Normally Christmas arrives through a slow, month-long infusion: You see candy and decorations appear in stores, you hear carols on your car radio, you send holiday cards and buy presents, and you sprint to the holiday finish line through a mad, sleepless period dubbed “finals week,” getting home just in time to fight with your brother over the placement of ornaments on the tree.
This year, Christmas held out on me until the last minute, only ambushing me in full force at the beginning of last week.
After a storm of paper snowflakes in Christmas-themed lessons, two end-of-the-semester staff lunches put on by my schools, and a fin du monde/holiday party hosted by the ladies of Chez Maurice, I headed Nantes-ward.
And on the morning of the 24th, my friend Lise and I packed our overnight bags and set off for her parents’ home in nearby Vallet, where I would spend my first French Christmas.
In France, Christmas is celebrated quite similarly to how it is in the states: Decorations deck the halls, festive music jingles out of speakers, a pile of presents camps out under the tree, and family members assemble to prepare and then share a grand meal.
But while the Lowry clan and most Americans indulge in the bulk of their holiday traditions on Christmas Day, the French version of the fête happens in full force on Christmas Eve.
And the meal. The meal is the closest thing to a marathon I’ve ever experienced.
We started at 7 p.m. with the apéritif: Cheese on pain d’épices, slices of saucisson, smoked salmon and caramelized leeks in flaky puff pastry, an assortment of verrines (little glasses filled with savory mousses in flavor combinations such as ham and sun-dried tomato, smoked salmon and shallot, and roasted red pepper, feta cheese and pistachio), and Champagne to wash it all down.
By the time I’d tasted everything, I was unsurprisingly feeling a little full. But this was only the ante-meal.
After opening the cadeaux, we moved à table.
Over the next several hours we slowly savored oysters on the half-shell, pâté de foie gras on toast and a bed of greens, and roast turkey with chestnuts and potatoes. And, of course, each course came with its own wine (my favorite was a 2008 Bordeaux, mostly Merlot with a touch of Cab).
And right around midnight we capped it off with two bûches de Noël, fresh lychees and a splash of Cognac.
Other holiday highlights include: sleeping late, making a very American apple pie for my French hosts, acting as a bed for a four-month-old baby, playing Téléphone Secret (a.k.a. Dream Phone, a find-out-the-identity-of-your-secret-admirer-type board game), watching the Demoiselles de Rochefort, and masquerading as a Christmas ninja.
Click here for more photos from Christmas in Nantes.