The holiday season in France is a testimony to how much the French value celebration. Many holidays, including three or four weeks of vacation, often in August, give the French a healthy work / life balance. So, what does it mean to celebrate during the Christmas season?
WINES AND WINE SALES
Our wine sale, or wine fair as it is called (la foire aux vins), begins in September for a very good reason, and it is not only to help us stock up for the Christmas holidays. In September, the vendange, or the wine harvest is celebrated with great fanfare.
In Suresnes, La Place de la Paix, a plaza in town, is taken over by rides, games, music and food. Several years ago my daughter won two goldfish which, unfortunately, were not long for this world. Suresnes, a western suburb, has its own vineyards still, as does Montmartre in the 18th arrondisement, or quarter, with grand ceremonies to celebrate the vendange.
After the wines are harvested and bottled, the fateful day arrives when you receive your invitation to the sale of wines at the grocery store, the Monoprix, in late September. You arrive and find little crackers set out next to tiny plastic glasses. Let the tasting begin! You survey the various wines, the reds, the whites and most especially, the champagnes.
WINES INTERRUPTED BRIEFLY (WHICH SEEMS A SHAME)
The word “bon,” is an important French word and pronounced badly by speakers of English. Now, there is a store in the States called the Bon Ton. To pronounce this, you bahhh, like a sheep, and throw an “n” on at the end and “ton” rhymes with that. To say bon in French, a high frequency word, say the word “bone,” but cut yourself off at the end. Congratulations!
Now that you can pronounce bon, the world of the bon vivant awaits. A bon vivant is a person who lives and loves the good life: fine food, excellent wine, and good company, and did I say, champagne?
A good champagne, they say, has fine bubbles, a mellow, soft initial taste and some fruity overtones. Crémants are also quite similar, but less expensive. The champagne region has a copyright on the name, so other wines prepared in a similar fashion can only be called something else, in this case, well, crémants.
I have yet to find a wine fair in a grocery store here in the States. At the Monoprix, the wine fair will offer three bottles for the price of two, or even buy one and get one free. Just delicious wines. People come early in the morning, just when the store opens, to get the best deals. And wine is important for the holidays. Free wine, free champagne. Even the stores want you to celebrate. And because the wine is consumed along with a slow-moving meal, you don’t get a lot of drunks roaming the streets.
I found a delicious champagne here, stateside for only $35. My sister fainted when I told her I spent all that on a bottle of champagne. A good champagne, though, is expensive.
Why do people who don’t have a lot of money spend a fortune on a bottle of champagne? I think the reason for this extravagance is that despite its stresses and sorrows, its obligations and demands, life itself is something to celebrate. Americans have a more practical streak, a Puritanical streak even, in which life’s daily pleasures are deferred and celebration reserved for major life events such as marriage or graduation. There’s a poem by Renaissance poet Robert Herrick that begins, “Gather ye rosebuds while ye may / Old time is still a flying; / And this same flower that smiles today / Tomorrow will be dying.” Not only is celebration a hedge against finite time, but it is also an expression of joy.
Some of us, the world over, don’t drink alcohol or indulge in tormenting geese livers, but joy and celebration are certainly something we share in common, a lingua franca, a common language despite our differences. Everybody has to celebrate something.
THE FOURTH WALL
I indulged myself in reading about champagne as I prepared this blog, nodding at the names Laurent Perrier, Perrier Jouet, Tattinger, Bolinger and Veuve Cliquot. I recently had a Pommery that I liked. In fact, I interrupted myself in writing here to order some champagne. I read about a Bolinger that sounded good and they have it here in Rochester! Hooray. On order.
The champagnes I have mentioned are from what are called the big houses. But if you can travel to the champagne region, you can find the vintners who both grow and produce their own champagne. A college friend and I went exploring to find just this combination and we found Tual. They sell by word of mouth! Their prices are more reasonable because they don’t have the expensive marketing. And in fact, the big houses come to them for help in their own fermentation. Some French friends so liked this after I presented them with a bottle, that they ordered some of their own. I was an honorary French person from that moment forward.
NOEL: THE SPIRT AND THE SPIRITS
Families celebrate either Christmas Eve or Christmas Day, opening gifts as we do. Masses at the cathedrals are well attended. The meals at Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, plus New Year’s Day are most often eaten at home. A sweet wine, a sauterne, with the foie gras, a crisp white wine with the fish, and a full-bodied red, a Bordeaux, for example, with the meat and the cheese course which follows a light green salad. The portions are small enough that you can manage. Champagne to start and to end, imbibed with dessert and chocolate. Ah, the life of the bon vivant.
As Christmas approaches, the streets are draped with lights, the bakeries decorated, perhaps with life-size shepherds or angels. The patisseries, or pastry shops, create chocolate delicacies, specializing more in sweets than la boulangerie, the bakery. Once I went into a bar in the 5th and, lo and behold, an entire creche, set up there on the bar.
Christmas Markets are an event, more than a shopping experience, especially in the beautiful French city of Strasbourg. Take a look.
To celebrate Christmas Eve, I once went to Notre Dame, ah, the majestic Notre Dame, well before the terrible fire of 2019. The sheer weight of history is lifted by the carols the choir sings.
Here is the traditional, « Il est né le divin enfant » from a midnight Mass at Notre Dame. (Of course, you noticed that the né has no “e” after it, because the enfant is le.)
Here’s the link to the lyrics in French and translated into English.
And for New Year’s Eve, Le Reveillon, which is also called St Sylvestre, everyone goes off to celebrate. We would go to the theatre and then dance until the wee hours, or even to a circus where we would be regaled with acts and food and drink in a huge tent. The word réveil is tucked into the celebration because you have to be awake for a while!
FOOD, LACK OF
When I think of Godot, it is the incarnation of the gentleman as tramps that I think of in these uncertain financial times of COVID. I read a fascinating essay by Marilynne Robinson in which she earmarked scarcity as an unfortunate myth that Americans have been prevailed upon to accept and therefore not be open-handed with their resources, and, yet America is the richest country in the Americas. France has a more comprehensive safety net. And yet people go to bed hungry world-wide.
To do their part, the local jazz radio station in Rochester is sponsoring a food drive. “Bring your cans, people,” they say. And in a larger movement, José Andres is doing amazing work with World Central Kitchen.
Speaking of the spirit of Christmas, there is yet another kind of spirit. If you have a few minutes to spare, read Dicken’s short book, A Christmas Carol. Who could not love a ghost at Christmas, an ornery man who finally sheds his greed. The social implications are relevant today. When is enough, materially speaking? And Dickens is such a brilliant writer. Here’s the first sentence: “Marley was dead, to begin with.” And by the end, there is an excellent spirit of celebration.
Enjoy the holiday season!
Because both Christmas and the New Year fall on a Friday, even Godot will be celebrating. We will join you again on Friday, 8 January.