It’s not that Paris doesn’t have Nativity Scenes or Christmas trees or even Santa Claus-lookalikes called le Père Noel-Father Christmas..
It’s not that Parisians don’t string blinking lights, buy extravagant gifts, throw parties, ring bells, and sing “noel-noel”. Isn’t noel French for “Christmas?” A few French faithful even attend ceremonies, light candles, observe Advent
Lent, and fold hands in drafty sanctuaries that echo in emptiness the rest of the year.
But somehow in this militantly secular republic, where freedom from religion is a religion in itself, Christmas really isn’t about Christmas. Not the way “les Anglo-Saxons” seem to celebrate it.
Noel in Paris is a time for worshipping the true French cult: food and wine, la grande bouffe. It’s pagan, it’s druidical, it’s not just pre-Revolutionary, it’s possibly pre-Roman or prehistoric and thoroughly ancient Gallic, meaning totally contemporary French.
Christmas in Paris is a fattening tale of extreme Thanksgiving-like gourmandizing, gluttonizing, gobbling, gnoshing and every other imaginable variation on the theme of snarfing up and scarfing down fine edibles and nectarous potables.
Holiday food markets and an extra rasher of farmer’s and neighborhood markets mushroom in squares across the land and sometimes even fill bridges that cross the Seine. The Champs-Elysées, Trocadéro, Notre-Dame, Saint-Germain-des-Prés, Place de la Nation and other history-soaked sites swarm with humanity drawn like flies to rustic stands groaning with goodies from the provinces.Stationed on a thousand sidewalks outside bottle shops, cheese shops, and gourmet specialty boutiques legions of svelte Parisian Santas-most in spiffy civvies without a trace of cotton beard-tempt you to taste or swill something seasonal and irresistible-and part with your precious euros.
On Paris radio stations it’s not sleigh bells or Christmastide jingles that delight your ears. Non. It’s nonstop advertising for les produits nobles-the French nation’s notion of upscale produce and ingredients. The list stars, of course, Champagne, Sauternes and hoary wines from mossy chateaux, foie gras, oysters, scallops, smoked salmon or sturgeon or duck’s breast, caviar, truffles, runny Mont d’Or cheese, catwalk chocolate and extravagant pastries.
In Paris a buche de noelisn’t a yuletide log to burn in your fireplace. It’s a dangerously caloric, creamy log-shaped cake that comes in a mind-boggling variety of sizes and flavors. Millions are consumed in the holiday season, rolled out by every baker in town.
This glad season of weight-gain actually stretches from La Fete de la Saint Martin-November 11-to Epiphany-January 6, reaching paroxysms of hedonism at Christmastide.
Saint Martin’s feast day is dedicated to — guess what? Not a holy man! It’s the official festival of foie gras, and opens the hunting season for France’s many marchés au gras, which continue into the New Year. Only in France can the concept of “fat markets” make mouths water. The French Ministry of Agriculture has a web page dedicated to this artery-plugging phenomenon but not much about the forgotten saint. The separation of things spiritual and comestible into sealed compartments is deliciously watertight.
Like foie gras, pastries bridge the holiday season. When the yuletide cake logs have burned through they are swiftly replaced in January by les gallettes du roi-“the king’s flaky pies.” They look like pork pie hats but are filled with delicate marzipan. Included in the price of your gallette you’re given a folded golden crown of paper. Whoever finds the fève hidden inside the pie-literally the fava bean, though it’s usually a ceramic token-is crowned king or queen of the day. That’s a ritual that goes way back, past the various King Louis all the way to Augustus Caesar.
Who knows how many Parisians are aware of what the gallette and fava tradition springs from, and how many care? In Paris “Epiphany” is either a revelation about a fashionable new restaurant or a slice of the king’s marzipan pie. Rarely are the arriving Magi invited to share it.
No, Santa definitely drives a refrigerated truck when he hits Paris. Maybe that’s why I decided to stay all these years.
Author and guide David Downie’s latest books are the critically acclaimed “Paris, Paris: Journey into the City of Light” and “Quiet Corners of Rome.” His websites are www.davidddownie.com, www.parisparistours.comand http://wanderingliguria.com, dedicated to the Italian Riviera.