Thursday, December 15, 2005
French Particularities No. 9: Secular Christmas
We went to my daughter's christmas carol service this evening. It was good fun, and her class stole the show with an upbeat song about christmas shopping to a rock 'n roll tune. The mayor of Croissy was there as an invited guest. Someone told me afterwards that he always comes to the carol service and really enjoys this bit of 'Britishness'. It started me thinking about the difference between Christmas in Britain and in France.
When I used to work in the UK, the run up to Christmas was generally a time when people started to wind down. We used to have no less than three different Christmas lunches or dinners, one at the company level in an external venue, one at the work team level and one laid on by the work canteen. All of this would mean that the work atmosphere was generally quite relaxed in the week or two before Christmas. And just as well since there are normally 101 christmas cards to write and presents to buy. There are also the obligatory children's school carols/nativity to attend as well as friends' Christmas parties and assorted other musical festivities.
I wouldn't say that all this was completely alien in France, but there are quite a number of aspects which are different. Firstly, there are no Christmas cards to send. Generally people might send a few cards after Christmas to wish 'Bonne Année', but since there is no deadline as in the UK (Christmas Day) it is quite easy for people to wait and see if Joe Bloggs sends them a card before sending one in return. This saves on the 'what happens if Joe Bloggs sends me a card and I haven't sent one to Joe Bloggs' syndrome. The French do not generally sing Christmas carols either. Certainly not at school where the secular education system rules out such pagan practices.
Our end of year office party in France celebrates 'Sainte Barbe' (Saint Barbara) who is the patron saint of geologists. A figure of Sainte Barbe is traditionally placed at the mouth of mine tunnels to protect the workers within. This year the traditonal dinner was converted into a buffet, 'to facilitate encounters between employees'. We also had a Christmas lunch today which was basically the same as normal except with foie gras (goose liver) as a starter. Foie gras seems to be the staple food for Christmas, which is pretty bad news for French geese generally since, unlike the British turkey, the french goose gets to be stuffed before it is dead.
So, in France, there isn't really that much festivity before Christmas and work pressure seems to get more intense rather than less. This week I have had to work late on several evenings. There is no sense of winding down, rather an intense winding up and exertion of pressure from above to get things finished before we eventually get to take a much deserved break.