An American suddenly finding himself in a small town in France a week or more before Christmas might well wonder whether this holiday is celebrated at all. To him, all outward show of it would be lacking. The small shops aren't bright with red and green trimmings or stacked with Christmas merchandise, the post office looks little different from any other time, and neither the elaborate toys and gadgets made for the Christmas trade nor the brilliantly lighted Christmas trees that Americans have come to expect are anywhere to be seen.
But Christmas, believe a Frenchman, is not overlooked and never has been. Mais non! Just settle down for a winter in a French town and you won't be able to escape the week-by-week preparations that lead up to December twenty-fifth. They are preparations for food, however, not for gifts, because in France this is a religious feast day and centers, as they all do, first around the church and then around the family dinner table. It is as memorable as an American Christmas, albeit, I think, a shade less nerve-wracking. If there is un arbre de Noë;l, it is set up by the town in the schoolhouse, parents taking only the little ones under five to see the tree. Very inexpensive presents are given them, oranges or small animal toys. Older children are remembered at New Year's by père Janvier, with gifts placed in sabots left on the hearth. And the special holiday candies—fancy fondant, chocolates, and marrons glacésare for New Year's, too.
When late autumn and winter bring colder, shorter days and long nights, it is almost like another life in France. The change of season spurs appetites, and there is more time for sitting around the table and enjoying a good meal during la veillée, as the time between dusk and bedtime is called. After the first weeks of December are ticked off the calendar, the honking of geese carefully fattened up all summer will be heard no longer, and many a grunting pig has disappeared. The farmer's wife begins cleaning the big black kettles, and a good supply of boudin and andouillette and tête de porc for Noël is assured. Then, since the harvest is all in, there's time for hunting, too, and December's pheasant, rabbit, and other game come to the Christmas feast as spicy pâtés enclosed in golden-brown crusts.
My memories of Christmas in France are threefold. Many were spent at my grandparents' farm where the poultry and animals for their own table were raised and slaughtered. Root vegetables were stored for a long winter, fruits dried, chestnuts gathered and taken from the prickly burrs, and all the other chores done that townspeople are not concerned with.
But in my own home I watched the preparations of a small-town Christmas, a recurrent pattern my mother went through each year. She had, for example, a special farmer with whom she traded in the market and with whom she dickered, I might addand for many weeks she never stopped asking him about our holiday goose that he was raising. Was it getting extra plump? How much did he think it would weigh? And so on. She bought the chestnuts when they arrived in the market in the autumn and set aside enough for stuffing the goose. That was usually the last time during the year that we had chestnuts because they are not good when kept too long. The dried plums had to be picked over and the best ones selected for the Christmas tarts, the wine placed in the cellar to wait quietly for the feast alongside a good bottle of cognac.
And as the great day drew near, extra eggs and cream must be ordered for the oeufs à la neige and from the pâtisserie enough ladyfingers and macaroons to eat with them. Finally the crusty bread must be picked up from the boulangerie and the headcheese and saucissons from the charcuterie. The aunts, uncles, cousins, and others who would sit around our big table all Christmas afternoon could put away plenty of good food.
But I also have memories of Christmas in Moulins, a larger, more sophisticated place, where I served my apprenticeship. That was cooking of another kind done for the rich aristocracy. The kitchens of their great chateaux, although always very well staffed, seldom made the holiday extras. So we started our Christmas at three or four in the morning and kept going until eight or nine at night. We made the beautiful Christmas brioches which the gentry gave to the hospitals and convents to brighten their Christmas morning and which they also sent to the church for the pain bénit. That is the bread blessed by the priest and then cut into small pieces to be passed through the church by altar boys with cheeks bulging from what they have managed to stuff into their own mouths first.
Vol-au-vent with special fillings and fine sauces, pâtés and terrines of alouette, faisan, perdrix, and lièvregame so prized by French gourmetsand another Christmas specialty, les bûches de Noël, the Christmas logs that are chocolate-coated sponge rolls filled with crème au beurre: all had to be made. And in Moulins it was that I was introduced to ice cream as a feast-day dessert. It had never been a part of the cuisine of mon payswhen I was a boy. But we had no easy-turning freezers. The mixture was stirred with a spoon in a big metal can set in a bucket of ice and salt. We made these foods, we delivered them, and we arranged them on the platters with their garnishings all ready for the servants to take to the table. The excellent Christmas dinner that we ate with Monsieur Calondre and his familyand it was excellentin the middle of the day was well earned. A long, hard afternoon and evening followed it, to say nothing of the busy morning we had already put in.