress yourself out having to find and pay for parking – even Santa can be seen for free. The big stores like Jardiland have a wonderful grotto and yes you can pay to have your photo taken but am guessing most just whip our their smartphone.
Even our local commune gives out presents from santa (again free) to the children of the village. They’re not naff presents either – they are proper decent 40/50 euro gifts paid for by the commune’s funds. How lovely is that?
Now one thing you might miss here is not many people decorate the outside of their house. But given that the villages and towns have put in a massive amount of effort, you don’t really feel you’re missing out too much. This year I saw more houses than last with outside lights. Give it time. They’ll all be at it.
Consumption of food is encouraged like the UK – foie gras, pate, turkey’s and chapon – a fat french hen, Scottish salmon, canapés, champagne, classy boxes of chocolates with images of the Eiffel Tower printed on sparkly backgrounds etc. The French are tucking in just like the rest of us, however, I really feel it is just for one day. Christmas Eve is their main meal and also New Year’s Eve. I know our neighbour is having 14 over and when I asked her what they will be having it was all the above and of course the bûche de Noël. A much lighter version of our yule log – it’s a light sponge covered with either, chocolate, coffee or vanilla flavoured butter. The better versions of this (you can buy mini or large ones) are in the Boulangerie. I don’t like them that much but doesn’t stop me eating them.
So what don’t the French do? Well, I genuinely don’t think they’re putting on stones in weight at Xmas. As ever, I think they have far much more self-control and just aren’t as greedy. Take for instance, Mr Normandy’s work do, they all went go karting and had a lunchtime meal. Everyone was very self-controlled with the amount of drink etc. Granted some were driving but the ones that could drink were just having a couple. No one was getting hammered at the expense of the company. Like when does that ever happen at a UK do? Exactly.
They don’t do Xmas cards. That’s a real British thing and whilst I did send mine to family and friends in the UK, I didn’t send any to French people I knew. You will find you will receive fewer cards from friends and family now you are living in France. That extra postage is abridge too far. Plus the lazy ones (you know who you are) now claim to put money towards charity instead of cards. Well you could do both? #justsayin and I’d like to see the paypal receipt please. I’m kidding. It’s fine.
I didn’t have to buy extra cards for the kids to write to their friends, nor did they have the tradition at school whereby you pop it into the Xmas post box. Now I used to love that when I was a kid so that’s something that I missed for them. Remember when someone would come to the classroom with a little bundle of cards to be dished out?
Also, in the UK the school really cranks up the end of year Xmas events don’t they? I wrote about this in my old blog here and the general hysteria of middle-aged women. Just when you think you’re going to explode with all the preparations you get an untold amount of flyers from the school. Dates for class Xmas parties and what to bring in, teacher gifts and don’t forget the teacher assistant. Then I always gave something to the head as you think well they do run the show but you always feel a bit of an arse licker as lots don’t and oh it just gets so complicated! Then the PTA are on your case (and I was on the PTA – so I was the case!) to bake some Xmas goodies for the Xmas disco or the Xmas fair or the Xmas something! Which, of course, your kids want to go to and you don’t want to be that parent that doesn’t do their stint on the stall for an hour. I remember having a row after I left the PTA after 5 years service when I attempted not to man a stall – I was accused of being “just like the rest of them”. I manned the stall – 5 years hard labour wasn’t enough. I felt like Al Pacino in the Godfather – just when you think you’re out they suck you back in.
Then there’s the Xmas performances at different times and the outfits they need and you really don’t just want to order it from ebay but you do as you just can’t be doing making a home-made one which is all the rage but then, of course, someone has gone all out. So yarp school is manic at this time of year in the UK. In France it’s not. I kind of miss it in a weird sadistic kind of way.
In France, it all happens in the last week. They will go to the cinema (at primary), college they had a school trip to a cheese factory!, church service that lasted less than an hour with parents invited to come (think I counted 10 including myself and the 3 people I came with) and the final day singing by the children for 45 minutes that you can watch.
There are no gifts to the teachers which feels really weird and I did wrap some crackers for my youngest’s teacher and head teacher but I never gave them! I didn’t want to stand out handing over gifts when no other parent had – that would be weird and make them feel awkward. Although, I do know that there are schools that do receive gifts but by and large it is the summer term.
Last year I did and they were thrilled but that’s because people don’t and I was a newbie. Also in primary they don’t have a kids party but in college they do have gouter (to taste) where they bring in sweets or coke. Yes French kids drink coke or iced tea and bring it in. How they all have their teeth I don’t know but not many are fat I can tell you. Incidentally, the doctor asked my daughter if she smoked this week we both laughed and he said “there are children age 12 who smoke” to which I thought “well that’s very wrong!”. Like where even am I?!
So yes, the build up is far more relaxed far more chilled, not so contrived even shopping for food isn’t that hectic. It feels how you imagine it should feel – a time to come together, exchange gifts and over eat a bit.
The one thing I really did miss was Xmas songs being played on the radio. Dare I say I even missed Slade my all time hated Christmas song in the world ever. They played Christmas songs on Christmas day! This is so French. It’s like my Zumba Strong classs – it starts at 7pm I get there at 6.50/6.55 no one is there – bang on 7pm everyone’s there. The same logic applies to the playing of Xmas songs on the radio.
Also I should mention that the French collect the little nativity scene characters I say characters but you know Mary, Jesus etc and position them in their little Nativity scene. We now have one that was handmade and crafted out of wood complete with light. It’s so cute.
I shall finish with Mr Normandy’s thoughts on Xmas here in France when asked he initially said there’s no difference. To which in my mind I could hear my good friend saying “men! urgh, they just rock on up to Xmas – no wonder it’s no different we do everything..” this was interrupted when he said actually it’s more festive. They celebrate it in the traditional way. It’s about the birth of Christ – it’s a religious festival to be spent with friends and family and they just don’t know how to celebrate it in a commercial sense.
So there you have it. I would have to agree, however, I don’t know how much longer this will be what with the youngsters and everyone else using smartphones/social media to the same degree as the rest of the planet. I’m hoping they’ll retrain this humble and restrained approach. Time will tell.
You have been reading Our Normandy Life….
You might also like to read my old ranty blog and in particular my Top 10 Xmas Rants! I’m more chilled now. Honest.