Thursday, January 05, 2006

Merry Noël!: Making it festive in France

The biggest difference I've noticed between a traditional American Christmas and its French counterpart has to do with feasting philosophy. The way I remember it, the American feasting aesthetic calls for a table laden with food. So some of the cook's tricks revolve around the art of getting every single dish ready at the same time in order to maximize the impressiveness of the daunting task of consuming it all as soon as the host says "go!" (or possibly "Amen," depending on your family's particular traditions).

The French ideal, instead of a wide feast, is to have a long feast, in which the copiousness of the meal is demonstrated by having it last forever, with one fancy dish after another brought out for the guests' enjoyment over the space of many hours.

I'm certain this difference in feasting style says something very deep and profound about the difference between the American character and the French character in general -- it obviously must! -- but I can't seem to put my finger on precisely what it is. It's clearly not that one country is full of gluttons who love to stuff themselves and the other isn't. I'm sure it'll come to me one of these days, and rest assured that as soon as that day comes, you'll be able to read C. L. Hanson's Grand Unified Theory of the Difference between Americans and French People right here in this spot.

I might understand the whole thing better if I ever actually got the chance to experience first-hand one of these traditional French all-evening-and-well-into-the-night Christmas dinners. Alas, my husband isn't nearly as big a fan of tradition-for-its-own-sake as I am.

So every year when my husband asks me what I want for Christmas dinner and I reply "dinde aux marrons," he just laughs and tells me that if I wanted the classic, most traditional main course of a French Christmas dinner, I should have married a more traditional Frenchman.

That's not to say that my husband's some sort of Scrooge or Grinch or something. He just doesn't like dinde aux marrons. He loves Christmas, though, just not out of some crazy, sentimental nostalgia like me. He loves Christmas for the same reason any normal, healthy, red-blooded guy likes Christmas: He likes toys and presents!

Actually my husband is a pretty good sport about indulging my insistence on filling our home with a sentimental Christmas. Even though he doesn't like Christmas music all that much, he helped me make the 15 or so CDs I compiled, each with 20 or so favorites taken from my vast collection of Christmas CDs. And this year he even encouraged me to get out my collection of Christmas CDs in early December and start playing them for our little boys. I appreciated that a lot even though on some level I suspect he was mostly just hoping it would get me to stop playing Saturday's Warrior.

The French don't seem to have quite the same elaborate array of Christmas music of all styles and genres that the Americans have. Consequently, department stores and malls in France will often play American Christmas music in the background to get people into the mood for giving during the season to be jolly.

This fact may run contrary to your stereotype of the French as a bunch of snooty people cynically mocking American culture. But in reality, people all over the world want to make money, and French retailers are not at all ashamed or hesitant to borrow tricks of the trade from the country that is the unchallenged world champion in the art of consumerism.

The only problem is that since the French don't have this same rich tradition of Christmas pop, they end up having to play the same songs over and over in order to be sure they're playing things that are familiar enough to bring fond Christmas memories to the minds of consumers. Last year, in the space of a quick shopping excursion in a single mall, I heard five different renditions of "Sleigh Ride," including two of them back-to-back. Now I like "Sleigh Ride" (as you may have already guessed!), but even I found that to be a bit over the top.

This year I went back to that same mall to make a note of which Christmas songs were currently being overplayed just so that I could report it here in this column. (The things I do for you guys! I really hope you appreciate it.)

Unfortunately (or perhaps fortunately?) that particular mall hadn't yet started its seasonal Christmas purchase hypnosis soundtrack, so I came back with nothing to report.

Then I went to a department store where I recalled in the past having heard a variety of versions of "Jingle Bells," and that store was strangely music-less as well. I started to get worried that maybe the French had finally gotten sick of American Christmas music.

"Could that even be possible?" I wondered to myself.

Then today while picking out some toy airplanes for my boys, I was relieved to hear the familiar strains of Frank Sinatra singing "Santa Claus Is Coming to Town," followed immediately by a track of some twangy country singer singing (what else?) "Santa Claus Is Coming to Town."

And all was right again in my traditional French-American Noël.

Published in the Utah Valley Monitor December 22, 2005.

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