Christmas has been and gone. For us this year it was a peaceful moment, just the 2 of us. On Christmas Eve we had a nice table with a candle for our mums and a fire in the chimney. Geoff had prepared some muscles in dry white wine, and it was lovely. We raised our glasses and enjoyed the evening.
With mum gone 13 months ago, away went a big chunk of my life, with some fond memories of my childhood Christmases….Here is one of them written through the eyes of the child that I was.
It’s early 60’s, and for us kids, Christmas at “High-Barn”*, my grand-parents’ home at the bottom of the Alps, is such an exciting time.
We get there on the train from Montauban, an all-night-journey across France to spend Christmas with uncles and aunties but most importantly with all our cousins. I can’t wait.
Being a large family we have a whole 8-seater-compartment for ourselves on the train, and I sleep blissfully in the luggage space overhead. In Lyon train station in the early hours of the morning we change train, it’s cold and dark and everyone is tired and sleepy on the windy platform but it doesn’t matter. We’ll soon get there.
There, the bedroom for us 5 siblings is just above the big kitchen, 3 enormous and high beds with holes and mounds in the mattresses, it takes ages before you can find the right position in the right hole to snuggle into and let go. Mum has made us some hot water bottles and carefully checked the corks are right in.
The toilets are down the corridor, turn right on opening the bedroom doors. The floor is tiled and cold and when you lift the heavy wooden lid there is a deep hole from where all sorts of beasts live, ready to pounce and take me down never to be seen again. It’s a nightmare when I need to pee during the night. I would rather pee in bed. It’s not bad to start with as it’s warm for a while and then I have to move my body sideways so as to avoid the wet patch. And because the unheated room is so damp in those wintry days, the bed never dries out during our time there. It’s a question of piling on anything I can get my hands on like towels or old clothes from the dressing up wardrobe and then I don’t feel the damp anymore.
May be grand-ma wont notice.
Our mum and dad’s bedroom is at the end of the corridor in the other direction. It is such a long way I would never venture there in the middle of the night. The moonlight throws terrifying shadows that creep along the corridor through the countless shutterless windows.
4pm on Christmas Eve- I am a small girl and my nose is stuck to the glass of the heavy kitchen door: snow is falling, thick and fast and it’s magical: We’ll soon be making snow-balls and play in the snow.
But first we’ll get the pine branches to make up the big Christmas tree in the dining room. It is all excitement and laughter. Uncle Henry and Uncle Yves are leading the way through the woods behind the house and choosing the branches to be cut to make up our tree. In the snow we can see all sorts of delicate animals’ foot-prints. In the trees above red squirrels are playing. Shouldn’t they be hibernating? A few years later we’ll be horrified to find dozens of them dry and stiff in the attic: they came in through the chimneys, escaping hunger and cold we thought but could not get back out…Poor little things….We get busy and return with frozen cheeks and laden with branches.
The thick and tall hollow trunk onto which the branches will be housed has been fetched from the barn and soon there is a magnificent impressive Christmas tree standing tall and proud, kissing the ceiling. Out of the boxes beautiful delicate shiny balls and a whole bunch of precious looking ornaments are being hung, held first in our little hands then passed on like little treasures to the adults…finally the tiny candles in their little cases are pegged onto the end of the branches ready to be lit later ….It’s all magical.
Next door, in the “green room” the nativity scene has been built and we can admire little Jesus with his bright eyes, in his basket. He is naked but doesn’t seem to mind the cold. Some shepherds have lost a leg or an arm, Mary looks a bit tired and one of the 3 kings has gone or hasn’t arrived yet….But the donkey and the cow are there looking after everyone. All is good.
7pm- Dinner time and us children are called in to sit quietly on the benches around the big kitchen table. There are about 15 of us waiting to be served. Grand-ma has prepared some soup for us but because it is Christmas Eve, Oh joy! we start with pudding! the mums and dads are standing behind us ready to help the youngest ones, chatting about this and that and laughing. They are so happy to be with each other. We’re so happy too, we know we won’t be forced to eat that soup tonight…
8pm- All in bed with a hot bottle in a woolly sock.
11pm- Because of the anticipating of what’s coming later on tonight, it has taken us a long to settle, but we’re all fast asleep when mum wakes us up to get ready for the midnight mass. We get dressed in our Sunday best half-asleep and confused somewhat. Outside the snow, the cold night, the big moon, the adults talking loudly about whom in who’s car…. And off to the cathedral down town. It takes us about 20 minutes; there is ice on the pavement and Christmas lights above. The cathedral is lit with hundreds of candles and all is so beautiful. Any thought of the incredible cold inside the church is put aside. The singing is glorious and powerful and will stay with me for years to come. We little ones fall asleep during the one-hour long Latin mass and will be carried out to the cars.
Sometimes after 1.30am we walk in the dining room that has been prepared for a feast: The adult table under the large crystal candelabra is beautifully dressed with porcelain and silver on the immaculately pressed white embroidered linen. The children table a couple of feet away is ready with hot chocolate and croissants, the Christmas tree is showing off with its dozens of lit candles and under it, oh! Yes! There are presents everywhere on top of all those shoes, in a circle under the tree. There is a “papillotte”**or two in every shoe. I am 6 or 7 and my “papillotes” delight me no end. It is now so noisy and fun with all the bangers and the laughter.
With so many people around in the dining room, the temperature has risen and it feels warm and cosy. Children are opening their presents with shrieks of happiness and adults are warming up with a sherry or two. Mums and dads are smiling. Some of them have chosen to stand with their back sides to the roaring fire. Grand-pa has fetched his special brew: William pear schnapps. Grand-ma is busy going to and fro to the kitchen overlooking the preparations of her goose.
Soon there are 12 or 14 adults around the table tucking into the oysters, salmon, foie gras and shrimps. Grand-ma gets a big: Ohhhhhh!!! of delight from everyone when she brings in the goose. The champagne is popping and everyone is having a jolly good time. The hot chocolate is delicious but we are more enthralled with playing with our presents.
And much too soon it’s time to get back to our cold, sometime wet beds, oops, but we feel on top of the world: Father Christmas hasn’t forgotten anyone and we have a few more days left to play together. How could life be any better…..
* “High barn” is a straight translation from “Grange-Haute”.
** A “Papillotte” was a specialty of the town of Lyon. Is it still now? I don’t know…. In those days it was a good quality chocolate fudge or candied fruit, first wrapped in a little glossy paper with a quiz or a joke printed on it, then wrapped again with a bright and shiny coloured paper without forgetting a little banger in it too.