Family, for the French, is an enormously important word. It is almost sacred. There are tightly drawn lines of demarcation; one is family, or one is not, and entry into the circle of family is not casually given. Family events are wordlessly restricted to Family, and it is thus, understood by all. To be included in events of anyone’s family is, of course, a special gift; something to be cherished and not taken lightly. But the boundaries of family are so tightly drawn among the French that being welcomed across that threshold is of even more powerful significance. It is something for which one feels blessed.
The French celebration of Christmas is an event called Reveillon, which takes place on Christmas Eve, whereas Christmas Day tends to be a day of recovery. And with good reason. We learned this as we found ourselves, over the years, gradually welcomed across that threshold by our beloved French family in the US. Over some 20 years we grew closer and closer, watching their two daughters grow from charming young girls into beautiful women, celebrating birthdays and a wedding; through good times and some not so good. Then one day, with a sense that “Of course you will be there. Where else would you be?” we were invited. We crossed the threshold into Family, and from that moment, we are now expected to be there, evermore.
Here, now, with our adoptive French family it is the same, and as much as we feel honored and blessed to be included in these intimate family gatherings, so too does the family feel as though it is as normal as night and day that we should be included. There is no question! They have told us, “You are family.” There can hardly be any greater gift.
And so we learned of Reveillon. On either side of the Atlantic it is the same; it is best to be prepared.
It starts deceptively slowly, sometime around 6 pm. There are hors d’oeuvres…wave upon wave of them. I expected the drinking to commence with purpose, but it was restrained at first, with a formal sit-down, plates of finger food, and a slowly sipped glass of champagne. Gradually, however, the pace increased, with an array of foods that makes cardiac surgeons smile with delight and guarantee they can make large, long-term purchases, as business will continue to be good.
There are discs of fois gras wrapped in smoked duck, house-made smoked salmon, myriad tasty bits of seafoods and cheeses wrapped in other tasty bits. There are oysters, incredibly delicious Bretagne oysters, briny and delicate, far more delicate than the fat Chesapeake Bay oysters we know. And each round of these delights is a separate event, each brought on individually and accompanied by a just-right wine for the course. The pace quickens.
It turns out the French don’t cook oysters; the concept of steamed or grilled oysters is unheard of, at least to these French folks in the provinces. So, a couple of days before, when we were told there would be 150 oysters for Christmas Eve and Karen asked if they would like Oysters Rockefeller, she was greeted with blank stares. Undaunted, Karen volunteered to make oh, a couple of dozen for the group, to which they said, “Sure, go ahead. We have plenty.” Kinda felt like they were just humoring her, and they could afford to waste a couple of dozen to keep Karen happy. Well….
Karen prepped all of the toppings, and when we got there the oysters had all been shucked, so she assembled the oysters, placed them on a bed of salt, filled them with the topping of fresh spinach, herbs, butter, Parmesan and breadcrumbs, put them under the broiler, all the while scrutinized with intense interest and no small amount of skepticism by all of the women and some of the men. When the steaming, bubbly oysters appeared, everyone at the table tried one, including three folks who said in advance that they just don’t like oysters, but to be polite they would try one.
Well, let’s just say they were a success. Those three people who don’t like oyster? Every one of them asked for seconds. And then several people asked Karen if she could make more, because we have more oysters! So she dashed off to the kitchen, and about 15 minutes later, appeared with another two dozen, which disappeared instantly.
At this point, Karen leans over to me and says, “I hope nobody asks for a recipe” because she doesn’t work with recipes, and if she does, she would then have to translate not only from English to French, but from American to metric measurements. She had barely said the words when Willy, an avowed oyster disliker, asked me if Karen could give him the recipe. Mission accomplished, Karen!
After the appetizers and the oysters would come the plat, the main course, followed by dessert–a buche de noel, and of course, a proper adult beverage for each course. The ostensible main course didn’t even start till around 11pm, and it would be somewhere between 1 and 3 am before the hardiest participants finally called surrender.
Meanwhile, Anthony had pulled me over and asked, would I do them a favor? Would I be Pere Noel for Elliott, his 3 year-old-son, for whom Karen and I are adoptive American Grandparents ? And, he asked, would I do it for the child in the house down the road?
Good Heavens, Yes! Of course I would. It would be an honor to participate at such an intimate level in such a private experience as a child’s Christmas in a different culture.
So, here’s how it works: The presents are secretly stacked outside the front door. Then Pere Noel (which would be me, dressed in the French Santa Claus costume they just happen to have stored away), knocks loudly on the front door, then walks away down the street as the child opens the door, discovers the presents, and sees Pere Noel walking away. He turns and waves to the child a couple of times as he walks farther and farther down the street and disappears as the child attacks the presents.
I did it twice; once for Elliott and once for the child down the street. It’s kind of magical, and I was thrilled to be asked to do it. I was also happy that the kids didn’t get to see old Pere Noel up close and personal, because to be honest, and maybe because of the adult beverages we had consumed prior, I thought I looked like a deranged homeless person living under a bridge, dressed up as Santa. The picture they took looks like a mug shot.