I’ve decided to have a picture-based story of my winter in America – sometimes, it captures the magic of a moment more clearly than words. So here are random images of Salem and Washington DC last month (December 11th-20th), followed by a few words about my stay in Boston (December 20th-21st) and Philadelphia (December 22nd-January 6th).
It all started with a midnight breakfast, which turned into a midnight picnic. Our international crew joined the waves of people drifting towards free food. Very much like the Mad Hatter and his friends would have done, we decided on compensating the lack of chairs and tables by having a picnic in our beloved Goudy Commons. There were lights everywhere, people wearing Santa hats, people dancing on the tables (even the paintings went out of their frames and joined the dance), and a giant tree was there to remind us that, yes, Christmas was here.
Like Cinderella, we could not stay until the end of the festivities on campus: our carriage awaited, and we had to fly (this time, like Peter Pan) to the enchanted kingdom of Washington DC. At the Fulbright mid-year conference, we met people from all over the world, and were able to share and compare our experiences on our respective host institutions. There was a lot of excitement, some visiting of famous places, and it all ended with a ball and a public proposal from one Teaching Assistant (I think he was from Brazil) to another (from Brazil as well): she said yes.
So far, Christmas was a very international experience. For me, it passed straight from an international scale to an intimate scale, as I joined the family of a friend in Boston and Philadelphia to celebrate the holiday. It felt nice to be in a family environment again, and it was a lot like home in many ways. There were games, TV-show watching, taking walks (the North East is SO cold), etc. If I had to identify three things that made this an American Christmas for me, in the sense that I felt a difference from Christmas at home, they would be the following:
- First, I felt that this “Christ-mas” was really about Christ. It may sound obvious, and it is obvious, but I had never experienced a very religious Christmas before. What typically happens in my family (and it varies a lot from one family to another), is that we’ll gather around 8pm for a big meal. If the year hasn’t been too harsh economically, things you could find on a Christmas table would involve toasts with little black and red fish eggs (the cheaper version of caviar), foie gras, saucisson (a kind of dry sausage), olives, oysters (freshly opened: you pour a few drops of lemon juice on them before you swallow them), etc. Then, there could be a round of escargots (snails, butter and garlic, generally between six and twelve per person) and/or of cocktail shrimps. For the main dish, it would be a piece of meat (possibly lamb, and that tradition would be an allusion to Christ and a way to acknowledge his birth, I guess, but I would say that people usually don’t think about these implications), a kind of vegetable specific to the Lyon region (cardons) and possibly a gratin dauphinois (potatoes au gratin with some crème fraîche).
It’s a very hearty meal, which means that it goes slowly: people take their time, and dinner is a time when the guests are supposed to enjoy trivial conversation, making jokes, laughing and chatting, etc. There is often some kind of party music in the background – not the kind of music you’d find in nightclubs, but simply happy-sounding songs (typically, something like the “chicken dance” might come up at some point in the evening, and even though everyone knows it’s a bit ridiculous, it’s part of the atmosphere in some families). The atmosphere is usually one of liberty and general joy around Christmas (people in the streets might even say “hello” or “merry Christmas” when they pass by you!). After the main dish, what we usually do is that we take a break, and we go to the big cathedral overlooking Lyon for the “midnight mass” (which is usually around 11pm). There are songs and sermons, but here again I noticed a difference with my experience here: the sermons I was used to, in France, were mostly about solidarity between humans and about generosity, hardly mentioning anything about faith or sins.
Then, we go back home (or wherever everyone gathered for the meal), and it is dessert time! Dessert can involve ice-cream cake (“bûche de noël”) or a normal cake with a chocolate or berry icing, as well as dates and clementine oranges. In the very South of France (Provence), there is a tradition of having thirteen kinds of dessert. In other regions, people also include a glass of ice-cream (lemon, apple or coconut-flavored) and of strong alcohol (vodka, calvados…) to help with the digestion in the middle of the meal (it is called “trou normand” or “Norman Hole”, from the region of Normandy and from the idea that the alcohol digs a hole in the food that is already in your stomach – that way, you have more room for what comes next).
As for drinks, they’re usually some kind of sparkling white wine or a cheap Champagne for starters and desserts, and another kind of non-sparkling wine for the main dishes. Soft drinks would also be available for kids (who might be allowed a sip of champagne when it is dessert time, but they often don’t like it anyway).
Around dessert time, which should be around midnight, people will also start giving presents. If there are kids around, one family member can dress up as Santa when they are not paying attention, and go knock at the door or at the window for the children to open and receive some of their presents. At least a little something (and sometimes most of the presents), however, will not be given to the kids at midnight and will be placed under the Christmas tree during the night (children sometimes leave a glass of milk and a clementine on the kitchen table for Santa, who might come back because either he didn’t make it in the evening before they fell asleep, or he said he’d forgotten one thing but would come back later). On Christmas day, there will be another meal for lunch (usually not in the same house), and the family (parents, kids, grandparents, cousins, uncles and aunts) will stay together for part of the afternoon.
What I found different in my last Christmas was that it took place in a more humble and maybe solemn atmosphere. Even though houses were decorated around Philadelphia (which does not happen around Lyon: people put lights at their windows, but nothing outside), the lights were often just white (apart from a few that were very colorful). The Christmas meal (a delicious Shepherd’s Pie) was not as extravagant as oysters, snails and foie gras, in memory of the humble circumstances in which Christ was born. And the service at church was more oriented towards the importance of faith and of examining one’s sins as Christmas approaches. The general atmosphere was also more cozy and intimate: we enjoyed spending time together, all the more since we knew that some of the family members who were gathered for Christmas would go back to College, up in Boston, a few days after Christmas. I would say that this experience made me realize how important it is to savor the moments you have together.
- As for the second difference that made my break feel more American, I’ll be very brief, don’t worry. I happened to watch the Republican primaries with my host family over the break, and I noticed a couple of striking things. Number one, the candidates were not interrupting each other during debates: that was a big shock for me, as I’ve been used to French politicians having very heated debates. Maybe it was because they were from the same party and did not have too many reasons to lose their temper, but I found everyone very polite in these debates. Second observation: the results came in little by little, which was fascinating to me. During elections, French media are not allowed to report any result before 8pm, and usually those results are pretty official by then. This means that, unless you go to one of the voting locations and help counting the ballots there, you do not see the progression and it can be less interesting or suspenseful. But last month, we spent the entire evening following what was happening in Iowa.
- Last difference: I had the opportunity of discovering the inside of a hospital in Philadelphia (I was only accompanying someone there), and I discovered the use of curtains instead of walls to separate patients in an emergency room, the importance of knowing everything about your insurance, and the roughness of the administration…
These last two things are not very Christmas-y, but they were part of my Christmas experience this year. I’m glad that I could share some of it, for what it is worth, and would like to stress that it was, all in all, a unique experience. Going back home for Christmas, when you are abroad, can be tempting, but I certainly don’t regret staying here: it was a great adventure and I had a wonderful time with wonderful people.