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Christmas around the world – France

Many aspects of our Christmas have changed in 25 years, not just the fact that we now live in rural France rather than in Hampshire. But it’s worth a quick recap to show that we weren’t exactly typical back then, either.

We did decorate the living room with tinsel and a tree. We did fill stockings with fun things, and we did phone friends and relatives on the other side of the world. Both our boys were born within a week of Christmas, which made presents a bit of a problem, but when they were four and six we took them skiing. After we got back, they both agreed wholeheartedly to our suggestion that big, important presents like bicycles, skis and things would come when they were needed. On Christmas Day and on their birthdays, they’d have parties and small presents, but every year their big birthday and Christmas present would be a skiing holiday. They’ve never regretted it.

We have never eaten turkey. In Hampshire, it was always a brace of roadkill pheasant. We usually had at least four in the freezer.

Phyll had made the Christmas cake and the Christmas puddings at least six months earlier, and we’d been feeding them all brandy at least once a week since then, so they were nice and moist.

Back then, Phyll would often be working a nursing night shift just before or just after Christmas. Not much has changed – she scrambled home on a long weekend for this year’s Christmas, and left on Boxing Day. Now, though, it’s only me and the animals. Cats and dogs this year, but expect pigs and sheep as well next year.

One thing I notice is that the people round here decorate the outsides of their houses. I can only remember the odd garland over the door knocker from our Hampshire years. One of the houses here, owned by a Dutch family, has the whole roof and the windows outlined with coloured light, probably that continuous “line-o-light” tube rather than multiple bulbs. Several shops and small businesses, as well as a few private houses, sport half-sized Santa Claus figures shinning up ropes fixed to the gutters. Next year I’ll get one myself, but I also need a stuffed wolf to put at the bottom of the rope to make it more exciting.

The boys have been doing their own thing for years. This time Joce and his partner Zoë were scrambling to finish deadlined jobs before leaving London for her parents’ home in Suffolk, and Nick had settled in for several continuous weeks of night shift at a veterinary clinic in Bexhill after taking time off to video the vultures in India. [Editor’s note: you can read our article on the Vulture Recovery Plan.]

There wasn’t much time, and only one couple out of several local Brit friends was in the country. We had an excellent lunch at our local inn on Christmas Eve, and a late afternoon vegetarian Christmas lunch with our friends (and their three dogs, four cats, a donkey and three peacocks). It rained most of the time, but the company was good. I had my first taste of the glorious, peppery oatcakes made by Prince Charles’s Duchy of Cornwall folks.

During sporadic visits over the seven years since we bought a crumbling ruin of a stone farm cottage with barn and 2.7 hectares of field and woodland, Phyll made friends (usually by talking to their dogs first) with several local women. They all walk the public path between the two halves of our property, and one has a garden plot next to us. Two have lost dogs and one has lost a husband since we first knew them.

All are farming folk, either widowed or with retired and ageing husbands. They’ve lived tough lives, and most have very small pensions, but they do own the houses they live in. I thought it was time we visited them and showed our appreciation for their friendship and support, so Phyll brought boxes of Bendick’s mint chocolate from London and we did the rounds on Boxing Day. They were delighted, and invited us to call whenever we felt so inclined.

Actually, I’d already visited one couple, a week after the husband had recovered from a spell in hospital with a serious heart problem, only to have their dog die suddenly of kidney failure – that was when I discovered that they were one of many families around here with their own (legal) private still. It was only a one-kilometre drive home, along a quiet country lane, but I did it very carefully. Next time I’ll walk.

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