I realised that the Parisians and the Brits don’t see eye-to-eye about Christmas festivities round about 22 December in my first year working for a French company.
An Irish colleague and I had been trying for at least a month to convince our boss that we had to have a staff Christmas party.
‘But we are going to have one,’ she kept insisting. ‘The chairman will give his speech and then there will be a glass of champagne!’
‘No,’ we said, ‘a party.’
Finally, we obtained a promise that our team – a dozen of us – would go out for lunch on the Friday before Christmas. We had several argumentative meetings, and eventually settled on a venue that left only six of our French colleagues whingeing.
We had chosen a Swiss fondue place, which had a snowy, almost Christmassy feel about it. The wine flowed (especially into the two English-speaking mouths), people who hated each other managed to smile, and everything was going swimmingly until coffee.
‘OK, back to work everyone,’ the boss announced. ‘It’s three o’clock.’
Uh? Didn’t she realise that the party wasn’t supposed to end until we’d all made total idiots of ourselves and thereby galvanized our team spirit? Clearly not. We trooped solemnly back to our desks, only two of us stumbling and slurring more than usual.
You see, Parisians just don’t understand the need to get hammered and photocopy your backside. For them, Christmas, like the rest of life, is a much more classy affair.
Admittedly, they do share our frenzied consumerism. In the week before Christmas, the department stores resemble the riots in the Paris suburbs. Parisians are famous for their sharp elbows, and even the poshest woman will resort to violence rather than allow you to grab the last bottle of Lacoste apres-rasage. On the narrow pavements of the rue de Rivoli, shopping bags turn into battering rams in the last-minute rush.
Food is, of course, on everyone’s shopping list. The big seasonal delicacy is foie gras which, let’s not forget, translates as ‘fat liver’. Magazines run adverts encouraging people to buy their foie gras cheap by mail order. I hardly dare imagine the consequences of a seasonal postal strike – sorting offices full of rotting goose products. Yummy!
Parisians also love their buche de Noel – chocolate log – a roly-poly sponge cake covered in soft icing. They are as exciting to eat as lengths of balsa wood, but I’ve never managed to convince a Parisian that our spicy, alcohol-laced Christmas cakes and puddings are tastier. Mainly because the French believe that we make our pudding out of sugar-soaked turnips and bury it in the garden for six months to mature. Which about sums up their view of English food in general.
Just once, some Parisian friends promised me a Christmas pudding. I waited with nostalgically watering mouth for everyone to finish their foie gras and stuffed turkey and then, sure enough, the hostess walked in with a real Christmas pud. She plonked it on the table and started to hack at it with a carving knife. I felt obliged to inform her that it might have been easier to slice if she’d actually cooked it first.
This got me nowhere: when I translated the cooking instructions (that she hadn’t bothered to read, deeming that no British dish could be too complicated for a Parisienne to understand), she declared that anything that needed boiling for two hours, or microwaving till the oven threatens to explode, was sure to be inedible, and went to get a more civilised dessert.
And after her buche, I couldn’t spend the afternoon digesting the feast in front of a Bond film, because it was midnight – the French usually celebrate Christmas on the evening of 24 December.
My favourite place to spend Christmas Eve is La Coupole, the giant brasserie near Montparnasse. You sip champagne at the bar, then go and eat a mound of oysters while slick (but very polite) waiters fuss around, and conversation bubbles happily amid the art deco murals. It’s Paris at its most suave, and costs zilch compared with its London equivalent.
After this, Christmas Day itself has a zombie-like quality. You see Parisians rushing about, loaded with presents, on their way to have lunch with the in-laws. Parents are bad-tempered because they over-indulged last night and are suffering from indigestion, which they dramatise as a crise de foie, or ‘liver crisis’. Kids just want to stay at home and play with their new games console.
And then on Boxing Day, for those who aren’t skiing, it’s back to work. There are no football matches, because the French league operates a mid-season ‘truce’ so that players don’t get cold knees. There aren’t even any sales, because French shopkeepers postpone those till the middle of January, presumably because they hope that people will return to the shops on 26 December and pay full whack for the things they really wanted for Christmas.
Meanwhile, in the office, an email comes round from human resources telling everyone to brace themselves for the excitement of 6 January, when the galette des rois (a traditional marzipan-stuffed pastry) will be served in the canteen, accompanied by a glass of champagne and a new year speech from the chairman. Party time!
· Stephen Clarke’s book ‘Talk to the Snail – Ten Commandments for Understanding the French’, is published by Black Swan at £6.99). His latest novel is ‘Merde Happens’ (Bantam Press, £10.99).
In Venice, the big celebration is on the Vigilia di Natale – Christmas Eve. Although most people should be at work, most offices shut towards the end of the morning, and everyone concentrates on shopping for dinner and last-minute presents.
By lunchtime the bars and cafes along the Misericordia canal will be teeming, but it is only on the main drag – Strada Nova, which leads all the way to the Rialto Bridge – that the mood is really Christmassy. The street is taken over by the scores of colourful stalls that make up the Mercatino di Natale. There are half a dozen of these traditional Christmas markets in Venice, selling bargain-price presents from chic leather bags to fashionable shoes.
Soon everyone throngs towards the Rialto food market on the other side of the Grand Canal. To avoid the tourists jammed on the vaporetto, pay 50 cents to cross on the public gondola service, the traghetto, which moors outside the pescheria, the fishmonger section of the market. This is where the crowds are, because the traditional Christmas Eve dinner is based totally on fish .
So while the butchers are almost deserted, the pescheria stalls are piled high with freshly caught sea bass, bream, john dory, monkfish, turbot, sole and cases of wriggling eels. Die-hard locals will insist on the most traditional Christmas Eve dish, bisato su l’ara. This is a centuries-old recipe for roast eel, originally cooked in the ara, the red-hot oven of Murano glass blowers. Tradition says a 16th-century Doge, Andrea Gritti, ate so much eel he died of indigestion.
Nowadays, though, you are as likely to be served a delicious turbot slowly cooked on a bed of thinly sliced potatoes, or a whole sea bass baked in rock salt.
With the shopping done, it’s off to one of the dozens of osterie around the market, to get into the Christmas mood with glasses of prosecco before heading home to prepare the evening meal. Although most Venetian restaurants are open for lavish Christmas Eve dinners, the clientele is almost exclusively visitors, because Venetians spend the Vigilia at home.
I’m invited every year by my Venetian friends, Alberto and Anna, to join their celebrations. Dinner starts at 8pm with yet more prosecco. Dinner is a long, lazy affair, but light compared with back home, and everyone looks confused when I try to explain about crackers. The menu runs to creamy baccala (salt cod), fish broth, wild mushroom risotto, then fish. For dessert, a huge pandoro (golden bread) is unwrapped, grappa bottles appear, and as midnight strikes, the present-opening begins.
Midnight Mass in Saint Mark’s is an unforgettable experience, but usually attended by tourists; Venetians prefer to walk to their local church. And kids here don’t hang out stockings or expect Babbo Natale, (Father Christmas) to leave presents: that happens on the Epiphany, 12 days after Christmas, when Santa is replaced by the Befana, a wicked witch who flies in on a broomstick.
· John Brunton is a journalist and photographer who lives in Venice and Paris.
Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of Congo
Our festivities start on Christmas Eve. I go to the local church early in the day with other neighbours to help decorate it. Then all the family get together, dressed up in their best clothes, and at 10pm we walk back to the church, where we will stay, singing and dancing, until 6am the next day.
The church will be full of people of all ages. A choir sings; the pastor gives a sermon in either in French or Lingala, depending how well he speaks either language; adults and children act out the nativity; and we give thanks to God for looking after us to the end of another year. People give their own testimonies; we sing hymns (mostly Congolese ones); there is drumming and a synthesiser; people blow whistles and cry out with joy and we dance all night. The atmosphere is really joyous!
When we get home, I feel so great that I don’t go to bed. I just start preparing the meal. Everyone tries to make sure they have a chicken for Christmas dinner, but some years, when I didn’t have work, we just had rice and pondu (a basic Congolese dish made from wild spinach and peanuts).
The electricity supply is often down here, but on Christmas Day the electricity company usually makes an effort. I do some cooking ahead just in case. If you really get stuck without electricity you can hire a generator for the day for between $30 and $50 – but that’s a lot of money.
I have a tap in my house, but sometimes the water supply is also cut. When our reserve supply runs out we have to fetch water, carrying it in tubs on our heads.
With my cousins, sisters and daughters I prepare the Christmas dinner. I roast the chicken, make a special cabbage salad and prepare the salt fish. I make a cake for dessert but that’s my choice – some people have biscuits, or other things.
Last year, I had around 20 people to feed, and I also made plates of food for neighbours who don’t have the means to do their own dinner. We might have a bottle of red wine and perhaps some sangria and sucres (fizzy drinks), but no one gets drunk.
After dinner there is a present for each of my children, but they don’t make a fuss if there are none. They know some children don’t know what it is to ever get a present.
During Christmas we play music. I like to put on hymns but the children soon change that to things they like, even some Western music – Shakira, things like that.
In the evening the young men will often go out to a bistro. I won’t allow my girls out as there are always lots of pregnancies from that night of partying, drinking and disorder.
This year my big worry is the rain. It usually rains here on Christmas Day, as it is the middle of the rainy season. When it rains, water floods into my house and even comes up through the tiles in the floor around my bed, bringing in dirt from outside. I want to move house. Recently, I had to sleep in a plastic chair and the children had to sleep on a mattress in the kitchen to stay dry.
My favourite part of Christmas is for everyone to be together. Being with my children and the rest of my family and eating together – that’s what makes me feel good.
· Sophie Kasengela, 44, is a mother of five and works as a housekeeper.
There are not, if I’m honest, many advantages to winter in Moscow. Apart from one: you are guaranteed snow, lots of it. Last month, we tested our sledging gear for the first time. On Christmas Day we plan to return to the park just behind our Moscow flat. Here, there is a terrific gully – our kids, Tilly, 10, and Ruskin, seven, have discovered their favourite whooshing spot, underneath the silver birch trees. I too am partial to a bit of whizzing; my wife, Phoebe, however, thinks I’m a middle-aged oaf-person.
After this, the plan is to return home for the obligatory present-fest and then round off Christmas Day with an episode or two of Doctor Who. (We are still on the series with Christopher Ecclestone and Billie Piper -being behind the times is one of the drawbacks of expat life.)
The major difference between Russia and Britain is that Christmas in Russia isn’t Christmas. In Russia 25 December is a working day. Commuters commute, trolleybuses trolley, and even Vladimir Putin doesn’t get a day off.
Russians celebrate Christmas 13 days later, on 7 January. (This is the date of Christ’s birth according to the Julian calendar; Russia’s orthodox church has always gone with the Julian date.) The confusion is also partly the fault of the god-hating Bolsheviks: up until 1917 Russians celebrated Christmas on 25 December like everyone else. The communists did their best to kill off Christmas and St Nicholas – renaming him Grandfather Frost. Instead, New Year became Russia’s main winter festival. There are several important rituals around this time – one of which includes getting stuck in traffic. Going anywhere by car in Moscow is difficult. Just before New Year it’s impossible: the number of vehicles goes up by 25 per cent as everyone buys presents. It’s generally quicker to sledge. Russians begin partying big-time on New Year’s Eve – embarking on a two-week orgy of drinking, flirting and work-dodging that stretches into the middle of January.
Present-swapping takes place on New Year’s Eve. It’s traditional also to pop bottles of Russian-made ‘Sovietsky’ champagne at midnight. Since the fall of communism, Christmas on 7 January has enjoyed a minor comeback. Religious Russians go to church; everyone else simply enjoys the day off. There is also fortune-telling and boot-throwing. (Unmarried girls throw boots over their shoulder. Where the boot lands will, so it is said, point them in the direction of their future husbands.) As for us – we’ll be in Bangkok. Hurrah! There’s only so much snow a family can take, after all.
· Luke Harding is The Observer’s Moscow correspondent.
Rothera Research Station, Antarctica
If there’s one place in the world where you are guaranteed a white Christmas, it’s surely Antarctica. With the frozen continent holding some 90 per cent of the world’s ice, there is no shortage of white stuff to get you into that festive spirit. But strangely enough, that is probably as Christmassy as it gets. Having daylight for 24 hours brings a summery rather than an early-nights-and-log-fires feel to the place.
And without the now-obligatory November Christmas tree and shops bursting at the seams, the carefully crafted expectation is not built up as it is back home. Indeed, a far bigger celebration here is midwinter, in June, which marks the darkest day of the year and the meridian of the long isolated winter for all those fortunate enough to call Antarctica their (albeit temporary) home.
I live in Rothera Research Station, the largest of the British Antarctic Survey’s research stations, on the Antarctic Peninsula. It is a collection of relatively small buildings perched on a promontory over a bay filled with icebergs, whales, seals and penguins. The nearest human habitation is 100 miles away, and even that is another research station. It is a beautiful, majestic land of glittering ice and unspoilt wilderness unexploited by man – promising adventure and commanding awe in all who behold it.
Christmas Day itself still has many of the features to which we have all grown accustomed back in the UK. Our two chefs will be working hard ahead of time to prepare four turkeys to fill a hundred hungry mouths, supplemented by pigs-in-a-blanket, stuffing, bread sauce, cranberry sauce, Brussels sprouts, mince pies and my personal favourite, Christmas pudding. Ahead of time (but possibly only just), parts of the main building with be dressed in shining stars and twinkling tinsel.
The dining room will be the main focus of our decorative efforts, and will house our two Christmas trees. When 25 December itself comes we will all enjoy a day off work, making the most of the opportunity to take our time eating that gargantuan meal all together. The people here have become friends, and for those of us now approaching our second winter on base, this is very much our proxy family. Inevitably many will miss those sitting 10,000 miles away in the UK, but there is no shortage of friends here.
For the rest of the day, though, the contrasts with the British Christmas are apparent. The Christmas film may be enjoyed by some, but for others, myself included, it will be usurped by a Christmas ski around the local area. The Queen’s speech will probably be deposed by a speech from our base commander, or our oratorical French chef.
But while we were blessed with the ultimate excuse for not braving the high street scrum of Christmas consumerism (the shop here is pretty limited, I’m afraid), those of us with friends and family who went to the shops for us, sometimes nearly five months in advance to allow for shipping time, will still have some presents to open. The question for me now is: where am I going to hang my stocking?
·Dr Alistair Simpson is the 2007 wintering doctor at Rothera Research Station, looking after the health of the station staff and researching fitness and body composition. See antarctica.ac.uk
In a country where religion is not promoted, Christmas in Beijing is reduced to its most self-indulgent basics: eating, drinking and being merry. You might say it has all the fun without any religious or familial guilt. Although the main festival is Chinese New Year [7 February in 2008] – when families get together and presents, often simply cash, are given – Christmas is quickly taking hold here. For many Beijingers the iconic image of Christmas – Santa, with his rotund girth and big grin – feels comfortingly similar to that of the fat laughing Buddha.
By the first week of December, Christmas fever has kicked in. Full-size Santas stand guard outside shops and galleries and the capital looks increasingly like a European city, with bright lights covering the trees and shopfronts, the occasional frosting of snow forcing people to wrap in long scarves, and even the whiff of chestnuts roasting on the street.
Beijingers love to spend, and any excuse to splash cash – on food and drink, gifts and cards – is embraced wholeheartedly. Parents who give traditional New Year gifts are now also lavishing their only children with chocolates and toys at Christmas, and the giving of small presents between school kids have become de rigueur.
A few years ago, the best alternative to a Christmas tree was a vibrant pot plant, so I was surprised this year to find the streets surrounding the flower markets scattered with browning pine trees that quite clearly wouldn’t survive till Christmas Eve. But with all the ‘Made in China’ plastic trees, baubles and fairy lights costing practically nothing, it has been easy enough to make our flat look festive for just a few quid.
Christmas Day is a working day, but most expats make sure to take a few days’ annual leave so they can party the weekend before and stuff themselves silly on the big day while watching James Bond films bought for 50p from the knock-off DVD shop.
While many expats, and the newly wealthy Chinese, head to a five-star restaurant banquet on the 25th, this year we will have roast goose, home-made mince pies and a Christmas cake. At least it will make a change from duck.
· Tom Pattison is editor-in-chief of Time Out Beijing, published monthly in China.
In the days of British imperial India, homesick English families made laborious attempts to celebrate Christmas much as they would have done at home.
In the vice-regal lodge in Calcutta ‘there was always a fancy dress ball and a children’s party where Father Christmas entered on an elephant’, Charles Allen writes in Plain Tales from the Raj. ‘The British had their own rituals. The first was the arrival in September of the catalogue sent around in good time to enable customers to choose what they would like dispatched from London for Christmas,’ Allen continues. ‘The Christmas dinner and the Christmas cake followed the familiar pattern, although peafowl – “beautifully white flesh but very, very dry” – frequently took the place of tinned turkey.’
A century has passed, India’s political and economic landscape has changed beyond recognition, and now it’s as easy to hop on a British Airways flight home as it is to buy air-freighted cranberries in Delhi. But for those in the diplomatic community who are preparing gloomily to spend Christmas here, the same preoccupations remain.
India has 13 million Christians, but most live in the south. Although Christmas is a national public holiday, in Delhi, the days preceding 25 December have none of the excitement that marks the lead-up to Diwali, the Hindu festival of light celebrated earlier in the autumn.
As a result, American and European expatriates still go to great lengths to recreate the Christmas atmosphere. Instead of a mail-order catalogue, families living in the gated compounds of the British High Commission or the Canadian or US Embassies, fill in internet orders for their Christmas requirements at least six weeks ahead of time, to allow their consignments of mincemeat and bread sauce mix to be shipped over.
Those living outside the compounds have to rely on Delhi’s famous French poultry farmer, a notoriously irascible man who has a small farm in an industrial suburb of Delhi. Sometimes he agrees to deliver turkey; sometimes – if you call at the wrong time, or sound too American – he declines. As a last resort, there is the stinking and unhygienic INA market, where large hens, slaughtered and plucked on the spot, provide a plausible alternative.
Across the city at Khan Market – a searingly expensive collection of shops frequented by Delhi’s growing community of super-rich, as well as foreigners – inflatable Father Christmases obstruct the pavement, emitting tinny Chinese renditions of ‘Santa Claus is Coming to Town’. Shops offer hand-painted baubles with Christmas scenes of snow and fir trees, never witnessed by the people who made them.
Not everything is available. Despite the powerful forces of globalisation, which have brought Swarovski crystals and Marmite to a market which used to stock only local produce, Brussels sprouts remain unobtainable (to everyone’s relief).
The children’s party entertainment is unchanged. At this time of year, in the diplomatic enclave of New Delhi, a weary-looking elephant can occasionally be seen loping along the wide streets, led by a man in a peculiar, but just identifiable, Father Christmas outfit; the pair can be booked by the hour for party entertainment. In the evenings, a band of Salvation Army choristers, wearing pink Father Christmas masks so alarming they reduce children to tears, ring doorbells, singing Christmas carols in Hindi.
For a British community nostalgic for traditional festivities, there is the annual Christmas pantomime, put on by embassy volunteers and teachers from the British school. It’s redolent of the amateur dramatics enjoyed by the ladies of the Raj during their summer retreat to the hill stations. Last year’s Aladdin/A Lad in Delhi, had belly-dancing men in drag and cardboard rickshaws, and left everyone unfamiliar with the genre profoundly bemused.
Indian Christian families in Delhi do not share the British obsession with turkey or ritualised meals of pre-determined dishes. Families cook sweets such as gujia, sweet fried dough-balls flavoured with nuts and cardamom, which are also prepared for Hindu festivals like holi. Churches offer all-night mass, with services in Hindi and English.
But despite everyone’s best efforts, it is impossible not to feel that Christmas here is a tame occasion in comparison with the wild abandon of Diwali, when so many fire crackers are let off that the city hangs heavy with smog for weeks.
After four cold, dark Christmases in the UK, I’m back in Sydney this year, and everything is in place for a traditional Aussie Christmas.
Humidity is enveloping me like a blanket. The smell of jasmine dances on the warm afternoon breeze. The hum of cicadas drowns out conversation. And the tarmac squelches underfoot as I cross George Street to buy my first Christmas card – featuring Santa wearing boardshorts and driving a sleigh pulled by kangaroos.
The grocers have started selling stone fruit, too. Unlike in the UK, where fruit and vegetables are jetted in from all over the world, fresh produce is still seasonal here.
The appearance of cherries, peaches and plums on the supermarket shelves is as good a sign as any that Santa is on his way. Indeed, the first box of cherries of the season is auctioned for charity. This year it fetched A$35,000 (£15,000) for the Children’s Hospital.
The English backpackers will spend Christmas on Bondi Beach, drinking beer, getting sunburnt and keeping the lifesavers busy. I’ll be at home, sweltering through a full Christmas roast with all the trimmings. Christmas Eve is for having a few beers with mates, somewhere near a beach, preferably with a kilo or two of prawns. But on Christmas Day I’ll sit down at the dinner table in the sweltering heat, apply the paper crown from my Christmas cracker to my sweaty forehead, and work my way through the turkey, the chicken, the pork and the ham that mum got up at dawn to prepare in a kitchen where the temperature is pushing 40C.
I’ll finish the meal with the traditional Christmas pudding that we all had to stir when mum was making it. It’ll be smothered in hot brandy custard and also peppered with A$2 coins that my mum presses into it as it is served. Boxing Day is traditionally a much less arduous affair. I’ll spend the day in front of the telly watching the Boxing Day Test live from Melbourne. We’re playing India this year, and while it will be great to see Sachin Tendulkar play in Oz for the last time, it won’t be as sweet as last year, when we beat the English and Warnie got his 700th wicket.
I’ll have a cold beer in my hand and there’ll be a selection of cold cuts left over from Christmas dinner to gorge myself on. Sure, I’ll be missing the EastEnders Christmas special. But I can always download that from the web.
· Peter Moore has written six travel narratives, including ‘The Wrong Way Home’ and ‘Vroom with a View’. Visit his website at petermoore.net
Mexico City, Mexico
If you’re spending Christmas in Mexico, make sure you get yourself lots of bright red flowers – locals believe they can bring you good luck for the rest of the year. They take this superstition so seriously that they cover their homes with poinsettia – known in Mexico as the Christmas Flower – and the main streets and avenues become a sea of red.
In the Zocalo, Mexico City’s huge main square, the world’s largest ice-rink entertains young and old alike, while the city’s many markets are busy with people searching for the perfect pine tree with which to decorate their home. Christmas carols here are played by mariachi, groups of street musicians.
The biggest family dinner of the year is held on Christmas Eve. A traditional dinner would include turkey, but roast beef or pork are gradually becoming more common as a main dish. You can also have typical tamales, steam-cooked corn meal dough with a filling – and lots of hot spices, of course.
Every town in Mexico will hold a procession on the nine days before Christmas called a posada, a ceremony that symbolises the trials Mary and Joseph endured before finding a place for Jesus to be born. During the posadas people hang pinatas, large star-shaped containers made of papier mache and filled with toys and sweets, from trees or lampposts. Blindfolded children try to break them open with a stick, allowing the treats to pour out, to great excitement.
And while children in the UK eagerly wait for Santa Claus to deliver gifts, Mexican kids must wait until 6 January, when the Three Kings, Los Reyes, arrive on horseback loaded with presents. In recent years children have also taken to writing to Santa – but rather than being posted to Lapland, the letters are hidden in the children’s shoes.
· Javier Espinoza is a freelance journalist who was born in El Salvador and has travelled widely in Mexico, especially at Christmas.