Learn to be festive the French way
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