Everything had been arranged for another Christmas in Paris—plane tickets, flat rental, friends to see—and then we had to cancel. We will spend Christmas in Toronto and will have a good time of it. But what will we miss about Christmas in Paris? Let us count the ways.
We will miss the sounds of Paris and the fact that when we are there, we are not forced to listen to the same schlocky Christmas tunes wherever we go. We both love music, but each time we go to Paris, we revel in going to stores, cafés, and restaurants where we have the privilege of listening to the sounds of conversation, laughter, cutlery on dishes, and the lovely ordinary sounds of people enjoying themselves, rather than being pressed down by the weight of obligatory holiday music.
In particular, when we go in search of a bottle or two of wine, we don’t want to hear about Frosty the Snowman, nor about chestnuts doing whatever they do by an open fire. Perhaps we should explain. Here in Toronto, we have to buy wine and liquor from a government store. Starting in November, the stores are required to play pre-programmed music that inserts Christmas songs at the rate of about one in five, then one in four…and so on, until in early December it is all Christmas music, all the time. How the employees stand it, we will never know.
In Paris, although there is certainly a pre-Christmas season of festivity and preparation, the actual Christmas season starts just before Christmas and continues until after New Year’s. People take time off, eat too much, sleep in, and take it easy. This is the time for Christmas music. Here, the so-called Christmas season starts in November and ends abruptly on December 26. The onslaught of carols stops and the sales pitches heighten in hysteria. The French, by comparison, enjoy their holidays and hold sales in late January.
We like Christmas decorations—up to a point, and the point is too often exceeded here. We will miss going into French department stores and seeing wonderful merchandise artfully displayed rather than hidden under a blanket of Santas and reindeer and snowmen. And we will miss the carefully done window treatments that are festive and entertaining without being clichéd. French Christmas windows are expressions of joy, of mystery, of humour, things that help us slow down, talk with each other, share a sense of wonder or a laugh with strangers.
We will miss the sense that each person who enters a shop is important and the feeling it is well worth waiting for service, because when it comes, you are treated with attention and consideration. Last year, as we waited in line in the small neighbourhood butcher shop a few days before Christmas, everyone ahead of us seemed to need special complicated cuts, or something that the butcher had to find in the back of the shop. He somehow kept up a running conversation with the person at the head of the line as he worked, and he seemed to know their families well. One woman had brought in her newly married daughter, and he had some advice and encouragement for her about Christmas cooking. We were quite content to wait for our small order. The mood was convivial, not frantic. We like that shopping in small stores in Paris is still considered a social occasion, not just a rapid exchange of money for goods.
We will miss the Carol Service and Christmas Eve service at the church we attend when we’re in Paris. As an English church in a French city, it is a gathering of people who are to varying extents outsiders in the host culture, and that is probably why it feels so welcoming. The services there have a quality lacking in many other churches. They allow us to share beliefs, hopes, and aspirations without being identical. And they serve champagne on New Year’s Eve!
We will miss the Christmas markets and revel in the fact that we are buying things from people who are not pretending to be gnomes, elves, Santa, or anybody else. They know about the products they are selling and enjoy answering your questions, helping you choose the right thing, and making each purchase special. We can still remember that glorious Auvergne cheese we bought last year and the hot chestnuts in paper cones we bought from the chestnut man.
We will miss the quiet of Christmas Day. Unless the weather is too wet, there will be people strolling in the parks and on the streets where there is a sense that it is a special time, but it is a time that you make special in your own way. For us it is about serenity.
Most of all we will miss the sense that there is no rush. This may seem curious, because we have certainly been known to try to cram far too much into a Paris day, hour, minute or even moment. And Paris is a busy city. So why do we feel less rushed in Paris? We think it is because we are not surrounded by endless exhortations to spend money and to be merry. If we want to be reflective rather than festive, it is easier there. If we would rather just look than purchase, it’s okay.
Still, we are going to try to bring the spirit of a Paris Christmas to Toronto. We will spend more time in art galleries than in shops, and we will walk in our nearby park, which has a lovely view of Lake Ontario. We have plans to try some new recipes using ingredients from the market (fortunately, we have good markets here) and to catch up on our reading. We have tickets to a concert and are planning to attend a community theatre production that promises to be very un-Christmassy. We shall substitute something different for the typical turkey on the day. Perhaps we will seek out a bûche de Noël from a French bakery and we will warm up with vin chaud on chilly days.
There are even a few compensations. Buses don’t stop running when it snows here. We won’t have to learn the idiosyncrasies of someone else’s kitchen. And family is nearby.
Still, a few things we can’t replace – the look of the Champs-Elysées in its holiday finery, the lights on the river in the evening, and those funny little Santas stuck on the sides of buildings that make us laugh.
Text and photographs by Norman Ball and Philippa Campsie