Sunday, December 25, 2011

Joyeux Noël

Notre-Dame de Noël
I was going to write something Christmas-y, but decided to spend the day with my family instead. After all, over the past twenty years, we’ve been scattered a lot across the globe and Christmas has been sadder for it.
     So here’s a quick something, a mishmash of memories of Christmases Past.

French Christmas for me is part aroma, especially marrons chauds - steaming chestnuts from little pushcarts rigged out with a charcoal burner, meted out with a wooden measuring scoop that varied in size according to the money you held out. Sold in little paper bags, the vendor always popped in an extra one just before handing it to you... to show what good guy he was. Those chestnuts were tasty, and they kept your hands warm, even if they blackened your fingers as you peeled them.
The only bûche I ever made
     French Christmas is also the amazing bûche de Noël you see in every bakery window, a genoise cake spread with vanilla or chestnut or coffee-flavored cream, rolled up and decorated to look like the Yule log thrown on the fire in olden days to burn through this magic night, even while you’re at Midnight Mass.
     And speaking of that, French Christmas is the Midnight Mass at Notre-Dame Cathedral, crowded with believers and non-believers alike, Parisians and tourists. But you'd better dress warmly because the cold radiates up through the paving stones and through the soles of your shoes, and the draft that makes the candles flicker magically will also insinuate itself down the neckline of your fashionable décolleté.

The first Christmas spent with my newborn December French baby was a magical one. It involved a very small potted Christmas tree, which I gave to friends afterward to plant in their garden. There were no ornaments bought - our budget didn’t allow for that. But we popped some popcorn and strung it together. And decked the tree with my only string of pearls. I found a few candy canes at the pâtisserie, and the corner shop sold one brand of pudding with a twisty thing on the top of the can that opened up into a spiral, cranberry colored on one side and metallic silver on the others. Although we didn’t light them, we festooned the tiny branches with some left-over white birthday candles. Significant Other cut a star out of cardboard and covered it in aluminum foil, and we hung it on the very top of the mini-tree. It was one of the prettiest Christmas trees I’ve ever had. I kept those spirals and the star until I moved, and then they got lost in the move. Or maybe they’re still packed away somewhere in my Montmartre basement.

Boulevard Haussmann
     Christmas in Paris when my children were small always involved a trip to the departments stores on the Boulevard Haussmann, where Galeries Lafayette vied with Printemps to see who could create the most amazing store windows. Every single one of them was animated with toys and mannequins amid a décor worthy of a dream. The stores built little raised platforms that ran the whole length of the windows so that children could see close up. I hate to think how many noseprints were cleaned off those windows every morning. The adults among us - who were children at heart - were every bit as mesmerized as the children accompanying us. It must have cost the stores a fortune to create, but I’m sure they made it back - and more! - from parents being begged to death for the things their children saw in those windows: dolls, train sets, stuffed toys...
     Another Christmas I remember was one here in Ann Arbor, when I flew in from France with both children, now school age, to keep a good friend company on his first post-divorce Christmas. It didn’t seem right for him to be alone, so we came to be the seasonal distraction. Somehow Santa found us even over here. (My friend is now remarried and a proud grandfather of three!)

Rue Lepic,
in Montmartre
Christmas is a time for family. And for friends who are like family. Christmas is something you carry with you in your heart.
     I hope all of you had the happiest of all possible Christmases. And that the coming year will bring you "amitié et fortune, amour et santé" - friendship and fortune, love and health.

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