My first Christmas in France was in 1999. At the time, my French husband-to-be and I were living in the epicenter of dot.com madness, San Francisco. After months of working under intense pressure trying to save the planet from the impending Millennial Meltdown, spending the holidays in the North of France promised to be just what the doctor ordered.
Driving through the streets of Nord-Pas de Calais in the far north of France was like driving through a massive snow-globe. Hanging across the entrance of each town was a sparkling bunting wishing everyone a Joyeaux Fetes. All of the shop windows were draped in blue and silver, and each City Hall sported a countdown clock- counting down the minutes to l’An Deux Mille.
I grew up in the middle of America in a semi-progressive, demi-vegetarian, nuclear family. Besides my parents, brother, and grandmother, I didn’t really have much extended family around me. Christmas eve was spent in downtown Chicago, battling all the other last-minute holiday shoppers, then rushing home to wrap it all and then catch a “Rankin and Bass” holiday special on television.
Christmas morning we’d tear through our presents in about 12 minutes flat, then spend the rest of the day lolling around in our jammies, complaining that there was nothing to do because everything was closed for Christmas. Our “traditional” Christmas dinner was often a surprise – my mother used the day to try out fancy recipes that she ripped out of Ladies Home Journal, but because she was vegetarian AND always seemed to leave it to the last minute, she had to create her culinary masterpieces from whatever was left on the shelves at the local Health Food Co-Op. Christmas dinner would consist of things like Brie and Mushroom Fondue, or Herb Encrusted Tofu-turkey stuffed with Brown Rice and Carrots.
My husband had told me about the Bacchanalian food-fests that went on in his house at Christmastime. But, I really had no idea what was in store for me. Since we were arriving at my in-laws in the early afternoon, I planned to drop off my bags, then duck into town for some last-minute gift shopping. After that, I was looking forward to taking it easy for the rest of the day, riding out my jetlag in sweats and some bad French cable TV.
As I schlepped my luggage into the entranceway of their home, I was surprised to find that the entire family was already there – and already in full-on holiday mode. Mémé, my husbands’ grandma, was at the piano singing a French Christmas carol, while pépé, her husband, took a snooze on the couch. All sorts of delicious smells were wafting through from the kitchen.
Champagne corks were popping, pots and pans were banging about, and all 17 of my husband’s nieces were in a flurry of velvet and satin as they ran whiplash through the house. It was like I had stepped into “Fanny and Alexander” (but dubbed into French).
Thoroughly confused, I assumed that I was so jetlagged that I had gotten my calendar mixed up, and that it was actually Christmas day. That’s when my husband told me that, like many in France, his family celebrates the Réveillon – a big dinner on Christmas Eve that goes on until midnight mass, then everyone gets up the next day to do it all over again. So much for last minute shopping!
I spent that first holiday in France as a passive observer – a welcomed guest in my future in-laws home. I listened attentively as my mother-in-law told me the story of each santon in the family’s crèche – a crèche that put my family’s little home-made, dried-up Playdoh nativity scene to shame. Not only were there the key players (Jesus, Mary, Joseph and the Wise Men) – there were also tons of bit players, all making their way up a massive paper maché mountain that took up half the living room.
Each santon figure came with a history – the old man who was blinded by his own tears when his son was kidnapped, uppity Marguerite who was so fancy that she rode a donkey up to see baby Jesus (rather than on foot like everybody else), another guy selling chestnuts. Every member of my husband’s family seemed to have a favorite santon, and loved to share their memories of it.
My future father-in law was a retired butcher, and through him I learned to appreciate the subtle nuances of homemade foie gras – we had foie gras and chutney, foie gras with ginger, foie gras with apple and onion confit. For hors d’oeuvres, the French are big on “toasts” – little bite-sized slices of pain de mie or brioche topped with things like foie gras, smoked salmon or shrimp.
Then it was time to sit down for dinner. Never one for shellfish, I cursed my luck during the starter, as trays heaped with oysters, prawns and Coquilles St Jacques were passed over my head. Luckily the platter of apple and walnut-stuffed turkey made it’s entrance for the main course. I could barely open my mouth by the time the cheeses were served, but managed to fork in a bit of stinky Maroilles as a demonstration of my fidelity to the North of France.
I was about to call it a night, when I realized that most of the women in the family had disappeared into the kitchen. With grandiose fan-fare from the children, everyone came filing back into the dining room, each carrying a dessert! My husband explained that it was another tradition from the south of France – the Thirteen Desserts of Christmas. Traditionally, there are very specific foods that should be served, like nuts and dried fruits, nougats and dates, but my husband’s family modernized the tradition and served buches de noel, dessert terrines, chocolate truffles, cakes, tarts and ice cream. Not wanting to offend anyone, I happily helped myself to all 13 (well, 14 if you count my second serving of chocolate and hazelnut terrine!).
The next day, I was so conditioned to the French holiday mayhem that I didn’t even blink when I came downstairs at 11:00 to find mémé laying out the silverware on a fresh and sparkly red and gold table, all primed to host another feast. I was so overwhelmed and exhausted, I didn’t really mind sitting around the table literally all…day… long. Once again, les toasts were passed, glasses were filled and food was served, with intermediate breaks to open presents. All of this was just another chapter in the fairy tale that I had bought into by agreeing to marry a Frenchman…
Kim Petyt is the doyenne of French Wedding Style and author of “The Paris Wedding”, a full-color, idea-packed, go-to guide for globally minded trendsetters who are in love with the style and romance of Paris. For nearly a decade, she designed and coordinated weddings and events in Paris with her agency, Parisian Events, and has been featured in numerous publications. She currently lives in Paris.
Part II – in which the family create new Franco-American Christmas traditions of their own