At last, the perfect answer to friends who ask whether I'm not just a little homesick at the end of a year living in France. Try this for size. I went through the whole of December without once hearing 'Simply Having a Wonderful Christmas Time.' I mean, what's not to like?
Nor was it just the blessed absence of this treacly reminder that 50 years have passed since Paul McCartney's music started going to hell in a handcart on the 'White Album.' It was also a December without 'Merry Xmas Everybody,' 'Santa Baby,' 'Last Christmas,' that Pretenders dirge, and even Kirsty MacColl and the Pogues, a magnificent record now irretrievably ruined by immersion year after year in the festive midden.
French radio does not bombard you with tinkly Christmas ditties. I'm not sure I heard a single one. Not that I'm an unreserved fan of French radio, of which the best to be said is that it compares well with French television. It is mostly interchangeable pop stations pumping out inconsequential techno or mumble rap (for which French youngsters have an inexhaustible passion), with the added bonus that cultural vigilance has spawned a rule that 40% of musical radio output must be either French or written in French. This delivers more breathy chansons on pop stations and Debussy on the classical ones than anyone really needs.
But I digress. The big point is that you don't hear 'Step into Christmas' or any Gallic equivalent 20 times a day. Nor in stores, shopping malls, bars, cafes or on street corners. If you want seasonal music, especially the more spiritual classics, then the Languedoc tradition of often superb local choirs offers up plenty of Christmas concerts, many free. Jingly pop, however, is splendidly scarce.
Nor do charitable hucksters dressed as Santa bear down, ringing bells. Shops and restaurants do not get out the tinsel the moment they pack away the Halloween tat. Festive displays run from cursory to nil, and even the big stores focus more on seasonal stock than trappings. Leaving aside the food outlets (which the French never do), many don't even bother with that.
Visitors sometimes complain that the French don't really do Christmas at all, which isn't true. Older locals, conversely, protest about creeping invasion by alien kitsch like Christmas trees, Christmas markets, eating your big meal on the 25th not the 24th, and the Coca-Cola Santa in his grotto: traditions that are doubly suspect for being Teutonic in origin, and imported via America.
Actually, the French in this respect are more like the Scots, of whom it used to be said that they were quite happy to enjoy Christmas, so long as nobody saw them doing it. Christopher Hitchens' memorable description of the British/American December as possessing the atmosphere of a one-party state does not apply to a French Christmas. It is a private (meaning family) festival, not a show-off one; it prizes quality consumerism in moderation, individual style choices, and discreet good taste; and it is of short duration, with grown-up life put on hold for no more than 36 hours, though people do increasingly bank time off work to extend the holiday.
Contrast that with the British expectation of reality suspended for a month, while everyone pretends to be eight years old; or with the accumulation of obligatory chores at the behest of retail marketing (when did poinsettias become compulsory? Door wreaths? Mulled wine and buck's fizz? Reindeer onesies?); or with the impulse to measure the event by material excess and credit card devastation; or with the carefully premeditated exhibitions of public inebriation.
You won't see drunks on French streets at Christmas, nor behind domestic doors. They drink very good wine at the festive board, but no more of it than usual. They don't do office outings or parties. Most don't do Christmas cards, though close friends may expect New Year cards. Some now do Christmas trees, but you won't see them lit up, still less strobing ostentatiously in windows; nor will you see 1,000-watt plastic sleighs on roofs. Commonly, home decorations centre on nativity scenes, huge versions of which are displayed in churches throughout January. In general, décor sets out to prove you can be festive without being vulgar. The UK version so often achieves the exact opposite.
Imported traditions get a French makeover. Christmas markets, on the Scandi-German model, are now ubiquitous, and look at first sight much as they do anywhere. The trinket stalls draw a polite glance, but the crowds are where the food and drink is, and it had better be something more enticing than pre-mixed glȕhwein and bockwurst mit senf. Stalls sell oysters, foie gras, shaved hams and alpine dishes like aligot, tarte aux myrtilles and tartiflette. They do a very brisk trade.
French children leave shoes rather than stockings by the fireplace. Christmas morning is the time for presents, but the big event is Christmas Eve, when as many generations of family as can be mustered sit down at an elegantly candled table to eat and drink some of the very best, starting with champagne. The godly rise from the feast in time for Midnight Mass.
Inevitably, special foods are a big part of the French Christmas (also the French New Year, though then usually in restaurants; actually, they're a big part of any French festival). Markets and shops vie to offer appealing, if expensive, seasonal treats. Each region has its specialities: our local Carrefour was offering massive duck breasts prepared as tournedos steaks, while Provence next door ends the festive meal with 13 separate tiny desserts. Other items are universal: elaborately arranged candied fruits and nuts, chocolate papillotes, and a bewildering array of special tarts and cakes, notably the Bûche de Noël yule log, and flaky Galette des Rois.
It's not all exotica. My wife mentioned to a French friend that we prefer guinea fowl, which she was finding hard to source. Not surprising, came the reply: everyone here has turkey. This, despite the current British quest for anything but
turkey. But France eats turkey all year round, being the only nation that has found ways to make it taste better than chipboard. Why abandon it at Christmas?
Food aside, the general principle is that less means more. The French expend a fraction of the faff and a fraction of the money (less than a third, according to one survey) that Brits do on Christmas.
Mind you, you do meet many Scots these days who are trying hard to downsize Christmas from the bloated bingeing of recent decades. On a brief visit to Scotland in early December, this year's seasonal razzmatazz all looked a bit half-hearted to me, but maybe that's just the distortion of exile.
In a pub near Waverley Station, I ran into a crowd of happy Geordie ladies, downing a quick pre-train top-up after a busy day of shopping and Chardonnay. 'Why aren't you playing Christmas music?' one of them demanded of the barman. 'I don't like Christmas music,' he replied. 'Maybe it's to do wi' that.'
Now there's a man who should move to France.