Learn to be fes­tive the French way

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It may be that, driven mad by life in gen­eral, you are plan­ning to spend Christ­mas in France. Or per­haps you have re­cently moved here. In ei­ther case, you need to know that Gal­lic fes­tiv­i­ties, though sim­i­lar to ours in many ways (elves, turkey, drink-driv­ing cam­paigns), are also very dif­fer­ent. There is, for in­stance, no Queen’s mes­sage (not least be­cause Pres­i­dent Hol­lande is torn be­tween can­di­dates for the “my mis­tress and I” slot). This leaves Christ­mas Day af­ter­noons bereft of up­lift, or news from Tonga. There is other in­for­ma­tion that may prove help­ful:

In the days be­fore Christ­mas, you re­ceive vis­its from pub­lic ser­vants. Sur­pris­ingly, they are not call­ing to beg for­give­ness. Though the French pub­lic ser­vice plun­ders 56 per cent of GDP (45 per cent in GB), they have come for more money. It is Christ­mas tip time. First up are the bin­men – ad­mit­tedly, friendly fel­lows do­ing a fine job (they visit our house, on var­i­ous refuse mis­sions, four times a week). Ten euros (£8). Next is the post­man, who jus­ti­fies the beg­ging by hand­ing over a cal­en­dar of un­de­ni­able retro ap­peal: the main photo gen­er­ally fea­tures kit­tens in a bas­ket. This is a re­lief in a cal­en­dar land­scape oth­er­wise mo­nop­o­lised by pic­tures of peo­ple hold­ing parsnips in front of their gen­i­tals. It is also another €10. Third and fi­nal vis­i­tors are the fire­men, to whom you pay up – €10 again – lest, when your house is ablaze, they opt for the pic­turesque route. So you’re €30 (£24) down al­ready, all paid to peo­ple in full-time em­ploy­ment, with hol­i­day en­ti­tle­ments and pen­sion plans. Joyeux Noël.

Of­fice par­ties are more deco­rous. Granted, my ex­pe­ri­ence of French of­fice par­ties is limited, but I have never yet seen any­one ar­rive wear­ing plas­tic antlers (women) or false breasts (men). Apéri­tifs are gen­er­ally drunk from glasses, rather than straight from the bot­tle. Nor have I wit­nessed French em­ploy­ees us­ing the fes­tive gath­er­ing to favour the boss with an hon­est ap­praisal of his abil­i­ties. “You’re OK, Billy-boy – ex­cept for be­ing an ugly b------,” was de­liv­ered around mid­night in Lan­cashire, not Langue­doc.

There are no carol singers. (Should you be both­ered by same in GB, in­ci­den­tally, you might try the ploy I suc­cess­fully used decades ago. It is to fling the front door open wide, beam at the singers, join in lustily, sug­gest a sec­ond or even a third carol and then say: “Now, let us pray…” This scared the lit­tle b------ off for years.)

There are no Christ­mas cards, ei­ther. Or very few. This avoids much an­guish, viz: won­der­ing who the hell are “Neville, Pop­pet, and the twins, not for­get­ting Mr Dis­raeli the cat”. Or read­ing that “Jerry, hav­ing been for­tu­itous in his A-lev­els (fourstarred “A”s!!!), is filling time preOxbridge skate­board­ing through the Hindu Kush”. Or seething with rage that, while the cards you bought are end­ing world hunger, the batty old dear down the road con­tin­ues to support the Sandy­bank sanc­tu­ary for os­triches saved from the feather in­dus­try. Christ­mas cards are an­thrax for the soul. It is won­der­ful to be free of them. Es­pe­cially those handed to you by neigh­bours or col­leagues be­cause you’re not worth a stamp.

The French are great at cul­ture. Opera fes­ti­vals blos­som all over, there’s a statu­tory rate of one Re­nais­sance château ev­ery five kilo­me­tres, and there are, I’m sure, more con­tem­po­rary dancers than po­lice­men in Paris. The flip side is the state of French TV. It is dire, at Christ­mas as at all other times. Well, not dire so much as tra­di­tional – wood-fired, and faith­ful to the way things were done 50 years ago (which was “not very well”). Fes­tive fare this year will fea­ture elephantine va­ri­ety shows, the 18th (sic) reshow­ing of the 1966 com­edy film La Grande Vadrouille, four dif­fer­ent blooper pro­grammes (à la It’ll Be Al­right on the Night) plus an en­tire evening on the main com­mer­cial chan­nel de­voted to Johnny Hal­ly­day. Imag­ine a three­hour, prime-time Billy J Kramer sea­sonal spe­cial and you may imag­ine the despair.

In most, but not all, house­holds, the main Christ­mas meal is on Christ­mas Eve. There are rea­sons for this but they are too long to re­late. Clas­si­cally, the meal will start with oys­ters and/or foie gras, con­tinue with turkey – of­ten with ch­est­nut stuff­ing (get some­one to send you sage and onion from Bri­tain; the ch­est­nut stuff is grim), cheese and then dessert. It is a mark of France’s civil­i­sa­tion that the na­tion has never em­braced the Christ­mas pud­ding. The French pre­fer a fancy log – of ice cream or sponge and choco­late. This is clearly su­pe­rior, if only be­cause no one has to stuff it with cash to get you to eat it.

Even at Christ­mas, few French peo­ple match Gérard Depar­dieu, drink for drink. I know many who, spe­cial oc­ca­sion or no, strug­gle to man­age even half his in­take. Given that, by his own ac­count, Depar­dieu con­sumes 14 bot­tles of wine a day, one may see what a bunch of am­a­teurs my ac­quain­tances are. (Then again, nei­ther are they cit­i­zens of Rus­sia or built like bomb shel­ters.) So, French al­co­hol to ac­com­pany the Christ­mas meal: apéri­tif-wise, it is vi­tal to avoid any­thing blue, eggy yel­low or bear­ing a stupid name (Messer­schmitt, Volleyball, Firm Hand­shake Be­tween Two De­cent Chaps etc). Cham­pagne is im­per­a­tive. Then go for Sauternes with foie gras, Picpoul de Pinet with oys­ters, a Beau­jo­lais cru (Mor­gon? Moulin-à-Vent?) or a Langue­doc red with the turkey, Mon­bazil­lac or Saussignac with the blue cheese and a Banyuls for­ti­fied wine from near Perpignan with the log. That should mean you’re in peak con­di­tion for on­ward progress to the di­ges­tifs. A glass of Cal­va­dos con­tains seven ap­ples, which is two more than you need. Ob­vi­ously, the more you drink the longer the doc­tor stays away. Co­gnac is among the warm­est, deep­est drinks on Earth, while Ar­magnac is what keeps Gas­cons go­ing. Thus will you fin­ish the meal like a French per­son – happy but con­scious and suf­fi­ciently in­spired to dis­course about Voltaire un­til mid­night. When presents are ex­changed.

Though cracker-pi­o­neer Tom Smith found his 19th-cen­tury in­spi­ra­tion in Paris (with bon­bons in pa­per twists), crack­ers them­selves re­main vir­tu­ally un­known in France. So the French are de­prived of mini pad­locks, mi­cro­scopic screw­drivers and those curly fish which, once placed in your palm, char­ac­terise you as timid, ex­tro­vert or a se­rial killer. Also of yel­low pa­per hats – per­fect with that lit­tle Chanel num­ber – and of the knowl­edge that the per­son who hides in a bak­ery at Christ­mas is a mince spy.

Cir­cuses, by con­trast, re­tain pop­u­lar­ity. They’re quite a Christ­mas fea­ture – partly be­cause the French like to see Chi­nese peo­ple do­ing very clever things and partly be­cause they are less sen­ti­men­tal about an­i­mals. My friend ar­gues that, as in the wild, big cats are ei­ther eat­ing or ly­ing about do­ing SFA, cir­cus life suits them fine. Food’s pro­vided and they can lie about all they like. With our re­spec­tive fam­i­lies, we are, as it hap­pens, go­ing to the Me­drano cir­cus on the af­ter­noon of Christ­mas Day. I’ll let you know how it turns out.

Joyeux Noël: the French like to make a show at Christ­mas and en­joy a good drink with­out the car­ols

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