SAND­PITS AND SANTA HATS

It’s not just the lack of turkey and Brussels sprouts that makes Christ­mas in France dif­fer­ent – the weather can also be a sur­prise,

Living France - - Contents - Gil­lian Har­vey is a free­lance writer who has lived in Li­mousin for six years, to­gether with hus­band Ray and their five young chil­dren says Gil­lian Har­vey

Gil­lian Har­vey ex­plains why she hap­pily em­braces a more laid-back French Christ­mas

One thing I’ll never un­der­stand about French tra­di­tions is the lack of a set Christ­mas menu. Un­like us Brits who feel Christ­mas isn’t Christ­mas with­out a few Brussels sprouts, most French peo­ple ac­tu­ally eat what­ever they want for their Christ­mas meal (usu­ally con­sumed on Christ­mas Eve).

Why on earth they would want to choose their favourite del­i­ca­cies rather than choke down por­tions of a veg­etable they don’t ac­tu­ally like, buy a turkey so big they’ll be con­sum­ing it for at least a week and quaff a three-month-old cake is be­yond me. But, hey, that’s cul­tural di­ver­sity for you.

When you live in a small, French town, the win­ter evenings and darker days on the ap­proach to Christ­mas can feel a lit­tle lonely. My first couple of Yule­tides in France felt a bit on the bleak side – shut­ters closed against the weather, the mar­ket pared back to a few sorry veg­etable stalls, and streets de­void of their usual life and chat­ter.

But – I re­alised later – live­li­ness, colour and light were all there – I just hadn’t known where to look.

While some events are ad­ver­tised by tra­di­tional posters in shop win­dows, it seems that in Li­mousin you of­ten need to scratch the sur­face to find that be­hind those shut­ters sparks a hive of ac­tiv­ity and life.

A visit to the mairie and a chat with knowl­edge­able lo­cals re­vealed that not only are there vide-gre­niers and fêtes de Noël scat­tered through­out lo­cal com­munes, there are also clubs, small the­atre pro­duc­tions and live mu­sic in rus­tic cafés on win­ter evenings. True, you might not be able to pick and choose, but if you are de­ter­mined, there is al­ways some­thing fun and in­ter­est­ing to do.

Plus, if it’s Christ­mas cheer you’re af­ter, the jolly man in red can be found mak­ing an ap­pear­ance in towns and tiny vil­lages no mat­ter their size. When Yule­tide beck­ons, a lo­cal is co­erced into the com­mune’s Santa suit, and while some­times it’s clear that – as my daugh­ter re­marked – “He’s not the real Santa, is he?”, the small presents, cud­dles and sweets he dis­trib­utes more than make up for his lack of au­then­tic­ity.

He may have a beard that’s seen bet­ter days, be hob­bling on a walk­ing stick or have more than a pass­ing re­sem­blance to the man who runs the cof­fee shop, but there’s never a lack of fes­tive cheer when Père Noël stag­gers into town.

What’s more, win­ter here can yield its own sur­prises. Once in a while, it seems as if Jack Frost or Bon­homme Hiver for­gets to come to Li­mousin un­til early Jan­uary. While some­times we’re shov­el­ling snow, or be­moan­ing con­stant grey, we oc­ca­sion­ally have an In­dian sum­mer that lasts un­til Hog­manay. Last year, as a re­sult, the kids spent their post-turkey play­time in the sand­pit, dressed in Santa hats and T-shirts.

Liv­ing in a ru­ral area of France does come with its chal­lenges, par­tic­u­larly in win­ter­time. At first you miss the 24/7 shop open­ing times, the abun­dance of fa­cil­i­ties and al­most over­whelm­ing choice en­joyed in Blighty. But af­ter a while, when you be­gin to lose your con­stant need for stim­u­la­tion you start to ap­pre­ci­ate life in a more au­then­tic way, tak­ing ad­van­tage of what you have rather than mourn­ing what you miss.

And, of course, when the sun shines on Santa’s sleigh it’s even eas­ier to love the sim­ple but beau­ti­ful life you have cho­sen.

Joyeux Noël!

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