Remembering Christmas

Christmas was the most exciting event of the year. Until my sister Mimi moved to Shri Lanka, then Australia following her wedding in 1965, my three sisters, who were always away either in America or Spain would convene for a few days of fun. The food, the decoration of the tree, the bustle, the whispering, and the presents brought on a level of intense excitement, Christmas fever, I suppose. There were Christmas cookies in the shape of trees and Hansel and Gretel made with American cookie cutters and even food coloring bought from the American commissary. There was also Santa who showered us with gifts, until my friend Deirdre at school told me, just before the Christmas of 62, that Santa didn’t exist and that the presents came from one’s parents. It suddenly seemed so logical and would explain the toys I had seen hidden up in the closet, that accepted with no regrets and moved on. Germaine, my nanny, explained that Christmas was all mixed up, that Santa was an American fabrication borrowed from Belgian St Nicholas, the protector of children (there was a gory story attached to that which I can’t remember) who brought Children presents on December 6th. In Spain, by contrast, they did things late and it was the three-star gazing Kings who showered children with gifts on January 6th. “When I was little, she said, Petit Jesus came and put something in our shoes” and continued by deploring what Christmas had become; one big commercial party. My mother looked disappointed but resigned when I told her about Deirdre’s revelation, muttering that Deirdre could have waited until after Christmas. Then she went on to say how when she was a little girl in Mississippi during the great depression, they had a bar of chocolate for Christmas, and maybe an apple and some soda pop. My father said nothing, enjoying the moment and his family. Christmas was something he had only encountered in America during and after the war.

 

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With 
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With Santa in Paris in 1959

The curtain was lifted and I joined into the task of wrapping presents and disposing them under the tree. Beginning in 1966, we moved Christmas to our country house in St Maclou. After a year or two, I convinced my mother to buy a Christmas tree with roots, the after Christmas with the falling needles and dead tree just made me too sad. Everyone agreed and after some years, we had a little forest of Christmas trees in the garden.

 

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Christmas 1960, with my parents and sister Christine 
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My father playing Santa for niece and nephew Catherine and Louis, 1972
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Christmas in St Maclou, 1972 

Part of the fun around Christmas were the presents for everyone else. My pocket money didn’t go very far, so I made them. In the 70’s I had a darkroom, and made calendars for most members of my family, with a photo per month chosen from the ocean of negatives piled into a box in the upstairs closet. I made a big print, then glued it onto the top part of a large sheet of Canson paper and wrote the dates by hand. One year, I stuck too many calendars in a closed room, got high on the glue and was sick the next day.

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My mother playing Santa for Zoe, 1979

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On Christmas day, if the weather permitted, we would drive over to Deauville and walk on the beach and maybe have a coffee on an open café on the Planches. The family grew, and by 1971, Mimi and Louis came yearly over the channel in a ferry with their three children. Santa came back, acted by either of my parents. Little Louis, in awe, said to Santa that he ‘smelled like Mamouche’ his grandmother.

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Beach in winter, Deauville, 1979

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With Germaine, Mimi and Christine, 1979 

In 1979, I moved to India where Christmas was a religious holiday for Christians and since there were none in Himachal, Christmas was just another day. I didn’t try to export it and it remained in France. My sisters had their Christmas with their families and sometimes we joined in, the cookie cutters and the aged food coloring would find their way out of a tin and my children had fun with their cousins.

Now Christmas is everywhere. I first reconnected with it in Singapore and Malaysia in the 90’s then in Thailand where three of my grandchildren were born. It then moved on to China and the Tibetan Plateau, where waitresses in Santa hats served in Tso hotpot restaurants. In India in the age of globalization, it has become a time for parties and fun.

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Cousins, 1996
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Christmas in Paris, 2000

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Paris, 2003 

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