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French Christmas traditions for Franco-American Family

french christmas

Kimberley Petyt spent her first Christmas in France with her French husband to be and his family in 1999. Two years later she had married the Frenchman she had fallen in love with and moved to Paris where they had just had their first baby. As the end of the year approached, she wondered if her second French Christmas would be as confusing as that first one where everything was so different from Christmas back home in Chicago…

Read First Christmas in France for US Expat

As the only boy in a gaggle of female offspring, le petit prince was swept up out of my arms the moment we walked into my in-laws house that Christmas Eve. Suffering from chronic new mother exhaustion, I happily took my usual place in the background, barely batting an eye as he was passed from relative to relative. As the day wore on, though, I started to grow a bit agitated. For some reason mémé, my husband’s grandmother, kept dipping her finger in champagne and sticking it in my son’s mouth! Everyone was treating me so nicely though, that I couldn’t imagine complaining to my husband – not that I could get close enough to him to complain anyway. Because I still didn’t speak French, most conversations with my in-laws were tediously demanding and were typically cut short by my husband once he got tired of translating for us all. So for the holiday dinner(s), I was conveniently placed at the kids’ end of the table, where my rudimentary French served me just fine. After cutting up a few plates of roast and wiping a couple of noses, I was left on my own. No one even noticed when I slipped away from the table and settled into a snooze next to grandpa pépé on the couch.

That’s pretty much how Christmas in France continued for the next couple of years for me. Growing up in a small family, I had always dreamed of a loud, boisterous Christmas filled with tons of relatives and a big roasted bird on the table. The holidays with my husbands’ family gave me all of that and more. But as time passed, something started to niggle at me, though I couldn’t pinpoint what it was. It wasn’t until one day, as I uploaded some holiday photos to email to my family in the States, that I noticed that there wasn’t one single photo of me in the bunch. My husband’s family was so large and lively and so firmly entrenched in their traditions, and since I didn’t really have any family traditions of my own, I spent most Christmases in the background listening, watching and learning about their family. Since I was always an observer and never a participant, there never really was an occasion for me to be the focus of attention. Without having realized it, I was being left out of my own child’s Christmas memories. And I felt horribly guilty about it.

When I was pregnant with my daughter a few years later, I fell ill and ended up having to spend Christmas in the hospital near our home in Paris. When I was discharged a few days later, my husband and I decided to do “do-overs” for my son (who was still small enough not to notice that Christmas wasn’t usually on December 28th). That year, I felt so happy decorating our tree, cooking our dinner, watching our son opening gifts that we gave him. Plus, I actually got to be in some of the holiday photos. The seed of rebellion had been planted! The next year, I told my husband that while I loved the time that we spent sharing the holidays with his family, it was time that we started some traditions of our own. Besides, I was tired of being in the background in my children’s Christmases, and didn’t want them to remember me as that nice lady who sat with them at dinnertime and helped them cut their meat. My husband, who had only missed one Christmas “at home” in his life, was reluctant, but understood my feelings, and went to break the news to his maman.

As anyone with a French mother-in-law can tell you, breaking from tradition is not taken lightly, so we offered up a compromise: Our little family now has a nice, quiet dinner at our own house on Christmas eve. The next morning, we open our presents, have breakfast together, and then head to my in-laws, arriving in the afternoon in time to take part in the rest of the family festivities. We asked them to please carry on their Christmas just as they had been doing for decades, we would just slip in when we arrived. Here’s where I have to give my mother-in-law a lot of credit. Not having my husband, her only son, home for Christmas Eve dinner must be very hard for her. But she respects our family’s need to forge our own traditions enough to have never said anything. Well, at least not to me.

It’s been interesting trying to create our own Franco-American holiday traditions. We’re both very proud of our individual cultures, and it’s been fun seeing which ones work within our bi-cultural family and which ones don’t. As someone who used to really appreciate that extra day of shopping that Christmas Eve granted me, I’ve really come to cherish spending réveillon with my family instead. Our dinner is a complete Franco-American mash-up: I get to veto the oysters and prawns, but agree to my husband’s salmon and foie gras starters (which my children LOVE, even if it’s “store bought”). For the main course, I usually prepare a traditional turkey or chicken with American sides like candied sweet potatoes, mac and cheese and cranberry sauce. I’m not quite up to the challenge of preparing 13 desserts, so we usually will have a buche de noel and Christmas cookies. On Christmas morning, after opening presents, I try to do a traditional American breakfast of pancakes and eggs with bacon, since I know we’ll have a French dinner later that day with the family in the north.

It’s definitely still a work in progress, but so far, this works for us. So, from our family to yours, we wish you Joyeux Fetes, and a very Happy New Year!

Kim Petyt is the author of “The Paris Wedding”

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