When the French stole Christmas
Coming from the land of Santa Claus, Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer and Santa’s little helpers, it was hard to imagine true Christmas could be found anywhere else.
Because, well, we Finns feel we invented all that stuff. After all, we have Lapland (or a third of it). We have snow in abundance and endless winter nights and aurora borealis and forests thick with nothing but huge spruce trees.
So, as a surly teenager when I was forced against my will to spend a Christmas in France at my parent’s newly-acquired farm house, I sunk into ‘The Sulk’, a murky silence of a thousand years. Nothing had any meaning to me anymore, for my Christmas had been stolen!
After all, who knew what the French ate at their Christmas table? It was certain they wouldn’t have any lanttulaatikko (an infamous rutabaga casserole), any rosolli (a boiled beet salad served with vinegar whipped cream) or silli (raw baltic herring). Whatever they did have, I had decided to loathe it for all eternity.
My resolve shook a little when I first tasted roasted chestnuts by an open fire, like in Mel Tormé’s Christmas song. We had taken a long walk on the frosted meadows of the Sancerrois wine region, passing by a small forrest. And what did I come across? Mistletoe, growing wild, hoards of it!
As it didn’t grow in Finland – not much else does besides spruce trees and lichen – I had figured it must be a figment of some illustrator’s imagination. So, we gathered some to take home, and had those heavenly chestnuts. But I was still resolute that I would hate French Christmas food, and didn’t let a meager chestnut delight disturb my 15-year-old’s well-practiced gruffness.
So imagine my disappointment when my long-suffering taste buds sang hallelujah to almost everything on the table. From the starters that were, for some French reason, called amuse-gueules (‘jaw-entertainers’), I had to admit that my view of The Perfect Christmas Menu had been somewhat passé.
From Coquilles St. Jacques to terrines and verrines passing through foie gras toward the unctuous turkey that had absolutely nothing in common with the dark, grey, leathery mass I had mistaken for a turkey up until then. It was stuffed with some more blessed chestnuts and gave out a faint whiff of sweet white wine.
I was so young that I wasn’t allowed to touch the bottles on the table, the Sancerre and Pouilly-Fumé that came from less than 20 kilometers from our house, but whenever my mother returned to the kitchen, I stole a sip and nearly passed out from that first, sinfully delicious wine-tasting.
I had heard that an essential part of any French Christmas menu is something called a log. Well, that didn’t sound very impressive to me. (I had imagined a blood sausage covered with a smelly cheese.) But the log… oh, what a log it was.
Bûche de Noël, made by our village baker according to tradition, simply oozed butter and chocolate and soft fluffy sweetness. I was in heaven. It’s funny, now that I have stumbled upon photos of that evening, how my cranky face before the meal had turned into an enlightened little cherub’s benevolent smile by the end of it.
The next year, I decided to move to France to go to boarding school. And as a fun fact I would like to add that the only Christmas song I’ve ever sung on an album is in French: Mel Tormé’s ‘The Christmas Song’ translated into ‘Joyeux Noël’.
This holiday season, my Finnish in-laws and the whole family come over from Finland. We will go to our village’s Midnight Mass where I play church organ, and then we will proceed to our french Christmas table. Despite their general enthusiasm and good will, I’m sensing some doubts. No matter what I’ve told them about a Frenchman’s eagerness to please his palate, there is still suspicion hanging about. And there should be. Because what if there is no rutabaga casserole on the table?
Do you celebrate christmas differently to the French?All Images and artwork © Milja Kaunisto.