“T'is the season to be jolly…”
It's a week before Christmas and the busy shopping street near my flat in Paris has, yet again, decided not to pay for Christmas lights. The commercants, mostly food shops where I spend a big chunk of my salary each month, don't want to fork out the money for them.
Some places have made an effort to get into the Christmas spirit though. Shop awnings here and there are decked with shiny bobbles and Christmas trees have popped up outside a few of them. The shop specialising in 'foie gras' the French love to eat at Christmas has gone tinsel-crazy, it's heaving and is probably the most festive place of all.
But there are no mince pies (déguelasse – revolting – says my French partner), no carols or specific Christmas music (soooo boring according to my 7-year-old), no nativity plays at school (France being a secular country, anything celebrating religious festivals is banned in schools and public buildings), no Christmas cards (ok, I'll admit not having to write them is a relief), no Christmas stockings and no specific Christmas parties, at work or otherwise.
A week to go and I'm struggling, as I do every year, to get into the Christmas spirit.
In my area, a multi ethnic neighbourhood in the north east of the capital that voted for leftist firebrand Jean-Luc Mélenchon in the last presidential election and where the communist party still hands out leaflets at the market every Sunday, Christmas doesn't feel like a big deal.
In many ways in France it isn't, or not the way it is in the UK or the US anyway.
For a start, the French mostly celebrate on Christmas Eve, which they call the réveillon (the same name is given to the New Year's Eve celebration) and so the celebration time is much shorter, and it mostly revolves around food and drink.
There's generally seafood and foie gras, Champagne, often turkey or other poultry and a Christmas log to finish off with. It's delicious but after you've feasted and opened your presents, other than going to midnight mass at church afterwards for those who do, there aren't many other traditions. No charades and other games after dinner for example, over which you bond over Christmas with your family, stuffed and half-drunk.
When I lived in the UK, my Christmases used to start around mid-December really, with mulled wine, carol singing and general Christmas cheer all around. The build-up was exciting. I know I've got selective memory and I'm being nostalgic, but it was fun.
My efforts to get my French family into it fail miserably every year. I should just give up, but I'm like Pavlov's dogs: when December 1st comes along and we can begin opening the advent calendar, my whole being switches into full-on Christmas mode. I put on carols, I dash to Marks and Spencer's for crackers and mince pies and Stollen cake which I'm the only one to eat.
I remember organising a Christmas party at home with French friends for the first time when I was in Paris in my 20s. I put on a Santa hat, bought crackers and put on Wham. They didn't get it (why would they?) and when I got all my incredulous friends to get into a circle to pull the crackers, it felt like we were holding a vigil.
At Christmas, I'm all dressed up with nowhere to go.
Firstly, because everyone has divorced in my partner's family, we hold multiple Christmases beforehand. And so my kids have already opened half their presents by the time Christmas arrives which means Christmas day itself it's already a bit of a letdown.
Secondly, even though I insist on bringing crackers to these dos, no one – understandably – gets the jokes as they're in English (and even then…), and I'm the only one who wears the hat and thinks it's funny. I've got used to that look they give me – a blend of pity and astonishment about my odd behaviour put down to the fact I'm half-British.
It's gone from bad to worse. Last year, just before Christmas my then 6-year-old's best friend told her Father Christmas didn't exist. Her mother – a dear friend – had briefed her on it. The brat. I nearly cried. My youngest now knows I'm the one who eats the reindeer's carrot, which was really one of the few things here I had to go on to add a bit of 'magic' for Christmas.
And then, because there's no boxing day in France, life resumes pretty much as normal the day after – so it's all over in a flash.
Of course, there are good things to this Gallic insouciance over Christmas. It's not nearly as materialistic – you don't get hit by the sickening commercial onslaught you're faced with weeks before Christmas in the UK. And you're not driven crazy by the same Christmas compilation blearing out from everywhere for weeks on end.
It's also less stressful because there are so few expectations.
And if you enjoyed your Christmas réveillon, that's great, because chances are you'll be doing exactly the same all over again in a week for the other réveillon on New year's Eve. Now that one I enjoy, because by that time I've truly given up on Christmas and I'm ready to let go.