Wassailing

Holidays in France, Uncategorized

“Quoi?”  MB calls out from the kitchen.

“Quoi what?”  I say this before the redundancy of it computes in my mind.

He steps out of the kitchen and into the living room where I am dancing like a maniac and going through my Christmas songs on Itunes to sort out a playlist for our upcoming party.  I grab his hand and make him dance with me which gets a laugh…one of his classic laughs in which I can tell he is trying really hard not to but can’t help it.

He kisses me on the cheek which is my cue to stop.  “What is this wassailing?”

“Oh,” I respond, putting “Here We go a-Wassailing”* on mute.  “You know, it’s to… “wassail.”  This seems like a totally logical answer to me.

“You don’t know what it means, do you?”

YES, of course I do, I sang this song when I was a kid!  Gaw!”  I have no idea what it is to “wassail.”

“So, what is it?”  He puts a hand on his hip and stands over my computer.

“Hold on…” I say, as I google it quickly.  “Huh…it is: 1 : an early English toast to someone’s health
2 : wild drinking : REVELRY.”

“So it is a Christmas carol about getting wasted?”  He asks me this with amusement on his face.

“No way, it can’t be,” I look up “wassailing” as opposed to the noun form “wassail” hoping there is some translation change; it isn’t much better.  “”Wassailing,” I read, “To go on a wild drinking spree.”

MB bursts out laughing.

“It also means to drink to someone’s health!”  I will defend “wassailing” forever!

He pats me on the head and walks back to the kitchen.  My whole childhood has just morphed into an old English drinking song.

When I was little I was a Girl Scout.  We had meetings once a week and events like camping (okay so camping in cabins not in tents but get real…we have bears in Tennessee) and selling Girl Scout cookies throughout the year.  I remember learning how to light a match, how to sew a button (quit giving me that look, Mom, just because I don’t do it well doesn’t mean I don’t know how), and I can still pick out poison oak.  Somewhere in the attic there is a sash with badges on it and I still keep in touch with a few girls from my troop and one of them even came to my wedding this year.

Every Christmas my Mother (a “forever” Girl Scout) would get the girls together over at our house and take us caroling in the neighborhood.  My Mother an avid…dare I say “hardcore”, caroler loved the tradition and so did I.  It was awesome and SO much cooler than it sounds…I swear.  We would all meet at someone’s house and dress up in super warm clothes and drink hot chocolate and afterwards we would have a cookie party.  It was fun to go out into a cold wintery night with all your best friends and sing songs to strangers.  Carolers are often made fun of in movies or on sitcoms but let’s face it – in this day in age it is pretty amazing to have a bunch of strangers show up at your door and sing songs to you for no other reason than to spread some cheer.

I remember one year in particular back in the late 80’s.  After the adults made sure we were all warmly attired in our totally cool purple, green, and fuchsia winter wear (I’m just assuming…I did say late 80’s) we set out with our song books into the wily streets of High Point Terrace in Memphis (this will be funny to anyone from Memphis).  We went to house after house singing our songs and generally being “ooh’d” and “awe’d” over by all the folks in the neighborhood (perhaps another reason we all loved Christmas caroling…a nice little ego boost if I do say so).

Only a few doors down from my house we came and knocked on a door.  Now let me give a little lesson in caroling for you novices out there, it’s not like you ring the doorbell and wait to take requests; you ring or knock and then get going with your song – if the people living there don’t like it then they are scrooges, plain and simple.  At this house my Mother whispered to us to start singing “Silent Night.”  The porch stayed quiet as we began our song and we started to wonder if they were going to open the door; we could see people in there.  Suddenly the door swung wide and the whole family was standing there.  I remember having a very odd sensation of seeing so much light around them as we stood on the dark porch.  While we sang I noticed their arms going around each other and hugs being given, heads rested on shoulders, a couple of the people even cried.  We had never made such an impact.  Later my Mother explained to us that the man who had lived there had died a few days ago and that the family was there comforting each other.

It was a special moment in my life, maybe it was a special moment in theirs.  Maybe it is a story that they still tell in their family about the night that Grandpa died and little girls showed up at the door during the wake and sang “Silent Night.”  We didn’t understand while we were singing what had happened and we only sort of understood later but I understand now and it can still bring a tear to my eye thinking about it; thinking about the fact that the simplest acts that you commit in your life can bring a sense of peace, a sense of thankfulness, a sense of joy and love to a complete stranger…and sometimes when they need most to not feel alone in this world.  I understand that often God or the Universe or Mother Nature, or whatever you believe in will use you as a tool for good even when you aren’t trying.

When I asked my Mother about this story to make sure I was telling it right she was so pleased that I remembered caroling and had happy memories of it.  She told me that the reason she always hosted this party was because of a memory she had when she was a little girl.  “It was probably only once in my life – one year,” she wrote, “The cold, the holiday season, the thrill of singing with others, the smiles on the other side of the doorway.  I still recall the intense delight I felt.”  It’s funny, isn’t it?  That two women in different stages in their life still think about and remember fondly singing to strangers a few times when they were children.

My Mother said that when we would go caroling sometimes people would try to give us money.  They would want to know why we were caroling, they assumed we were doing it for something.  Well…we were.  Maybe it sounds cheesy and maybe it is too trite for some people but we were just doing it to spread cheer.

So, “Wassail” my friends!  Drink an extra glass of egg nogg or vin chaud, be unnecessarily cheerful, sing songs too loudly, and allow yourself to be used in the crafting of someone’s happy holiday memories.

*Note – there are two different “Wassailing” songs around the holidays and neither is for Christmas but for the New Year.  There is “Here we go a –wassailing” and there is also (my favorite) “Wassail, Wassail”. 

Happy Holidays Everyone!  I’ll be back in the New Year!!

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Holiday Season Part II: Spreadable Meat and Hot Wine

Cultural Differences, French Food, Holidays in France, Uncategorized

Alright, so we already know my favorite USA Christmas things…now for France!

7) Animatronics.  Yeah, that’s right…animatronics, love ‘em.  A merry band of robotic, glassy-eyed zombie bears playing Christmas Carols = awesome!  (maybe I’ve been watching too much Walking Dead)    This is something that I discovered last year during the Christmas season in France and that I found very random/charming.  I mean, don’t get me wrong – it’s not like I’ve never seen animatronics at home but I feel like there are more of them here in France during the holidays…which totally confuses me.  When I think of the French I think of them being uber-cool; I do not think of them as being animatronics people  (then again, Euro Disney has managed to survive) so it was quite a surprise when I started to notice Christmas animatronics all over town…at the marchés, at the magasins, at the malls, even at Carrefour.  Who would have ever suspected that the French would embrace something so…well, geeky?  Jerry Lewis probably would have guessed it.

6) The Chocolate Aisle ON STEROIDS.  In a previous post I wrote about the chocolate aisle at the grocery stores in France and all its glory (https://breadispain.wordpress.com/2012/08/08/chocolate-frogs-and-salty-dogs/).  Well, imagine that aisle winning the Tour de France 7 times on ‘roids and you would have the Christmas chocolate aisle.  (woah…did she just make an inappropriate joke about Lance Armstrong?  NOT cool)  Actually, once the holiday season arrives it isn’t even an aisle anymore but an entireSECTION of the grocery store, a section filled with mountainous towers of Lindt Truffles, Kinder Surprise, and Lanvin l’escargot (why shouldn’t chocolates be shaped like snails, don’t judge).  What’s even more nefarious awesome is that these sections are usually right at the entrance of the store…that’s right, the same masterminds at Carrefour (cue thunderclap and eerie music) who will only have three registers open on a Saturday afternoon have managed to figure out that forcing you through this chocolate mini-nation will effectively force you to buy some.  There is no defense against it…and I embrace that; if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em!

5) CRAZY Christmas Lights (part II).  Okay, so we have established that in the U.S. people go a little over the top decorating their houses…in France it is not like that, in France they keep their decorum at home and instead go over the top decorating their towns.  All over the city centres there are lights running up and down the streets, maybe hanging over the streets, dangling down the sides of buildings, and hanging from every light pole.  And it isn’t just the main streets; you can find light displays on the smaller side streets as well.  You will never walk down an un-festive street and it really makes going into town more fun…especially when that special Grenoble “icnoain” (that would be ice/snow/rain) is pissing down out of the sky (no bitterness).  The only thing that could make this more fun and awesome would be if they would take the decorations down during the rest of the year instead of leaving them up which violently murders Christmas spirit…evil.*

4) Spreadable meat.  Now, I realize that spreadable meat in France is not just attached to the Christmas season but I’m using it as one of my favorite things anyway because much like the grocery store chocolate it is just MORE at the Christmas season.  For instance, MB and I might normally have a can or two of pate lying around for a party or some such occasion but just last week we bought over 40euros worth of pates and foie gras creations (because you can stuff everything with foie gras and shove it in a can…including magret canard which we discovered is amazing) from a vendor at the neighborhood market because…well, it was there.  Do you remember what happens if you get the Gremlins wet (if not, rent the Christmas classic Gremlins and enjoy 80s ridiculousness at its finest)?  Well, that is pretty much what happens to pate in France during the holidays.  Normally, there might be one stand at your neighborhood market and a shelf or two at the grocery store; but during Christmas time, it multiplies.  Suddenly, it’s like you can’t get away from spreadable meat options – they are everywhere, taunting you with their fatty goodness, duck, goose, wild boar, rabbit, all of them mixed together.  Whatever kind of spreadable meat situation you want, you can have in France during the holidays…just remember to take your Lipitor.

3) Vin Chaud.  Wine is already tremendous.  It is fruity, it is alcoholic, it comes in a wide variety of flavors, and (saints be praised) it is even good for you…in moderate amounts blah blah blah…fine print…blah blah.  So how could wine possibly become any more comforting and awesome?  Not possible, right? WRONG – heat that b-tch up and make it spicy.  In England they call it mulled wine, in France it is vin chaud (hot wine…which sounds funny so I like to say it) and is basically red wine with a variety of spices in it, heated up.  Again, it’s one of those few things that makes winter worth struggling through and definitely one of my favs about being in France during the holidays.

2) Easy Presents.   Okay, so this isn’t necessarily a French Christmas thing but it is a Christmas thing for me while living in France so I’m using it.  Living in a country that produces some of the yummiest food products in the world makes Christmas shopping ridiculously easy.  While other people back home are searching to find those perfect gifts for their loved ones, all I have to do is buy some cheese and spreadable meat and we’re all good.  And the best part is that everyone always loves it, in fact I don’t think anyone in the history of the world has received a gift box of French food and not been happy.  I wouldn’t be surprised if the Roman provincial governors were sending back parcels of Gallic goodies home.

Two Roman sentinels are stationed in Gallic territory and standing outside the praetorium shooting the breeze.

Gaius:  So, what are you going to send Aurelia and the boys for Saturnalia?

Sextus:  I don’t know, you know, the boys want some swords but clearly that is better bought in Rome.

They kick a passing Gaul and laugh to each other.

Sextus:  I think Aurelia wants a new dress.  I’ll probably just get a gift certificate.

Gaius:  No way!  It’s not personal – Helena tells me it’s tacky so I’ve never gotten her one.

Sextus:  Well, alright tough guy, what are you sending?

Gaius:  Gallic Gift Baskets.

Sextus:  Huh?

Gaius:  You know food from the region, specialties.  I make my slave put it together – it’s awesome.  Always a hit!

Sextus:  Really?

Gaius:  Yeah, everyone loves Gallic food, come on.  It’s better than having everything taste like garum!

SCENE.

I’m pretty sure that is exactly how it all went down.  However, the point is that not only do I not have to fight holiday shopping crowds but I also have the assurance that the gift will be well-received.  High-five, France!

1) Marche de Noel.  In the U.S. we have Marchés de Noël…they are called malls.  In France (and all of Europe really) most towns have these ridiculously adorable Marchés de Noël that do not involve Forever 21 or Taco Bells**; these marches, on the other hand,  are like delightful little alpine villages that crop up in the middle of your city centres.  The marchés have little pathways that weave around small stands with vendors selling a variety of games, toys, etc (most of it is crap but you know…still cute), there might be some musicians (they may or may not be animatronic) and people selling Christmas carols, there will definitely be a large variety of artery-clogging, delicious food (did anyone say foie gras sandwich?), and there will undoubtedly be plenty of vin chaud.  Basically the Marché de Noël manages to combine almost everything I love about Christmas-time in Europe.  It is Christmas spirit and liveliness, cheerful people and music…and an unhealthy dose of booze and high-fat foods.

*I could go on about this subject for a very long time as it is something that has irritated me the entire time I have lived in France.  WHY oh WHY can they not take down the decorations in the off-season?  I mean, won’t that give people jobs…not to mention make it possible for me to see them without screeching in annoyed outrage?

**This is not a diss to Taco Bell.  I love Taco Bell with every fiber of my being, yes, I know what is in it and no, I don’t care whatsoever.  I would eat 5 burrito supremes right now if I could.