How the French Do Christmas

My first true Christmas in France, 12 years ago, almost didn’t happen. The day before flying to meet my fiancée in Paris, I’d gone to a Walgreens near my parents’ house in central New Jersey to get a flu shot. Though I trust the science, and had been assured this was impossible, within 24 hours of getting jabbed I was convulsing on my mother’s couch with one of the severest fevers and respiratory infections I had ever experienced. I missed my flight and had to purchase a new ticket at the last minute. My trip was off to a painful start.  

Once on the other side, however, and ensconced in front of the fire at my future sister-in-law’s apartment, I was inducted into a familiar yet subtly and pleasantly altered yuletide universe. I know that Americans who write positively about France are inevitably accused of pretension, privilege, or both. But given the ubiquity and overwhelming cultural force of the American style of Christmas, the comparison seems worth making. The French have figured out some things about the holiday—perhaps most important is that it’s all right for adults to put their pleasures first.

What struck me that inaugural year was the shape and appearance of the Christmas tree itself. In France, and perhaps Paris especially, the trees are significantly more compact than the towering North American varieties, and they tend to blend into rather than dominate their surroundings. These trees are indispensable yet understated, striking a simple balance with regular life instead of wholly upending it. (They are also—and this is no small thing—much easier to dispose of when the season is finished.) The second point of departure, and perhaps the most irreproachable, is the omnipresence of champagne, which begins flowing on Christmas Eve and—if you’re in the right company—continues from late morning into the afternoon and evening of Christmas Day.

[Read: Families’ weird holiday traditions, illustrated]

But it is the centrality of Christmas Eve itself—and the age-specific pleasures it promises—that I’ve come to appreciate as the main distinction between the French and American traditions. With the large caveat that I have never been part of a churchgoing community that attends services in either country, in the anecdotal terms of a secular celebrant, in France, December 24 is for adults; the children must patiently wait longer.

I may be selling my brother and myself and every other American child we ever associated with short, but I cannot say with a straight face that we displayed anything like patience in the countdown to Christmas morning, when we would inevitably wake up at dawn. Exuberance, yes; hilarity, excitement, sure. But patience? Or associated qualities like discipline? Selflessness? Grace? A sense of the bigger picture? That is not how I remember it.

Christmas Eve was just a faint prelude, the highlight of which was virgin eggnog and the knowledge that we were now on vacation. My parents would never have been able to exchange gifts with each other in front of us, let alone invite a bunch of other adults over to do it en masse as we quietly witnessed their jubilation and even assisted in the distribution of their bounty without partaking in it.

Yet this is precisely what the French children I’ve been around are expected to do without question. On Christmas Eve, in my experience, French children are supposed to be sage. That means well behaved, but also wise. They are expected to comport themselves with restraint and good humor.

Food takes precedence over their desires and fantasies. There is the aforementioned champagne, and typically foie gras and oysters and smoked salmon and, when my mother-in-law cooks, a turkey or capon that she wraps in lard and stuffs with farce, served with mounds of baked apples and chestnuts and a light celery purée. For dessert, there is the Gallic take on the familiar log, or bûche de Noël. The kids who are older than toddlers eat the same complicated flavors as the adults. Afterward, they calmly help pass out the gifts their parents and grandparents and aunts and uncles have bought for one another. The first few years I witnessed this, I could hardly process the self-denial on display. I suppose I shouldn’t compare young people too explicitly to animals, but when I see this ritual play out, I think of a well-trained dog looking on impassively while a family devours a juicy steak in front of it. It’s impressive. Of course some French families must do things differently, but I’m speaking from personal observation.

[Read: 16 decades of Atlantic Christmases]

Even more alarming, when the evening is finished, when the grown-ups have had their fill, everyone simply goes to bed. The older brothers and sisters leave carrots for the reindeer and a cup of lukewarm coffee for Père Noël, mostly to humor their younger siblings who still believe in fairy tales. Then they all shut their eyes at a reasonable hour—something my brother and I never managed to accomplish in our time. In the morning, they wake up and finally open their own presents as the adults watch well-rested. The remainder of the day revolves around a large, multicourse lunch that begins with aperitifs and sets the pace for dinner. The kids continue to play, but the adults and their appetites are fully back in the driver’s seat.

It is a quiet, family-oriented celebration, but it has always felt anticlimactic to me, the way New Year’s Day does. There is already a whiff of nostalgia.

Which is probably why it is on the 25th of December that I most long for the informality and playfulness of America—the mess of torn wrapping paper and children running wild to the sound of blaring music and video games or the Chicago Bulls or Golden State Warriors (or whoever is the team of the era) beaming from the entertainment system. My son and daughter, born and raised in France, have no genuine point of comparison and are loyal to and fulfilled by their more muted French customs, and I am happy that they are happy. They certainly have all manner of advantages my neighbors and I could not have even dreamed of, including gobs of time off in a society that both prioritizes and subsidizes vacations to the tune of two weeks off every six weeks and another two months in the summer. They do not need my sympathy.

But as I sip my glass of cold champagne with their grandfather and watch them from my seat in front of the fire, I remember the sleepless, child-centric Christmases of my youth and can’t help but feel like I got away with something.