Traditions, new and old.
Like all families, we had our own Christmas traditions back in Ireland. It started with the making of the pudding, some time in October or November (or even December if I was particularly disorganised), when every member of the family had to stir a wish into the pudding mix. About a week before Christmas, the decorations went up. Mrs Santa, a cheap cardboard mobile, has hung from the light over the table ever since our kids were tiny. Certain handmade decorations always went on the tree and, when we went all posh and had two trees, we had a formal tree done in gold in the ‘good’ room and a family tree which basically looked like a five-year old had vomited Christmas all over it in the ‘family’ room. A night light was always left lit in a window on Christmas eve (this is a very Irish Catholic tradition, it’s to show Mary and Joseph where they can find shelter). Later on, we’d all go to midnight Mass with Granny and, when we got home, have something to eat and open one present each. Last thing on Christmas Eve, our girls’ stockings were left by the fireplace, to be filled with goodies and treats by Santa. Yes, even when they hit their twenties. Once the horses were fed on Christmas morning, there would be a riot of present unwrapping, and then my kitchen assistants and I would get stuck into cooking while the LSH and the stable assistants would chuck the horses out for the day and skip out the stables. My friend and fellow Wanderly Wagon Anne would join us for the Christmas feast of smoked salmon, turkey and ham, Christmas pud and other goodies, along with her daughter and brother. Some snoozing would occur and games would be played, with a couple of extra youngsters usually joining us at this stage. The following day, St Stephen’s day to the Irish or Boxing Day to the English, we’d sometimes follow the hunt for a while but we’d always end up back in Anne’s house for another big dinner.
This year was clearly going to be different. For a start, I was home alone when I made the puddings – even the LSH was away. My friend Mandy added a wish to the pudding (I hope it came true, I’ve a feeling it did) but, as Aideen said, it was always going to be a bit weird eating someone else’s wishes.
We only had a handful of Christmas decorations here, which were bought for last year’s tiny tree, but when we were in Cork for Tansy’s graduation, I rummaged through all the boxes that are stored in our office and found some important things, which flew back to France with us on the 20th.
When Aideen arrived on the 22nd, the trying-out of new traditions began in earnest. First there was a visit to the Christmas market in Aix-en-Provence. Very disappointing, there wasn’t much there, and that’s a tradition that could very well end just as it begins.
Once both girls were here, the tree could be dressed. With the hodgepodge of decorations I had grabbed in Cork, we’re pretty much back to having a tree that looks like a five year old who’s eaten a whole pile of decorations has barfed on it. It feels right.
Mrs Santa was produced, much to the girls’ delight, and hung over the table.
On the 23rd, there was a Christmas concert in our friend’s courtyard. It was their second time doing this (the first time was three years ago) and it was a lot of fun. It’s not an annual event, as it depends on the presence of the younger family members to provide the entertainment, but I hope it’ll be a tradition we can share whenever possible.
There’s a carillon at the citadel in nearby Forcalquier which is only played a couple of times a year. I had yet to hear it, so when I learned that there would be French carols on Christmas Eve, we went along and listened. It was ok, but I think we all felt that this would not be an essential part of future Christmases in Provence. Although Forcalquier itself was lovely, with all the lights and the small market going on…
Without Granny’s presence (she’s in California with my sister), there was no desire to attend midnight Mass. We all felt the Christmas concert had been religious enough! A candle was lit and placed outside the window because there’s no windowsill on the inside and also it wouldn’t be visible once the shutters were closed. It promptly blew out, so I left it alone. Perhaps the candle in the window won’t work in Provence? I cooked the ham – a proper Irish ham that I’d brought back from Cork in my suitcase – and we stayed up past midnight playing Apples to Apples. Then we wished each other happy Christmas and went to bed. Whereupon Santa sneaked back out with the girls’ Christmas stockings and laid them by the fireplace. This was to be a big surprise for them – they both thought I hadn’t been able to find the stockings. It had taken a lot of rummaging, but I had succeeded! So imagine our surprise when there were four stockings around the fireplace next morning…
We all agreed that Christmas quiches for breakfast would be a good tradition to instigate, so the LSH nipped off to Reillanne to buy them from the boulangerie (all the small groceries and bakeries are open on Christmas morning here. Weird but useful).
The candle in the window was relit. And relit. And relit. Then it stayed lighting for ages so I forgot about it. I’m not sure when it blew out, but it was out when I went to close the shutters at 5pm.
The usual unwrapping mayhem ensued. The funniest moment was when the girls unwrapped their (identical) parcels from each other. “Imagine if we got each other the same thing” was said. Imagine no more… what are the odds of randomly buying each other a onesie? And a unicorn onesie at that?
Bestest present of all was this, from the girls, their boyfriends and the dogs, to the LSH and I :
Then the cooking began. With only one small oven, everything was on a tight schedule, but we sat down to eat only an hour later than planned. In the company of friends, as it should be.
As a starter, we had smoked salmon, bought from O’Connells in the English Market in Cork City and flown back with us on the 22nd. All that was missing was the brown soda bread, but we had a nice fresh baguette as an alternative.
The ham looked great, but I was worried about the turkey, the first French turkey I’ve ever cooked. It was small compared to what I’m used to, without the giant breasts that you see in the white turkeys normally available in Ireland. I’m pretty sure it was what the Americans call a Heritage Turkey as it had the remnants of dark feathers on its legs and neck. I was afraid that it would turn out to be tough and dry, as other expats have told me it’s difficult to find a good turkey here. I needn’t have worried – it was delicious. Perhaps a little less moist, but with an excellent flavour. The ham was good, the veggies were good, the cranberry sauce made by Doug that morning was good. The stuffing was one of my best (made with gluten free bread brought from England by Aideen) and the gravy was excellent (if I do say so myself). Only the potatoes let us down – it’s so hard to find a decent floury spud outside of Ireland! The pudding was flambéed successfully and we actually managed to find a French version of cream which wasn’t too far from its Irish equivalent.
We ate, drank, talked and laughed our way through the meal. We pulled our Christmas crackers – a novelty for our French and American guests – wore our paper crowns and read our silly jokes. In short, it was an absolutely normal Greenlee Christmas dinner, followed by a little snoozing, some movie watching and some game-playing.
St Stephen’s day had to be a full day of new traditions. We went for a great walk with the dogs. Cookie got to chase the ball for a while, Rosie had a nice run around and Cinnamon modelled her new Barbour coat.
Later on, we played games, watched movies, ate leftovers, went to an eggnog party and discovered Ricky Gervais’ series Derek, thanks to our daughters. It’s not for the faint-hearted, but it’s an addictive melange of hilarious, tear-jerking and cringe-inducing moments.
We continued to try out new traditions over the next few days. There was a visiting boyfriend (this isn’t new, he joined us in California when we spent Christmas with my sister two years ago) and lots and lots of nice walks.
There was the snow-boarding trip taken by Aideen and her BF (again, not new, they did this in California too, when they went to Tahoe for a couple of days. I guess it’s now an old tradition). There was raclette, a very French tradition, for dinner one night. There was even a brief sight-seeing trip to Marseille.
And there were the less pleasant new traditions too – the farewell trips to airports, first to Nice with Tansy and then to Marseille with Aideen and the BF a couple of days later. I said it on Facebook and I’ll say it again here – the downside of having such a wonderful time with my girls is having to say goodbye. It gets harder each time, but I think we’ve laid the foundations for a whole new set of Christmas traditions, while managing to keep the most important ones exactly the same – relaxing and having fun together as a family.
PS Aero and Flurry were thoroughly neglected by me over Christmas – I only visited them four times over the ten days. Bad horse mom! I know they’re in good hands, though – Alexandrine even put rugs on them when it rained one day 🙂