Even in semi rural France, the Christmas season is underway and now we’re into December I can feel myself getting into the festive spirit. Recently the weather’s been mild and really rather lovely; every spare minute I have I’ve hurried into the garden and I’m feeling slightly smug and proud of myself – you see I’m ahead of the game for once, a true rarity! The potager is dug over, waiting for our occasional and infrequent winter frosts to break down the soil over the coming months, the vines have been cut and I’ve bored every family member who will listen to me with news of how prepared our garden is for winter! Read more
We can’t always get away on vacation, much though a recharging of the batteries is desperately required, other factors come in to play and we cannot leave. But, then, why would we want to, we live in one of the most popular holiday destinations in France, mostly frequented by Parisians and the French, with a handful of in-the-know Brits, Belgians, Dutch, Germans and other lucky people! Read more
It’s July and August; everyone it seems goes on holiday! But where would WE go that could possibly be better than right here? Our little slice of France is where those in the know flock to in their droves, and it’s a place that is also perhaps a little bit of a secret to those not lucky enough to have heard of this little corner of one of Europe’s most romantic destinations, tucked away on the Atlantic coast and nestled in its own unique micro climate.
“How long have we got?”
“About twenty minutes maximum, and we’ve still got another 6 or 7kms to go!”
“OK allez, let’s go, we’ve got to cycle really fast”
You would think we would have learnt by now; this is our third summer of occasional day-trips cycling on the Île de Ré and we always end up in the same situation at the end of the day when closing time draws near and we somehow find we are a very long way from the bike hire shop. It’s a recurring theme that only extreme muscle power is going to get us back anywhere near on time. Read more
It’s Christmas Eve and the first day of Hanukkah
Wishing you all a very merry and peaceful Christmas and a very happy holidays
Around mid-October each year I usually have the same good intentions, to be one of those super-organized people who gets all their Christmas shopping done by November. However, although I may wake each morning with the same great idea, it never seems to materialize. I remember one year when we were in the midst of moving house and I descended on Toys”R”Us on Christmas Eve, panic-buying whatever caught my eye, and ended up with a bunch of presents I would never normally have even considered. Strangely, the children who are old enough to remember that Christmas recall the day with great fondness!
However, having said all that, I had thought that this year my organization levels had been a touch above average and almost everything had gone ‘swimmingly’ well. To start with I became French and bought champagne back in September, the month synonymous with the annual autumn French wine sales (Foire aux Vins) and a time when French families stock up their wine-cellars at hugely discounted prices. All the presents are wrapped and family parcels have been mailed overseas. The house is decorated and we even made a gingerbread house but there is one small blot on the my otherwise perfect Christmas landscape – an elusive present. It’s something I bought months ago as part of my plan to be super-woman, which is good, but the only problem is I have no idea where it is hidden, which is bad. I have turned cupboards inside out and unearthed things I didn’t even know we had, but there is still no sign of the elusive gift. I’ve even questioned my sanity; did I really buy it or am I just going completely mad? I know I bought it. I did, I did, I did. I think.
Maybe it’s time to take Gigi up on her offer. She has a favourite phrase at the moment, which for some reason she seems to think is extremely funny, and she says in her best Downton Abbey voice (as only a nine year old can….), “Would you like a glass of Bubbly?” As champagne has been all over the news recently with the fact that two or three glasses a day can help prevent dementia in later life, I may well take her up on her offer quite soon.
Wasting so much time searching for the elusive gift has for some reason made me think of Christmas when I was a child. For me it began when Grandparents arrived and school finished. We always had a party on Christmas Eve; the Christmas tree always went in the same place, and the routine was unchanged year in year out; it always all seemed to run so smoothly!
Last week we set off after school one afternoon to choose our tree. We always do this altogether as a family and it involves a lot of discussion and a fair amount of what is usually good-natured disagreement. Rarely do we reach a unanimous decision in less than fifteen minutes and on more than one occasion there have been both referendums, and voting.
We check each tree carefully, considering the side view and the back view; is it too bushy, too thin, will it stand tall and be centre-stage for the entire holiday season? Everyone seems to want different trees for different reasons, and as we have raised five very strong-minded and independent children opinions are expressed loudly and confidently. This year, like all others, an agreement was hard to come by. Roddy took control and organized a vote, Gigi stood on Hetty’s toes and Millie and Jack eventually got their way. Roddy expressed bemused surprise that we had yet again chosen one of the most expensive trees in the entire department, possibly in the whole of France, but although I hate to admit it, I think they chose a fine specimen!
Of course, the fun has only just started; next comes the decorating. Boxes are hauled in, and we all look out for our old stone crèche that we bought years ago in Provence – it’s a Christmas favourite with the children. They just love placing all the little figures (Santons as they are called) in place and making the nativity scene come alive. Decorating the house is loud and chaotic, but it’s always fun and as the children get older it does get a little easier and fewer decorations seem to get broken each year on unforgiving hard tiles. Ours is a very personal tree as virtually every decoration tells a story. Many are gifts from a dear friend who lives in Connecticut, as each year she sends the children a decoration and as a result they have always been treasured. Along with these there are also baubles they have hand-painted at school over the years, some even with finger-prints and dates. Each and every one of them has a story to tell. It’s a long slow process, and an evening when Slade repetitively belts out “I wish it could be Christmas everyday” and everyone gets a little bit silly! By the end of it there are always a mass of decorations on the bottom and at the front, and the tree is typically left a little bald and devoid of colour at the back and top. But when the house is quiet again and the youngest are tucked up in bed I usually go around tweaking a little here and there!
Starting the decorating slightly earlier this year has certainly had it’s advantages, and although the tree may drop a few more needles before the New Year it has definitely made for a more relaxed time. Yesterday I also cut a huge trug-load of magnolia branches which sat in the hallway all afternoon whilst I decided what to do with them! In the end I tied them in bundles up the staircase and Millie wrapped the bottom of the balusters in lights. We were both surprisingly pleased with the effect.
Going back to my childhood Christmases, I remember how we always went to church on Christmas morning, how the turkey went in the oven overnight, and when we went for a ride on Christmas morning how our ponies would be festooned with tinsel around their necks. There was something wonderful about trotting along the village lanes when everywhere was quiet and still, and the people who we did see were always smiling, wishing us a very happy Christmas as we did likewise.
Presents were always unwrapped after lunch, part and parcel of being a farmer’s daughter. Everyone on the farm had the day off so it was typically just my Father who fed horses and cattle, milked the house cow and checked on stock. For this reason Christmas morning was always busy and presents were opened in the afternoon when everyone could sit down and take time to enjoy their gifts. By early evening it was time to go out and once again tend to animals on the farm, after which we would then come in for Christmas cake and settle in front of the fire. A game of cards always took place, and at some stage there would be a break in play for a supper (as if we could really eat any more!) of ham, salad, and trifle for dessert!
Over the years we have kept some of our family traditions, and started other new ones of our own. We still unwrap gifts after lunch, everyone has grown to prefer it this way. I’m not sure we know another family with the same routine, but it seems to work well and now that the children are a little older and have a little more patience, they love it too. The morning is all about gifts left by Santa in their stockings and it gives them time to really enjoy these whilst the adults are cooking the big meal, and phoning family and friends. One of the new traditions is something that seems to have been started a few years ago by Izzi, the eldest of the tribe. The children all quietly creep into her room at 7am on the dot, and they sit on her bed with their bulging stockings, opening Santa’s offerings in turn, around and around. When all the goodies have been unwrapped they load them all back into their stockings and then come and wake us up and start the whole process all over again. This means there are seven of us in one bed, which this year will be a complete battle-scene with two dogs! The best part of this arrangement is we do get to have a lie-in on Christmas morning.
It’s strange how the tradition of hanging a Christmas stocking can have so many variations. In fact the entire Santa/Father Christmas tradition varies quite dramatically from country to country. Here in France, for the most part Santa leaves presents for the children under the Christmas tree. Alas, we are not French and we stick to our British tradition of leaving a stocking at the foot of the bed. French friends visiting last weekend were amazed to see presents under our tree, “Santa has been already?” they asked incredulously; it took some explaining for them to understand that those were presents we give each other and we traditionally put them under the tree! To our surprise, these differences seem of little consequence to children, and both ours and their French friends seem to have an unspoken acknowledgment that Santa Claus brings French children their big main presents, and English children just receive small “stocking fillers”!
French children often get left twigs, while English children seem to always receive an orange or a mandarin. As a child, my stocking was a pillow-case and I would wake at some time during the night and by twiddling my toes I would know if Santa had been. Now it is slightly different as when Gigi was a baby I decided we should make Christmas stockings that the children would treasure forever. Nine years later they are still going strong and once again this year they are ready and waiting to be filled!
Just one more day of school until the holidays and our little people are counting down the days and hours, wishing it was Christmas today, not next week, to which I always have the same reply, “I don’t, I’m not ready!”. But I’m getting there!
I would love to know if you have any special traditions you keep going and wherever you are in the world; how do you celebrate Christmas and what are your family’s Santa traditions?
Yesterday morning dawned grey and a little cooler than it has been in recent weeks. It seemed a good time to spend a couple of hours digging in the vegetable garden; I took out the peas, which had long since turned into Triffids and then started on some of the weeds which had taken up residence and developed their plots of land into sprawling communities of jungle. I felt a little like Jack amongst the beanstalks as I cut them all down. I sewed some more baby spinach seeds and planted out some tiny lettuces to keep us going through the rest of the summer. Roddy found it funny to ask if these, too, were going to turn into skyscrapers.
A light drizzle started to fall; not enough to do any REAL good, but enough to make my hair completely frizzy and to send me into a panic – not about getting frizzy hair but because I didn’t mind that I was getting frizzy hair! I’m someone known to go to great lengths to avoid getting wet hair, is this a sign of getting old and letting all my rules turn to ruin? It’s a family joke that if I return to the house in the car and it is raining that Roddy will miraculously appear at the car-door with an umbrella, and I have been seen on many occasions running across a road with a bag, a book, or anything else to hand above my head in a sudden shower. Yet here I was, standing in the vegetable garden with Gigi, laughing at my frizzy hair, and I didn’t care – I fear this is indeed a reason to make me panic!
A few hours later clear blue skies returned, and the sun once again became an overpowering force which sent the chickens fleeing for some respite under the hedges and trees. Cats forgot about chasing lizards for a while and slept contentedly in the coolness of the house, Bentley moved away from the heat of the mat outside the front door and sidled into the shade, where he too lay semi-asleep with an ear open in case someone should pick up a lead and mention a walk. My hair had been washed, dried and all signs of frizziness gone and all crazy thoughts of not minding firmly banished!
Yesterday was La Fête Nationale, or as it is commonly called – Le 14 Juillet. This is the French National Day that commemorates the storming of the Bastille on 14 July 1789. One of the highlights is the oldest and largest regular military parade in Europe which is held on the morning of 14 July, on the Champs-Élysées in front of the President of France and other French officials and foreign guests. Elsewhere in France it’s a day much like any other holiday, where people do their own thing and enjoy a day off from work. In the evening most towns and villages across the country have fireworks and then often a dance. Naturally, we were off to sample the pleasures of ours!
But first dinner – some food on the grill, friends joining us with a most beautiful gift of a box of French patisserie. The children emitted that infectious excitement that they always feel when there is anything akin to a party, and the sight of the patisserie raised those levels a little higher as they debated which to choose when it was time for dessert. As darkness fell the table was groaning with leftover goodies and small faces were beaming in sugary delight. The chickens had even been treated to a few prawn heads and Bentley had found some delightful pick-ups under the table.
As has been the way of things in our village for many years, once it was dark everyone was invited to gather at the Mairie to collect their lanterns. These were beautiful paper creations in an array of shapes and colours, containing a small candle which the Mayor lit for each and every one he handed out. At a little after 10.30pm the procession set off led by Mayor. We wound our way like a stream of fireflies through the old streets, past leaning houses that had been built centuries before the storming of the Bastille and which could no doubt tell many tales if only they could talk. Toddlers and tiny children, their lanterns almost as big as themselves, tottered along amongst the adults. Our own children had long since disappeared into the crowd, running ahead to somewhere near the front where they could be with their school-friends. The night was clear and still with a vault of glittering stars over our heads as our procession of 200 people or more wound our way through the village, lanterns ablaze. It was a very primeval procession, the flickering lights and jostling shadows perhaps a lingering memory of that evening so long ago in 1789 when the first night of the new federation might have echoed to the same ghostly mutterings.
Culminating at the Salle des Fêtes, the processionary throng stopped for the firework display set against the backdrop of the ancient 12th Century Chateau Fort. It was at this stage I had the feeling that I was in a scene from a film rather than real life, as the setting was almost surreal; huge searchlights beamed around whilst we waited for the fireworks to begin and when the first colours burst overhead a real sense of drama overcame us all as the display unfolded and more rockets and flares soared above the battlements. Incongruously, the music from Star Wars blared out across the field, perhaps relieving us of any surfeit of excitement we may have felt being too close to history!
As the last glowing pyrotechnic sank away downwind we wandered over to the Salle des Fêtes and the bal populaire or dance commenced. Elderly couples dancing a-deux swirled gracefully amongst younger adults, teenagers, children and toddlers. Our children swayed in and out of the crowd and time blurred into a sea of movement and flashing lights. In the early hours of the morning we wandered home, everyone content and happy and feeling a part of a very small, but very special little community – we are very lucky and very grateful to have found ourselves in such a friendly village.