Our First Noël: Christmas in France
As our first year living in France wound down, French friends, Christiane and Pierre suggested we celebrate Le Réveillon—the dusk to dawn extravaganza on Christmas Eve—together. Since two American friends would be visiting during the holidays, we naively offered to do the hosting at our house.
It turns out that Le Reveillon requires a dinner so daunting in scope and stamina that only the French could manage it.
The first course, according to our Réveillon guide, Christiane, must be foie gras. Gold is cheaper. Next will be oysters (she comments how much she likes them which I’m pretty sure increased the importance of tradition.) John and I opt for turkey instead of duck. We missed it at Thanksgiving and we also crave cranberries. But the word ‘cranberries’ does not exist in our five-pound English-French dictionary nor does it exist in any market we search. Our Atlanta visitors solve the problem by adding cranberries to their luggage at the last minute as our requested hostess gift.
On the big night, we begin with apéritifs, then foie gras, then oysters, then turkey with its accompaniments. We break before the salad, cheese, and dessert courses to digest while attending Christmas Eve Mass at the church down the street.
Did I mention that our friends Marsha and Marty are Jewish? I offered the choice of staying home but they assured us they would like to experience the French Noël.
Little did they know....
An arctic wind bears down on the Loire as we walk two blocks, then rush up the church’s stone steps to refuge. Instantly, it’s clear why this is called the “summer church” and the one in town the “winter church.” The latter can be heated.
Damp frigidity wakes me from a pleasant wine-soaked stupor during 45-minute prelude of carols. Glancing toward Christiane and Pierre I have the non-religious hope that they share a desire to leave before we all turn into champagne-flavored popsicles. Worse, our Jewish friends are turning blue. How would I explain to their synagogue that they died of exposure in a Catholic Church on Christmas Eve?
In the middle of the long mass, the choir strikes up a rousing Gregorian chant. My arms are crossed, knees pulled up under a wool coat that feels light as cotton. Marsha is tapping her feet on the footrest to keep them from freezing. Pierre is sitting back on the hard bench, his face a mask of pain. He says something to Christiane who turns to me. “Pierre’s back is troubling him. He’ll have to stand up outside.”
“We can’t leave him alone in pain,” I say. “We’ll all go back to the house.” The plan is whispered among us. The next time the worshippers stand, we slide out and escape into the warmth of the below-freezing night.
We finish the final three courses with Christiane’s traditional bûche de Noël. Coffee follows. John offers everyone a digestif. We play music and talk about Pierre’s favorite singer, Frank Sinatra. I bring out chocolates. No one is hungry, but everyone takes one. It gives our mouths gainful employment as the conversation lags. After all, we were entertaining American guests who do not speak French and French guests who speak a smattering of English—which they used up in the first half of the evening.
By three a.m. Marty’s eyes are glazed like a zombie from a grade B horror pic. Marsha is listing to one side in her chair but rouses herself enough to plead jet lag; they just must go to bed.
As our American friends save themselves, I am sure this will save us as well. I look at the clock. So do Christiane and Pierre. It isn’t late enough.
Eventually, a pained-looking Pierre apologizes profusely that his back will make him unable to stay. Christiane looks disappointed but John and I commiserate with Pierre. Of course, it is essential he rest. At home. In bed.
It is four in the morning. We almost made it to dawn.
[Adapted from “Gone with the Wine: Living the Dream in France’s Loire Valley"]