Sapin de Noël in Cassis, amid the Platane trees.

It is both exciting and saddening to spend Christmas in a country that isn’t your own. The prospect of learning about a different experience is exhilarating, but you may feel like you’re missing out on what’s happening “back home”.  Without enough time off to make a big trip to the US, I was delighted to spend Christmas with my adopted French family and my mother, who came to visit. It was the best of both worlds: the comforts of home (Mom brought Christmas cookie cutters and tree ornaments) in a new setting.

I have noticed that France, on the whole, approaches Christmas differently than in the US. There are far fewer store window decorations. Most light displays and Christmas trees (sapins) are restricted to the squares downtown. I didn’t hear any – and I mean any! – holiday music in stores or restaurants. And no one seemed to get my insistence on decorating the Christmas tree together, or baking, or watching specific movies, or really any of the activities I usually associate with getting into the “holiday spirit”.

But the French have their own traditions. Provence is famous for santons, little figurines that make up a nativity crèche-and-village display. They have been made by artisans for centuries and Marseille hosts a well-known Foire aux Santons come holiday season.  And southern families, as I discovered, really do decorate their homes with them.

A traditional santon scene with the crèche in the background.
A traditional santon scene with the crèche in the background.

The French, or at least those that I know, are also surprisingly big on Christmas presents and shopping. Friends wanted to compare notes with me on what we’d bought our respective families and significant others; my coworkers were zipping out during lunch breaks to pick up last-minute gifts. Most surprisingly of all, the stores were open the Sunday before Christmas – something that is usually strictly out of the question as Sunday is a sacred day of rest.

Since France doesn’t have Thanksgiving to kick off the holiday shopping season, the actual time period seemed much more condensed. (I’d be curious to know when France’s biggest shopping day is!)

And then comes Christmas itself. Or rather, Christmas Eve, as that’s when many French families have their big celebrations. First comes la messe (for those who go to church), then comes dinner, which traditionally includes smoked salmon, foie gras and oysters. I never expected to be eating oysters on December 24th! But once I got over the strangeness of the idea, it actually felt very festive.

Christmas Eve dinner.
Christmas Eve dinner.

After dinner, the family gathers around the tree to open presents. (That part felt very familiar). Everyone oohs and aahs, but there is little mention of the Père Noël despite his having magically delivered presents to the kids during dinner! And again, no Christmas music or sugar cookies. Lots of champagne and laughter, though, both of which last well into the night.

On the 25th, the family wakes up late (can you imagine sleeping in until noon on Christmas Day in America?) and then eats a family lunch with a main dish of chapon, which translates to “capon”, or a castrated rooster. After which, most people go into a food coma on the couch, so we put on a DVD and hang out for the rest of the day. (And that part is about the same as my experience in the US, aside from the fact that the movie was Despicable Me 2).

Although I did miss some of my customary Christmas traditions, I was touched and surprised by how happy and relaxed my French family seemed. It was almost like an American Thanksgiving: the whole family got together, talked over good food and enjoyed expensive treats. The Christmas tree and presents just sort of happened to be around. So maybe there is something for me to learn from a French Christmas: that it’s okay for Christmas to be less about annual rituals or prescribed decorations, and more about spontaneity and spending time with people you love. It’s about learning to embrace a certain joie de vivre, no matter what time of year. And that’s a Christmas present you just can’t buy.