Friday, December 26, 2008

In Search of the Perfect Christmas

Ever since I was little I’ve been in search of the perfect fairytale Christmas.

Maybe it’s just a product of having grown up in LA. Southern California is kind of seasonally challenged when it comes to the whole Christmas thing. There’s no snow, no frost on the window panes. There are no chestnut trees, and the only open fires are produced by either sterile gas burners or toxic Duraflame logs, neither of which are fit for roasting anything. So out of a kind of yuletide Napoleon complex, we overcompensate. You will never find so many people in Santa suits, holly wreaths, blinking lights or plastic reindeer than in LA. From late October to New Years Eve LA becomes one enormous celebration of climatically-confused winter-wonderland kitsch.

So ever since I left I have continued to act out this symbolic, neurotic quest for the perfect Christmas. Christmas in London ticked most of the boxes. Working on Fleet Street and living in a Victorian terrace house gave the season an undeniably Dickensian flavor, and the thought of mince pies and dark ales and the lights strung up over Regent Street still takes close to center stage in my imaginary idyllic holiday season. Even despite London’s particular winter horrors - the drunken office Christmas parties, the London Underground with its winter smell of chilled petroleum-based sludge, the disturbing English tradition of the Christmas pantomime – despite those downsides, we had good times in London over the holidays.

So now it’s our fourth year of Christmastime in the Quercy, and the fairytale jury is still out. I don’t quite know what I imagined – horse drawn sleighs maybe? Carolers wandering door to door, crossing the good mile or two between farms to sing a song and be rewarded with hot chocolate? At least a bit of snow, surely. The reality here, on the other hand, is resolutely more mundane.

The French don’t traditionally make much of Christmas. New Year’s Eve is their big excuse for winter celebration, and much of the Christmas festivity one sees nowadays is imported from the German or English traditions. That makes for an easy transition. The leap from Father Christmas to Père Noël wasn’t any harder than that from Santa Claus to Father Christmas. The mulled wine and Christmas lights remain a constant, and if mince pies have fallen off the radar screen, they’ve been replaced by crepes, walnut cakes and aligot, a specialty of the nearby Auvergne which seems to be a potato-and-white-cheese-based form of wallpaper paste. The French may lack the peculiar enthusiasm that the English bring to Christmas, they make up for it with a slow, quiet, family-focused holiday that has its own charms.

In fact, the quiet here can be a little overabundant. During summer, when our holiday cottages are full and our time and attention are in constant demand, we yearn for some solitude, but as winter sets in it sometimes brings a little cabin fever with it. Our old friends and extended family are all abroad, and most of our new friends here, whether French or foreign, have fled to spend the holidays with family elsewhere. Amid the hush of the winter countryside, house after house silent, shutters closed and chimneys cold, it’s hard not to wonder whether perhaps they all know something we don’t. And with the climate just mild enough to preclude the consolation of snow in most years, it’s no surprise that Claire and David rush off to family on the Mediterranean coast, or that Miranda takes the kids back to England during the school holidays. They know better than to hang around for cold rain and deep silence.

This year the village of Duravel hosted its second annual Christmas festival, and we were determined to take advantage of whatever holiday cheer we could lay our hands on. A Christmas of Legend, it was called. I suppose the idea was to bring to life various fairy tales, and to the extent that that was the goal, they did it well. And yet, as we bought our ticket and entered the enclosed public park where the event was being staged, I couldn’t help wondering what on earth all this had to do with Christmas.

For a start, there were the witches. I’m not just talking about one or two to evoke the story of Hansel and Gretel, which at least has a Christmas connection, however tenuous, via the gingerbread house. No, there were dozens of them. Five or six at least were clustered at the entrance, leering at the children as they entered and taunting them with threats to boil them in a cauldron. Another group had set up camp around the cauldron itself, just up the path, waiting for their hapless victims with a punitive glee which reminded me ever so slightly of Sebastian’s old kindergarten teacher. It was as if the French witches’ union had chosen Duravel for their annual convention. Their noses and green skin were most impressive, but there was a certain lack of, well, of ho ho ho about them.

The other fairy tales worked a bit better. There was a short Snow Queen play which, although inaudible, at least looked enchanting. The kids seemed to enjoy the maze of white pebbles which lead to hidden treasure (in practical gift certificate form), and only perhaps one in three burst into tears when adults in wolf costumes jumped out from behind trees to startle them. There were lambs, and a baby donkey, and in one corner an opportunity to have a photo taken with a scruffy-looking Père Noël. For braving the wolves, Sebastian was given a small Furby – its unreplaceable battery already dead - with McDonalds printed on the label. He was as happy as a clam.

This gentle, well-intentioned chaos was as far from a star-studded neon-lit Los Angeles Christmas as it could get. With the possible exception of those witches’ noses – detailed enough to have come straight off the set of the Wizard of Oz – everything about the evening was defiantly imperfect. The lighting was blinding in some places, nonexistent in others, and taken together would have met the test for gross negligence in any American court of law. The theatrics were resolutely amateur and the hygiene standards at the grilled sausage stand troubling. But for all that, it was wonderful. Scores of people had volunteered their time to make the evening a success, and for the hundreds of people who came, all the effort and good intentions seemed to be what mattered most. What it lacked in polish, it more than made up for in its generosity and simplicity. It was local. It was ours. It was a chance to get out and see other people. That’s all that mattered.

So I guess that’s where things stand with my fairy tale Christmas. No place is perfect, nothing can quite live up to the ideals we form in our heads while growing up. But a little imperfection focuses your attention on what matters. When the big day came, we gave Sebastian a new racetrack and I dutifully spend hours putting it together. The cars jump off the track all too easily, as they did with mine when I was little. There were tears. They dried again. It was as flawed and wonderful and happy a Christmas as anyone could want.

And this morning we had snow. Plenty of it.

Merry Christmas.

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