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How Christmas is done in my part of France

Getting into the Christmas swing of things takes a while in rural France. Last year, with just over a week to go to the big day, my neighbour Madame Bernadette held a soirée before leaving to spend Christmas with her family in the south.

Never arrive on time

The invitation said 7.00 pm so of course we got there for 7.30 – we know better than to arrive on time these days. It’s a peculiarly French thing to invite people to come for a certain time but to require them to arrive later. There was no sign of Christmas cheer from the outside of Madame Bernadette’s house, one week before is the unspoken rule for decorating here and we still had 10 days to go!

In the little farmhouses of my village you generally open the front door and find yourself in the main living room. At Madame Bernadette’s, that’s the kitchen, the warmest room in the house, heated by a huge coal oven. Coming in from the crisp night air in which bright stars sparkled in a velvety dark sky and the ground twinkled as frost was already forming – it was sweltering. My glasses steamed up immediately and I had the choice to walk around in a fog or take them off and live in the blur. Madame Bernadette had the answer to that – a fruity chilled cocktail made with Calvados which apparently cures all ills. If you’ve never had it before, beware, it’s an apple brandy from Normandy, the region that neighbours mine and it can knock your socks off.

And I can tell you we were all pretty much sockless after a couple of hours.

Four Jolly Farmers

There were about 25 of us in total, me and Mark (my other half) being the only Brits. Usually we find it hard to keep up with the French conversation but I think Calvados helped! Most of the other guests were from the village. There are less than 150 residents in total and we all live within minutes of each other.

There were four jolly farmers from the next village along. They arrived after us, stamping their feet on the mat as they entered and rubbing freezing cold hands together – it’s a ten minute walk from their small hamlet.

Around midnight people started to go home, Madame Bernadette is quite old so we know we have to let her go to bed. We were just about to go ourselves when we heard the sound of a noisy tractor revving up outside. “Aha” said the jolly famers who were rather more jolly than when they arrived “Sam is here”. They pulled on their boots and coats and kissed everyone goodbye and trooped out the door. We went too and watched as they climbed into the box on the back of the tractor and Sam (that’s what they call someone who stays sober for driving friends home here in France) lurched off up the road. The jolly farmers were singing songs and clinging to each other, trying not to fall out of the tractor. The light from the only 2 lamp posts in town cast a yellow glow over their happy faces.

Not many Christmas lights in this part of rural France, but a whole lot of Christmas cheer!

Get into the Christmas spirit!

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Janine Marsh is Author of My Good Life in France: In Pursuit of the Rural Dream and My Four Seasons in France: A Year of the Good Life available as ebooks, print & audio, on Amazon everywhere & all good bookshops online…

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