Monday, 26 December 2016

It Doesn't Feel a Lot Like Christmas

It's December 26th. Traditionally, the day when, after the madness of Christmas, you eat leftovers, go for a healthy walk, possibly visit some relatives and, especially if you are a child, spend some quality time with your new presents.  Except that we're in France where, in UFM's family at least, the main celebration takes place on the evening of the 24th, so yesterday already felt like Boxing Day and today I feel as if I'm suffering from some kind of cultural jet-lag.

When I was a child, Christmas went something like this:

On Christmas Eve, after a build up of advent calendars, Christmas events at church and school, the buying of a Christmas tree (until my parents decided that we were too old for that - we weren't -) and the end of term, my favourite auntie would arrive, and that was like a sign that Christmas  had really started. My auntie took us to the pantomime every year, usually either on the 24th or the 26th.

On the evening of the 24th, there was the excitement of putting out stockings (which back in the olden days were actual socks) and we would go to bed with strict instructions not to wake up any grownups before 7am, with auntie being allowed an extra half an hour of sleep because she was a visitor. I would get up and take my stocking into my brothers' bedroom and we would open them together, a clever parenting trick which kept us reasonably quiet and entertained until the adults got up.

When we were little, we opened our main presents before church and you were allowed to take a present to church to show everyone. Stockings were from Santa, but we knew who had given us our other presents, which were either left under the tree or hidden around the house for us to find. Then we would come back for morning coffee and fancy biscuits and play until lunch time. We always had our Christmas dinner in the evening in our house, so after a normal lunch we were taken out for a walk, presumably to keep our energy levels under control. Then it was Christmas dinner, with crackers supplied by favourite auntie. I have memories of putting on a concert for the adults in the evening or singing carols around the Christmas tree, but I suspect we were packed off to bed fairly early to give the grown-ups time to recover.

This year, we arrived at my in-laws' a few days early. UFM's brother and his family got here on the 23rd and his sister, who lives locally, came round with her son on the evening of the 24th. SCB enjoyed lots of attention from everyone and ate mashed banana and yoghurt while we had our apéritif, but we stuck to her normal routine and put her to bed around 8pm. Because my nephew was only there for the evening, the other children were going to open their presents as soon as Santa had been. Santa brings all the presents in France and my two nephews still believe the story, so we had to work quite hard to keep up the pretence. This was going to happen at midnight, after the meal, but as the boys were getting over-excited and tired, he arrived a little early, so we did present opening between the main course and the cheese. The kids played with their new toys, we finished the meal and everyone went to bed a bit after midnight.

SCB "opened" her presents on the morning of the 25th (we tore off the paper and she tried to eat it). UFM's sister came round for a lunch of leftovers and in the afternoon we walked up to the church to see the nativity scene before his brother and family left to go and visit their other grandparents. We Skyped my parents, who were just about to start making their Christmas dinner and, with not much else to do, I logged on to Facebook and realised that most of my UK friends were still right in the middle of their festivities.

It wasn't a bad Christmas at all - we had a lovely time, SCB had a lovely time (and clearly didn't care that she didn't open her presents at the same time as everyone else as long as she got to chew on the packaging), and from UFM's point of view, the celebration was complete. But I think for me the fact that it was a) short and b) happened on a different timeline to my internal calendar made me more aware of what was "missing" from my idea of what the 25th of December should be like. This is the second year running that we haven't been in the UK for Christmas, so perhaps that made me more conscious of it too.

And this is the reality of living in a foreign land: things are generally not better or worse, just different, and sharing in the new traditions means not always keeping up with the old.

Next year, though, wherever we are, Santa will definitely be filling up my daughter's stocking!


  1. I've experience a lot of similar differences. I don't like the idea of Santa giving ALL the presents---J is okay with that and presents will still be coming from Grandpa and Nanna across the ocean once Littlest is old enough to care about presents. In J's family apparently Santa did arrive during the night and they opened their presents on the morning of the 25th. But his nephew and nieces have opened presents before with us on the 24th after Santa dropped them off on the front porch.

  2. I hear you! Every single year, we have a weird Christmas moment because this is a deeply cultural holiday that Feng never celebrated as a kid and I have no clue how Canadians "do" Christmas. I only know how *my* family celebrated but I can't really recreate all the traditions in Canada and it's just the three of us here...

    Before Mark, we didn't care too much about Christmas. Now, we are in the process of creating our own family traditions I guess.

  3. My French family here opened presents on the 24th evening. On the 25th, my FIL would prepare something nice for lunch. In the evening, it would be very light : cheese, salad...