I'll be home for sushi

Though she once lambasted the ersatz holiday spirit of her Southern California childhood, expatriate Debra Ollivier thinks again after getting to know the ritual-heavy Christmas tradition in France.

Published December 22, 1997 7:04PM (EST)

When I was a kid in L.A., Christmas was marked by tinsel over used car
lots, fake snow on yuletide palms and beach-front Nativity scenes with
J.C. Penney mannequins decorated as baby Jesus in polyester garb and wigs.
In this ersatz wonderland we celebrated Christmas and Hanukkah (and later
Easter and Passover) because we were born Jews but raised "citizens of the
world." It didn't matter that the roots of Christmas were as deep as a
manhole or that Rudolph dashed over Wilshire Boulevard, presumably on his
way to the Broadway. The point was to have a good time, and we did.

Decades later, I lambasted L.A. for the way it conspired against the
conventions of "real" Christmas. Then I moved to France.

Appropriately enough, one of the most "real" things about a French
Christmas is food. In a country that does more with blood and brains than
most Americans do with whole wheat and tomato, the French bring the whole
farm to your foyer: With taxidermic flair butchers display large game
birds, rabbits as soft and furry as your cat and whole pigs strangely
festooned with herbs and ribbons, stretched out in mid-leap, their snouts
the size of golf balls. (Just in case you don't get the message, one of them
has an entire boar hanging in front of his shop, cloven hooves and all.)
In the less fleshy realm of food consumption, little French flags and
roving musette bands herald the arrival of the latest Beaujolais nouveau.
Boy Scouts sell homemade tarte Tatin for five francs a slice. And chestnuts
really ARE roasting on an open fire.

Those with family in the country leave Paris for little hamlets and snowy
villages -- places you won't find in your guidebook -- where people eat
those blood sausages and stuffed pheasant and drink enormous quantities of
Borgogne. My first French Christmas was spent in one such village, a place
so deep in the heart of France that people actually start to resemble
advertisements for packaged tours to the Dordogne. Against this backdrop for
Rudolph's slope and sleigh, far from the insipidly romanticized province,
where Parisians flee the city only to flee back as quickly as they came, it's not Santa who's protean but Jesus Christ himself, the real McCoy.
There's little room here for the mix-and-match, buffet-style religion that makes
Americans seem like curious hybrids to the French. You're either a
Catholic, a Jew or Something Else Entirely. In short, this is where the
French put Christ back in the word Christmas, and it's so far from the
Zeitgeist of the Parisian metropolis that at one point between the foie de
veau and the poulet farci aux fines herbes (whose relatives were in the
backyard furiously pecking away at bits of frozen corn), a jovial,
ruddy-faced in-law named Pierrot leaned over to me and asked with earnest
curiosity if Americans celebrated Christmas.

Pierrot's question not only reminded me of how far from home I really was,
it also prompted the childhood memory of the expatriates from exotic lands
who used to drift through our holiday crash pad, castaways from family
feuds and distant lands who looked vaguely suspicious in the eyes of a
judgmental, self-conscious preteen. Who WAS that Bengali in the Santa
cap? What ABOUT that Ethiopian drinking egg nog in rubber thongs and shorts?
Somehow these people provoked my own inchoate feelings that, like the
Coneheads who crash landed in a Jersey suburb, we didn't entirely fit in,
and watching them filled me with the remorseful thought that they were
getting gypped. After all, if they wanted a real Christmas, they'd come to
the wrong house.

Now as a castaway myself from what seems like a different planet, I have an
odd appreciation for those days of yore when the hallmark of Christmas was
that there was no hallmark at all. In France the holiday spirit is so
insistent, so irreconcilably real with the icons of a white Christmas, that
it inspires a sort of melancholic gloom. On the other hand, the beauty of
L.A. is that if you're not into Christmas, there's always the beach. My
husband put it differently. Burdened as a kid by years of traditional
French Catholic Christmases, he remarked that Xmas in L.A. reminded him of
seeing snowmen and sleigh bells in the African Congo. The incongruity of it
all, however, made him happy.

So how do you pass on to your kid the cozy trappings of European ritual
while fostering a taste for that "happy" permissive incongruity of L.A.?
For my son, two undeniably obvious solutions await.

We might spend Christmas with our neighbors. I'll feel both sincerely
heartwarmed and vaguely uncomfortable as a "citizen of the world." We'll go
down one flight of badly carpeted orange stairs to the third floor. We'll
eat a lavish, multi-course meal with complex cutlery. I may go to dinner in
slippers. The door on the landing will be open. Not exactly happy
permissive incongruity. But it's a start.

Chances are higher, however, that we'll go to L.A. We'll marvel at
mega-malls and abundant parking spaces. We'll eat jumbo sushi plates for
holiday dinner. We'll watch people simultaneously roller blade, drink
Starbucks egg nog and talk on cellular phones while the French shiver in
winter hoarfrost and eat their andouilette. Then, like refugees on a
rampage, we'll go on blow-out, after-Christmas holiday sprees and consume
vast amounts of cheap American staple goods. (Large economy packs of Haines
underwear. Cotton crew socks. Stacks of ruled yellow pads.) We'll
manage the unctuous and strained holiday cheer of extended family and
extended credit cards. And if El Niqo doesn't send Santa reeling through
an ozone hole or flailing down a canyon flood, we might even go to the
beach. Then we'll return to Paris exhausted, sated and happy to be back.
Yes Pierrot, they DO celebrate Christmas in America.

By Debra Ollivier

Debra Ollivier, a contributor to Mothers Who Think: Tales of Real Life Parenting, is the author of "Entre Nous: A Woman's Guide to Finding Her Inner French Girl." Her work has appeared in numerous publications including Harper's, Playboy, Le Monde and Les Inrockuptibles.

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Christmas France