The Christmas lights have been up for ten days now, even longer in many villages. Barely does the Toussaint (All Saints' Day, i.e. November 1st) pass, when the cherry picker trucks are out with the technicians draping lights through the trees, across the streets, and throughout the town. Each village has its own set of decorative lights (I promise photos if possible before I depart for the US on Wednesday!). Village limits are thus precisely delineated. My dance club where I enjoy Salsa on Monday nights is just at the beginnings of Le Pontet, 50 yards beyond the end of the Avignon street lights.
It is now officially chilly and cold. There is snow on Mont Ventoux -- our local mountain -- so sledders and skiiers can enjoy a weekend's outing in the freezing, windy, moist, chill of a snowy spot -- if they so desire. My wood stove is an awfully cozy place... leaving it isn't really very tempting to me.
The shopping centers are filled to bursting -- Economic crisis anyone?? I do my necessary shopping first thing after dropping the kids off at school, otherwise, the chocolate/toy/underwear/foie gras purchasing crowds are more than likely to trample me underfoot.
Slowly, I trust I'll get into the spirit. Perhaps some cookie baking would help? Not a present is yet purchased... better get to it, hm?
Here's a memory from last year:
Christmas in Provence 2008
Alone, still skittish about finances, I was able nonetheless to buy (or just had nonetheless bought) a Christmas tree. Jonas and his friend took to decorating it as their task of the day. Leo, older by nearly five years, decided he was too old for such things. Or, to put a more gracious spin on it, he simply preferred playing with his friend upstairs.
I pulled out the old tree stand I’d brought from the US years’ ago (here, trees are sold nailed to boards, keeping them in water and thus making a semblance of keeping them fresh longer just isn't much done), and with the kids’ help, tried to get the tree straight (unsuccessfully, but at least it wasn’t falling down). My heart did a classic mommy pitter-pat when I overheard Jonas sharing his memories of each ornament from past years. He also most competently directed his friend to put the most fragile out of reach of the cats.
Meantime, I took out the crêche figures and set them up against a green starry backdrop on the middle shelf of my hutch cabinet. As per French tradition, I gathered some moss from outdoors, included pine cones and other natural objects to embellish the back ground, and set up a village of small santons (little saints -- my collection is from the hillside village of Séguret where a santon maker hand designs, bakes and paints each one to resemble his neighbors) alongside the nativity figures.
Tradition imposes that we hide Baby Jesus away till Christmas day, and put the kings on the far side from the shelf (or even across the room) as they are not to arrive till the 6th of January, Kings’ day, celebrated in France with special cakes and traditions of fava beans, crowns and more.
I’d lost my Joseph a few years’ back – yes, a rather Freudian moment that any psychologist would have a field day with. It was a special crèche, white and finely detailed, not from Provence, that my mother had offered me. So I couldn’t just go to a little santon store down the street and pick up another identical Joseph. I’d misplaced him sometime back in the Arles' days, unhappy in my marriage. I truly searched for him everywhere, but no luck. So, in my crêche, at least for the moment, Mary was a single mother awaiting her child on her own.
I hadn't spent many Christmases in Provence. It was hard to not want to be home in New York and Connecticut for the family reunions, music, feasting and cousins. Part of being an ex-patriot is figuring out traditions, and, one’s own relationship to them. Homesickness is notoriously worst around holidays, and in my case, the frequent return trips are both joyous, and confusing. I love being surrounded by family, going to a church full of music and prettily dressed children, sharing magical snowstorms with my kids … How could France top that? But these seasonal returns had also been known to leave me terribly homesick, and what with the winter blues and lack of light induced depression… I had had many difficult starts to the New Year.
This year in Avignon would be the first Christmas for the kids not spent in the company of both parents. Leo and I talked at length about how to work out the vacation. It was important for him to see what Erick could muster alone, and to spend some quality time with him. I negotiated nonetheless that the kids be with me for Christmas Eve, agreeing to bring them to their father the next morning. I asked JP to join us for the evening feast and festivities, and set to work on the menu, baking cookies and decorating the dining area.
I had both children alone with me for the couple days’ leading up to Christmas, and did my best to do some Christmas spirit-inducing activities such as baking and decorating sugar cookies, ginger bread men, stringing garlands of popcorn and raisins for the birds. All this was done to the accompaniment of lots of Christmas music on the cd player – Burl Ives’ rendition of Rudolf, and the Twelve Days of Christmas, Julie Andrews’ Joy to the World, gentle choral versions of the Holly and the Ivy. I sang along to most every song, excepting where my voice just couldn’t go. After high school, I lost the soprano range. Ah well, singing alto or tenor is fine, no?, but difficult if you don’t know the notes!
The crowning glory for the kids is my bûche (recipes and photos will follow in future posts). They eagerly helped whip the egg whites for the genoise cake base, pass the raspberry jam through the vegetable mill to get out the seeds, and whisk gently together the dark chocolate ganâche for the center and topping. It's a cake that requires patience – Each step needs to be done at just the right time. The cake, soaked in raspberry flavored alcohol (rum in my case) with syrup is then topped with the ganâche (once it's cooled) and lastly with the raspberry jam, left over night to absorb all the flavors, and rolled up the next day. Again a day later, when the flavors have melded, the topping goes on, and once it has set, we draw bark with the prongs of a fork. Last, but not least, we whip cream, sprinkle powdered sugar on top to give the look of snow on the bark.
And Christmas Eve was upon us. Quiet, no snow. JP arrived when most of the cooking was nearly done. He pulled out a small package, opened it for me, and set a new Joseph figure in my crêche. Setting it to rights I suppose. Mary could now await the arrival of her baby with a companion at her side.
Jonas set the table with care and as beautifully as he could, laying the tinsel, lighting the candles, choosing the prettiest glasses and plates. It was just the four of us, simple music on the radio, and a fire in the wood stove. While the roast finished cooking, (I did not follow Provence tradition and serve a repas maigre this night, but opted for a less religiously authentic roast beef, which my neighbors would be more apt to serve the next day) we settled around a table by the fire to play cards. JP and I each sipped our glasses of the organic Clos de Joncuas AOC Vacqueyras (great winery -- run by a woman!) I'd picked up that fall. Gin Rummy was a bit complicated for Joseph, so we kept to games that Leo had mastered and could easily teach him (and us). It was a time for Leo to lead.
Presents were for the next morning...