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Secret Life of a Nerd Girl: My First Noël

Nothing under this tree but us cats.

Nothing under this tree but us cats.


a blogumn by Gudrun Cram-Drach

This will be my third Christmas (in my life) away from Maine. The first was in 1995, when, after spending a semester abroad in Madagascar I changed my plane ticket so I could stay in Kenya for a week with a friend. We spent Christmas Eve on safari, eating oxtail soup from a can and drinking Tusker beer to the sound of monkey chatter in the trees.

It will be different this year.

Not only is this my first Christmas in France, it is my first Christmas in a long time with little kids. Little kids who know that they need to be good so the Père Noël will leave them presents under the tree. Little kids who get so excited when Père Noël comes to visit their school, even if he does look much skinner and younger than when they saw him a few days before at the mall.

We got a tree last week. It’s a big one, almost touching the ceiling, and its base is a halved log with a hole drilled into it. I must remember to pick up a Christmas tree stand when I’m in Maine for New Years. When the box of ornaments was opened up, I was surprised to see mound of blue garlands. Living in the U.S., I always associated the colors blue and white with Hanukah, but here in France they signify ice and snow and are used everywhere for Christmas decorating.

France does know how to decorate. Most main streets are twinkling with white lights, and some people decorate their houses. One thing I’ve seen a number of times is an inflatable Santa Claus, excuse me, Père Noël, who is suspended to look like he’s climbing up the wall. I suppose he’s meant to hang on the chimney, but in most places he is partially deflated and hanging from a balcony by his neck. Perhaps he is overwhelmed by the task at hand, trying to end it all.

Tartiflette. The reblochon cheese has just gone in.

Tartiflette. The disks are reblochon cheese.

There are also Christmas markets all over France. We went to ours on Sunday, not so fancy but charming all the same. It was outside and freezing. Lots of vendors selling fois gras, dried sausages,  pain d’épices (spice cake), and gifts. There was a cornucopia of crops on display in its center and three of the fattest geese I’ve ever seen. We bought foie gras to bring to my parents, drank hot wine, and while we waited a half an hour in the cold for a gigantic batch of tartiflette to be cooked (a Swiss dish of potato, onion, bacon, cream and reblochon cheese – best comfort food ever), a man dressed as a shepherd walked a flock of shivering ducks around the market. Of course you could also have your picture taken sitting on le Père Noël’s knee.

Le Père Noël looks like Santa Claus, fat, white beard, silly red suit. He used to be taller and thinner, but now he is American. In this French household, le Père Noël is the only one giving presents, so nothing appears under the tree before Christmas morning. I’m not in love with this idea. The tree looks naked with nothing under it, and think of all the hours wasted that could be spent shaking packages from distant relatives.

Stockings by the chimney is normal, but there is a much older French tradition of leaving shoes by the door for le petit Jesus to fill them with goodies. Baby Jesus? The same old Catholic families that expected le petit Jesus might also have left food out for the Virgin Mary. If she comes to our house, I hope she likes milk and cookies, because that’s what le Père Noël is getting.

The kids’ grandfather, aunt, and uncle will come for Christmas day dinner, and M has to work on December 24th, so I’m in charge of eats. As fancy French meals must, ours will start with foie gras. My father-in-law has already offered to bring the foie, which he prepares with figs. We will need toasted brioche, onion jam, and a blanc moelleux (a soft white, like a Jurançon) to go with.

After that we’re pretty much on the same page. The main course is a bird, dinde aux marrons (turkey stuffed with chestnuts), or maybe canard à l’orange, side dishes and dessert. Since I had scallops for Thanksgiving dinner, I’m leaning toward turkey. There is no great freezer bin of Butterballs at our supermarket, so we will have to special order our bird from the butcher. I just hope they take off the head and feet.