How the French Stole Christmas
 

Does Christmas scare you? It scares me. I used to love it but now I have good reason to worry… Why? The French have invaded my Christmas… or, rather, I have invaded theirs. Oh la…

Christmas is always a crazy time. Family, traveling, presents, cooking, parties… the holiday event list is endless. Despite all of that, I actually find the holidays quite calming. The quiet snowfall, time spent reconnecting with your family, the cooking (the eating), the friends, the parties, the twinkling lights… it’s all magical.

Yet that warm, cozy Christmas feeling has sort of slipped away…

For the past few years, I’ve been going to France to spend Christmas with my (very French) in-laws, and every year is an onslaught of tasteful decorations, immaculate six course meals, gorgeous cousins in cocktail dresses, family outings to 11th century Cistercian abbeys, Parisian operas, museums…I can barely catch my breath! If it’s cultural, we’ve either been there or we’re on our way! The endless stream of gâteaux, châteaux, plateaux - all of the eauxs! They’re all in France, just waiting to be eaten, or toured, or decorated, or served, or passed along to Aunt Anne…. It’s a lot. And I’m the only one who seems to struggle to keep up.

Who are these people? How did I stumble into their tableau vivant? More importantly, how long until they notice I’ve smudged their picture? Big swig of champagne, breathe

So I sit there, watching these lithe, poreless, perfectly symmetrical specimens dauntlessly tucking away course after course of rich French food, never gaining an ounce, or breaking out in pimples, or feeling tipsy. They all have thriving careers in something impressive, something intimidating. They are, all of them, immensely artistic, well-read, and bi-(if not tri)-lingual.

My ears are swept under by their bubbling stream of rapid-fire French jumping from one person to the next, everyone engaging, everyone opining, everyone listening to each other with deference and respect… Conversations swirl around geopolitics, literature, philosophy, and these people don’t miss a beat.

Are all French families like this? Or did these people just spring from a Vogue Paris someone carelessly left lying around?

I don’t know if my anxiety has gotten better or worse since my first Christmas with this formidable family three years ago. When they need someone to go buy baguettes, I’m always the first to volunteer. Maybe they think I just find baguette shopping quaint or that I want to practice my French, but really, it’s a relief just to slip out of the house even for a short walk into town. Let’s just say, I take my time getting to the boulangerie…

To be clear, I am not from “these parts.” I am from Texas, the Lone Star State, practically the antithesis of France. My earliest memories of Christmas involve my neighbor’s red chili pepper lights, Feliz Navidad all around, and Christmas Eve Tex-Mex (the absolute best). When I moved to Alabama, Christmas took the shape of rambunctious tree-decorating parties with my friends, savage bouts of Dirty Santa, backyard bonfires, and the inescapable tune of “The Christmas Shoes” by Christian vocal group NewSong. (If there were ever a song that epitomized the word “saccharine,” it would be this one.)

Long story, short: I am not used to the French. And as lovely as they are, I’m not sure I ever will be. So, there’s my dilemma. Maybe some of you are going through some version of this too. Whether your beloved’s family comes from a different country or is just radically different from your own, holiday get-togethers can be relentless rounds of culture shock and unease.

However, instead of simply panicking and feeling out of place this year, I’ve decided to do my best to see this challenge in a positive light. After all, despite the title of this series, the French haven’t stolen my Christmas. They’ve graciously introduced me to their beautiful ways of celebrating. And even if it feels too fancy for comfort, I realize that I’ve learned a lot from living life outside of my comfort zone. Yes, it’s often embarrassing constantly being on the back foot, but slowly your comfort zone expands until you can easily manage situations that would have previously left you hiding in the bathroom… or buying baguettes at a glacial speed…

Being away from “Home” for the holidays also makes me realize exactly which moments and traditions I love the most.

Occasionally, while the Frenchies chatter away, I find myself daydreaming about joining my family for Christmas breakfast in pajamas (sans makeup, hair undone…Saaaay quuuoi??), or the boisterous decorating parties with my best girls, or the perfectly acceptable wanton consumption of boozy eggnog and baked goods. When I dream of these things, I see exactly what it is that I’m missing. It makes me grateful that I had so many of those experiences in the past, and it reminds me to preserve those traditions when it’s my turn to host Christmas.

So, for those of you out there biting your nails over the thought of holidays with your in-laws (or the equivalent), you are not alone. We all struggle. Maybe you can’t have the holiday you dream of, but you can find ways to make the most of what you’ve got. And you might even find yourself enjoying one or two of those new traditions you found so awkward at first, like I did. We’ve just got to remember, we are enough. The holidays are about connecting with family, not worrying what they think or if we fit in. Besides, if you really are so different from your in-laws, you’re probably one of the more interesting people there. You’re a novelty to them. So embrace it!

Then again, I may feel a little less sure of myself the closer I get to Paris…. all I can do for now is prepare and pick presents!

 

L.D. has spent the past two years traveling, writing, and encouraging readers to look at the world with fresh eyes. For anyone who feels like their life has lost its vibrancy, she offers some advice, “Open new doors, challenge yourself, and fall in love with other people's stories.”

For advice and encouragement, her articles are there for you...