Christmas Holiday in France

The Christmas Holiday has past, but it is not leaving without first beckoning me to buy more chocolates with cherries and liquor, more with liquid caramel centers, pistachio nougat or praline something-or-other, more hollowed out dark chocolate turtle, santa or owl shapes that crunch when we eat them. The prices split in half for the same weight, or remained the same for twice the weight. I’m filling in all that wasted space in my stomach since I did not stuff myself last year at Christmas dinners. This year at our family get together, my mother-in-law prepared a satisfying and uncharacteristically inexcessive meal. As is often the custom, the in-laws (or outlaws, if you prefer) and their dog, Mallorca, played hosts in their light warm house. My father-in-law searched his wine cellar with slightly shaking hands, opening each aged bottle with a grunt or slight wheeze, pouring crisp glasses of fine wine and reminding us that we had to finish the bottle. My mother-in-law spent most of her time half in and half out of the kitchen. Three quarters of the time she prepared everything, and for one quarter she ate and entertained. Habitually, we women would notice her absence amongst the other guests and offer help with the intent of speeding her return to the table. To no avail. She would just as quickly be lost in her return to the kitchen to finish some other last minute touch.


Dinner at the inlaws is always simple but flavorful. Meals follow the standard pattern. There are small “amuse-bouches” (fun for your mouth) or “amuse-gueules” also called “gâteaux apéritifs”. The choice of gâteaux apéritifs always depends on the host/hostess. During the holidays here, it usually means thin toasted circles of bread topped with smoked salmon or tiny cocktail shrimp and a drop of butter or mayonnaise, small servings of foie gras or fish or pork paté.  Each dish is accompanied by its wine, and for the gâteaux apéritifs, the first chilled glass of the night is usually a clear yellow not-too-sweet wine. The serving dishes make the round of the table until there are no more gâteaux apéritifs left. The first dish, called the entrée, I come to recognize as the fish dish. Not eating red meat, poultry or pork, I always get two servings of the fish dish…It is usually a white fish filet rolled inwards on itself, set up on its side in the plate, drizzled with beurre blanc (which is a butter, shallots and dry white wine sauce) and served with boiled or roasted white potatoes and/or slivers of carrots, celery root and leek sautéed in olive oil or butter. This dish tastes good the first time. In the middle of the table there are bread baskets with cut pieces of crisp crusted baguette. This basket will be refilled throughout the meal since the bread inside is often used to clean one’s plate. That habit is considered bad manners in some regions. Around here, I get the impression that it’s bad manners if you don’t clean your plate with the bread. Next comes the main course, “le plat de résistance”, which this year was an oven-roasted turkey served with wild mushrooms and chestnuts.  This is followed by a fresh green lettuce salad and homemade vinaigrette, offered at the same time as the cheese platter is sent around. And of course, a good glass of red wine is offered to complete this dish. Then comes the dessert, which this year was a store bought pistachio and hazelnut vanilla ice cream bûche de noël with a sorbet raspberry topping. Coffee, caffeinated or herbal teas are offered alongside the invitation to taste various homemade “goûttes”. The word goûtte literally means a drop or a taste and that’s basically all you need in order to understand what it is. “La Goûtte”, also named “eau de vie” (water of life) is made by allowing fruit or fruit juices to ferment and later distilling them. Most of the time, the smell is too strong and I’m not tempted to taste. But, one time I did taste some goûtte due to some deceptive olfactory alterations. The one I tasted smelled like sweet tangerines. I swirled the two drops of goûtte around in the bottom of my empty tea cup and tipped my head all the way back to get the drops passed my lips and down my throat. Almost immediately I felt a cold sensation as alcohol evaporated from my lips, then I covered my eyes that had begun to water and clutched at my chest as if to stop the violent burning that descended the long bumpy ride down my esophagus. Apparently my tasting convinced some others not to do so. This Christmas dinner ended with the family playing their favorite card game togehter: la belotte. This is always a rowdy bout of yelling, scribbling scores, French cursing, angry fist banging and firm knuckle knocking on the table. Many children learn this game at a young age, but I’ve yet to take the time to understand it.


Instead of preparing dinner, we could’ve gone out. On Christmas day, it is common for restaurants to serve large and small families. My first Christmas in France and the first time I met my husband’s paternal side of the family was in such a restaurant. When standing at our seats, the chairs barely scraped the back wall. While seated, it felt to me like a beach of walruses unable to move around but for great effort. I met many people I did not remember, brushed many a cheek with my own while kissing into the air, and as promptly as I could attempted to melt into my chair. Some refused to let me melt away and sat with me the whole 3-4 hour meal, poking at me with their chattering tongues as if I were to come alive in my petri dish. These charming people I come today to appreciate as true friends, if not yet family. But at that instant, I felt petrified, utterly embarassed, unprepared for the noise and the crush of people, including some that gave the “bise” with cold eyes. This reunion was so noisy that the following Christmas, we went to a different restaurant, one with separate rooms for individual families or groups. Our room was facing farthest south. The cold air and the stink of cigarette smoke rushed into the warm room every time someone opened the door. The room was big enough and painted a shade of peach that reminded me of my grandpa in New York. At this restaurant, there was no seating chart and the room quickly split into three groups: the elders, the too-good-for-you-crew and everybody else. The elders sat together, the too-good-for-you-crew sat together and everybody else sat where they could. Those in the crew yelled out funny things from the safety of their herds, but never acknowledged the intelligence nor the comedy of anyone else. So, I endured being ignored by the crew and endured the gentle interrogation by several elders as to why, after 4 months, I continued to breastfeed my son, as to whether or not I truly believed my breastmilk to be healthy…


And until the year 2008, that’s about where my French Christmas restaurant experiences have ended. I refused to attend any others. Perhaps, I was wrong to do so. But, I was not alone, neither in my refusal nor in my absence. Instead the family decided to meet up at the end of summer for a barbecue at my inlaws’ house. I arrived with my husband and two children, feeling anger broiling inside of my chest just at seeing certain familiarly nonchalant expressions. I stayed away from the crowd because I had to skewer my marinated shrimp for the barbecue. They were all brown and spicy smelling from the cumin and soy sauce. My heart beat quickly and I moved from one foot to the other as the translucent grey flesh slowly gave way to an opaque coral pink. The crackling fire licked tatooes of caramelized molasses onto the side of the shrimp. The metal tongs scraped the edge of the white serving dish as I piled on the copious amount. I sat down at the end of the longer of two wooden makeshift tables, at the end of lewd jokes and bursts of raucous laughter, deep rumbling money talk, high pitched-baby cries and gurgles, next to granny gushings. J came over to be served and I quickly spooned cold mixed salads onto paper plates, passed plastic utensils and sat her in a chair next to me. Unbeknownst to me, the shrimp plate had been picked up and had managed to switch hands four or five times before I realized it was no longer where I had placed it on the table. My husband and a couple other young men had prepared serving platters full of sausages and pork chops! Why eat my sole plate of shrimp, the only “meat” prepared for me? With a sharp tone of voice, I stopped my shrimp from advancing any further down the table. Keeping an eye on their faces, I began to prepare my own plate. And they sang a short song, more like a refrain, which is common at French gatherings, but this time they sang for my shrimp. I smiled confusedly, but I was gleaming on the inside. And for the rest of the day, things followed the standard pattern of meals. But there was a little less tension, especially on my end. Many empty wine bottles were piled up at the end of that day, more card games were played, a bunch of us got drenched in a sudden afternoon downpour of bitter cold rain while others settled for naps in cool shaded rooms. The groups mingled and inch by inch brought down their guards in order to talk with each other. This was a much nicer Christmas celebration, although not at Christmas, that captured the spirit of a true reunion. Perhaps, we just needed to meet on common ground and truly spend the time together.


The end of the Christmas season comes shortly after New Year’s Eve with the Epiphany.  The beloved “galettes des rois” dominate the windows of all boulangeries and are prominently displayed in supermarkets. There are two kinds of “galettes des rois”. One is called the “couronne” and is a brown crown-looking pastry, literally having a hole like a doughnut but much larger in width and height, that has a medium to dark brown exterior and butter yellow interior with no sugary sweet taste. It is soft and smushy to the touch, like Charmin toilet paper rolls, and is eaten with sweet things such as jellies or jams. The second one, my favorite, is a solid tart with a buttery flake upper and bottom crust. Its center is made of an almond paste called frangipane. Both galettes have one single fève in them. The person who bites into this hard cooked clay ornament the size of a nickel becomes the king or queen and receives a tacky gold crown. Although, I’ve never personally experienced it myself, I’ve always been told that the king or queen then is allowed to choose his or her queen or king. For me the galettes des rois are another reason to get together and offer a small gift to people you admire, love or like. We purchased a frangipane and spent a lazy Sunday afternoon with the inlaws snacking and chatting about the New Year. We will invite our nearest neighbors for slices of galettes to thank them for when we needed them during the year or for just being good neighbors. And we have invited a good number of our friends over for the end of the month also to taste a galette. It’s like being invited for dessert everywhere you go, but this dessert is in season once a year. Another action that shows the end of the Christmas season is the national sales kick-off. In France, there are no individual store sales. All stores slash prices during this national sales period and do not have sales outside of the national sales period. As far as I can remember, this sale takes place twice a year and the first national sales period began on January 7th. 


As we come to the end of this season, I’m shocked to find that I write mostly of food and people. When I was living in the US, and especially as a child, Christmas always meant lots and lots of presents. As I grew up, my mother became religious and it became more about Jesus Christ. Today, I live in a different country and I’m learning different traditions and customs and at the same time attempting to create Christmas meaning and memories for my own children that mimic some of my best memories. I’m not religious, but more spiritual in nature. And I believe the origins of the season are necessary to keep in mind. No matter where the origins stem, be it the pagan celebration of light or the Christian birth of a Savior, I’m glad that we have it. To me, it is about giving gifts, tangible and non-tangible, such as sitting down and sharing what we enjoy the most with the people we love and perhaps with those that we don’t yet understand. What is Christmas for you?  





3 responses to “Christmas Holiday in France

  1. Hello
    I think Christmas means for me exactly the same thing it meant for you, giving gifts to my family and sharing with my relatives. This year I was voted down on making Roast Chicken Provence and Cassoulet by my mother who wanted to handle all the cooking herself, no mean feat for a woman who had back surgery twice and has never been the same. So I handled all the cleaning and decorating and tried to get my dad to feel useful without messing anything up, he has the start of Alzheimer’s but won’t admit it.
    I was allowed to put out Duck and Pork Champagne Pate with Cornichons and French mustard, Caperberries and round French toasts with two different kinds of French cheeses! All was served with copious amounts of red wine which I prefer and so does my cousin Donna,the other wino in the family. The French food went over great with my young cousins who were my target audience since they are in their early twenties and hadn’t had any of this before, so I was thrilled when they all liked it. The meal my mom made was enjoyed by all, spiral ham and roasted potatoes with olive oil and garlic, with as you call them Haricot Verts and mashed turnips . It went over big and was followed by home made cookies (snickerdoodles, peanut butter, mexican wedding cookies, and shortbread cookies with half cherries) made by Donna’s daughter Sharon who works as a social worker but could easily be a baker, homemade layer cake, lemon raspberry bundt cake and coffee.
    But Donna’s sister Chrissy who died of cancer in Nov 2007 was present in the form of her older daughter Jennifer, who in the old days was quieter and seemed to not enjoy coming to our house. She presented as the new Chrissy, loud and funny telling stories of her adventures in the fasion world of New York City where she works as a clothing desiger, while Chrissy’s younger daughter Michelle who looks alot like her mother did what she always does, took embarrasing candid photos of us eating and drinking and everyone laughed when I said that all of these pictures would be on My Space within an hour of Michelle’s arrival back home.
    I was right of course about that, all in all it was the best hosted holiday we ever put together, and I am already thinking what I will do if we get Christmas again next year. I think your holiday sounded fine and would have liked to taste all the foods your family had, it sounded great. I sure wish I could get to France again, maybe next year things will be better.

  2. Wow, taureandreams. Thank you for your response. Your answer sort of makes me feel as if i’m being pulled back from an out of body experience, if that makes any sense.

    It is very touching that you took the time to describe your family and your Christmas celebration. Congratulations on your food successes. I’ve never had mashed turnips before. That sounds good. What are caperberries?

    cookies! what do the mexican wedding cookies taste, look like? lemon raspberry bundt cake sounds like a little piece of heaven.

    My condoleances for Donna’s sister Chrissy. i believe that pictures are an important part of our memories as well as an inspirational, to me anyway, art form. do you take pictures?

    yes, the food here is always great tasting, although and possibly nothing exceptional. i’m happy to be amongst them and i was happy to spend the time with those people on that day.

    thank you again. what are you interested in seeing on your trips to France?


    Is it true that your Dad has the start of Alzheimer’s or should I understand that as a joke?

  3. Dear Karena
    I just today at 2:27 AM our time sort of by accident found this comment I made again, I’m sorry I didn’t realize you replied to my post on your holiday story. Yes, my Dad does have Alzheimer’s, he won’t do anything about it so it’s just a matter of time before something happens. Since, I wrote that I have taken a trip in the culinary world to France and back many times. I spent the better part of this year teaching myself classic French cooking. I also discovered Peter Mayle’s book A Year in Provence and all the others he wrote on life in France, so I guess you could say I am interested in Provence but also wherever Cote Du Rhone is made would be another destination. I am reading France magazine and enjoying the little glimpses of the towns and villages, as well as the cities. I am dismayed to hear about the French government banning Muslim women from wearing their faces covered, simply because the extremists have now declared war on France where they previously were kindly disposed to France. Now it will not be a safer place to travel in the future, and I’m worried about the damage they will try to cause over there and the people like you who will be in more danger from politics. Yes I do take pictures and have started adding them to my stories about my adventures in New York City. The caperberries are large sour fruit? I guess kinda like pickles with a lot of seeds like a Pomegranite but bitter and peppery, they are used in a lot of drinks like Bloody Mary’s at Prune on the Lower East Side in NY. They are salty and delicious. Yes, I do understand what you mean by an out-of-body experience! Thanks for writing, and now that I am awake from my own dreams I will keep in touch.

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