I remember Christmas time in the U.S. when I was a child. I remember light dustings of snow on the University of Alabama campus near where we lived at the time and going over to my grandpa’s house for dinner and playing in the woods behind our house with my brother. The smell of autumn in most any northern city is the smell of Christmas in the South. The dank decay of the warm rusty colored leaves thoughtlessly sprawled on the ground in the empty woods and the brisk chilling breeze bringing the smoke of a chimney to my nose remind me of Christmas as a child in Alabama.
When my mom and I moved to South Florida, Christmas took on another smell and character. The weeks leading to the holiday didn’t seem that different from any of the other months of the year, except perhaps it was less hot than it had been in July. Instead of 90ºF it might be 80º. I’m only half joking. But I do remember wearing a sweater and pants rather than a sun dress. The manicured landscape of Palm Beach did not change. The Palm Trees keep their leaves and the smell was of sea salt and oranges rather than chimney smoke and decaying leaves. The flowers were in perfect rows of red, yellow, violet, blue. It was much like paradise should be, i suppose, if monotony didn’t kill the perfection of it.
I wished back then that I could have a Christmas like I read about in The Polar Express with white blankets of snow, mountains of it, covering everything the eye could see. Be careful what you wish for, they told me.
Not too long after that my mom and I moved to Canada where the wonders of Christmas were exactly as I had always imagined them. Tobogganing on the neighborhood hill and learning to sky, to shovel the driveway, making snow angels. I could talk for hours about Christmas in Canada. It’s my own special brand of paradise.
And then I moved once more, this time to France. Christmas here is of yet another sort. The build-up toward the festivities takes on another flavor. I have just returned from the supermarket in my Parisian neighborhood and it reminded me of the differences between what I grew up with at Christmas time and what my children will grow up surrounded by. Christmas in France is about food and family much like ours in North America with the Christmas decorations and lit coniferous trees. But the celebration takes on other forms, variant traditions and here is what I’ve learned about Christmas in Paris.
In the led up to Christmas, Paris is lit up like Time Square. Most neighborhoods (quartier) line their streets with hanging decorations and lights. The large shopping markets Galeries Lafayette, Printemps and Le Bon Marché are magnificently resplendent in their adornment. Embellishment is the word of the season.
Rather than stockings hung by the chimney with care, French children put a shoe under the tree in the hopes that Père Noël (Santa Clause is Father Christmas in France) will fill it with their just desserts.
In the Catholic tradition, many families give their gifts on Christmas Eve after the midnight mass. If small children are among the family, however, this is usually done in the morning after Père Noël has pasted. The children leave him a glass of milk and an orange. Cookies are an American take.
Santa Clause is not the center of Christmas in France, not to the extent that it is in North America. Children are taught about the religious meaning of the holiday. Christmas represents to the French much of what Thanksgiving means to North Americans. The French give thanks for their families, family time, health, joy, togetherness.
The stores are full of decorations, but the holiday is less commercial in France than elsewhere, although I fret this is changing toward global tendencies. Certainly lovely wrapping paper and bows make for a new display along one aisle in the grocery store, but you will see more festive food items representing the coming celebration than Coka Cola’s Saint Nick. Chocolate is probably number one on the list of Christmas favors. Then Fois Gras and Champagne. Most of the larger companies in both chocolate and Champagne market an unique Christmas season product for the ease of gift giving. Although the average French supermarket cannot compare to the megastores of the U.S., the displays of these three delicacies are prominent and jovial. In fact, I’ve never seen so many types of chocolat noir as I just passed in the Monoprix near my house.
In Alsace, known as the home of Saint Nicolas, Père Noël, there are fabulous Christmas markets in the villages. Some say the best Christmas markets in the world are there set along the backdrop of Swiss cottages and the Alps. I haven’t yet had the pleasure of going to one, but sometime soon. It’s on my To Go list.
Parisians are, like most big city folk, busy in the led up to Christmas. Their grimaces are lightly softened in spite of the cold winds that beat upon their faces. The weather in France is not as severe as in Canada during the Christmas season. I think the whole country’s temperatures vary between 36º to 45º throughout December. Obviously in the northern parts, along the sea in Brittany and in the French Alps it can get much colder. But snow in most of France is not the mountains I remember in Canada; it much more like the dusting of my young childhood in the American South.
It’s funny, though, no matter where I am in the lead up to Christmas, no matter what smells fill my senses, a certain sparkle traverses my veins.