Monday, December 26, 2011

French Christmas

Christmas in Provence was undoubtedly one of the biggest eye-openers during my stay in France. I had the honor to take part in really Provençal celebration held at home of one of Thierry's handicapped patient's parents and experience series of traditional customs.

First big contrast I noticed compared to Polish way of celebrating Christmas was the starting time and length of gros souper. While in Poland we used to start celebrating at 16-17 and feast for 1,5-2 hours, here the fête didn't start until 8.30 and lasted for over 6 hours.

The work Dani's mother did was more than impressive. The table adorned with wheat and lentil seeds sown in small dishes, rowan branches and candles, elaborate crèche with colorful figurines, little pictures painted on the windows and other embellishments were enough to make all my previous Christmas decoration-oriented memories fade.

All meals for the celebration were home-made, prepared in a special room that could as well serve as a place for cooking workshops, since it was so big. I especially liked the Provençal stone oven where some baguettes were being made while I investigated the place.

I have to admit, non-carnivores don't risk gluttony that night (but only at first glance). Apart from turkey that had the place of honor, being the typical Provençal dish, too many meat dishes were served to count them.

Only meet-free meal, apart from assorted cheese. A mix of mushrooms and leek.

I noticed that on the contrary to Polish Christmas dinner, the meals are not eaten all at the same time, but they are slowly served one by one. Each break before next meal arrives is filled with chatting, chaffing and shouting. The people didn't form small groups while talking, but discussed altogether, so you couldn't avoid speaking up to be understood by the person sitting at the other end of the table. Moreover, the unique feature characteristic of this family is that they're all from Provence and, to make it more interesting, all live in the vicinity of Lagnes. Many of them speak with Provençal accent, which explains their foghorn voices and flowery speech full of idioms. It's not a surprise that this delivery is often unintelligible to somebody who is not local - and in Provence, where people who came from other parts of France/other countries outnumber people who have lived here for generations, it's often the case.

Surprisingly, after this excessive dinner people still felt like savoring the sweet treats. If you're on a diet, look away now - it's a feast for gourmands. The famous thirteen desserts were displayed on a huge table, among them walnuts, almonds, dried figs, dates, apricots, prunes, black and white nougat, pompe à l'huile (cake made of fruited olive oil) and bûche de Noël (Christmas log). They were accompanied by fruits grown in Dani's parents' orchard (Dani's father beamed with pride when he told me almost all the fruits served this day grow on his land) and some non-French sugar-filled creations.

Kids need a lot of patience this day. The anticipated gift-giving ceremony doesn't start until midnight. At this time Papa Noël in disguise arrived with a wheelbarrow and did his duty. The kids were mesmerized to see him and eagerly stretched their hands to receive presents. Later on, the disguised man whisked away and came back in his regular clothes to display gifts between the other members of the large family.

It's been long since I celebrated Christmas like this. Being an atheist, it's more like a regular day for me, same as yesterday and tomorrow. Yet it was nice to take in the Christmas atmosphere, get to know local traditions and somehow, somehow recall the times when my beloved uncle and aunt used to come to us for the dinner, when my brother and I rushed to open the door when we heard the knocking and the first words we said to them were not "good afternoon" but "what did you buy for us?", when we used to tease them, play with them, go sledging together and build a snowman taller than my 1,90 m tall uncle, when preparations meant eating up the cheesecake before it made its way to the table, when my own pink and red bauble was my most treasured possession. The part of me that is still this carefree child still loves Christmas.

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