The Un-extended Family Christmas

That’s it, then. The first page of the Christmas Radio Times has been consulted. The tree from Intermarché has been stuffed into the old chimney pot we brought with us from Sheffield and expertly decorated by the women folk. All along the route from here to Brive, Father Christmases are busy clambering over illuminated houses. The weather is getting colder and Phil Spector’s Christmas Album has been dusted off for another year. Yes, the Yuletide season is upon us once again. So bring us a figgy pudding!

Yesterday afternoon I went to my first Christmas drinks party: an intimate affair in nearby Turenne, l’un des plus beaux villages de France, in a Wendy house that has been converted tastefully into a small-but-perfectly-formed gîte. Plenty of mulled wine, mince pies and festive conversation. Everyone there, including us, will be here for the Christmas weekend.

It’s at Christmas that the expat can be particular susceptible to homesickness. During the ‘farmhouse years’, when we knew precious few compatriots and The Daughter was but an infant, we were both conscious of our fellow villagers, all gathering together with their extended families to enjoy the customary 36 courses on Christmas Eve. We felt excluded and… yes, not a little lonely. We both hankered after an extended family Christmas back home. So once, or maybe twice, we made the epic journey north. The A20 hadn’t quite been finished in those days, the globe had not yet warmed quite so alarmingly, and – because the ferry companies ramped up their prices to target hapless home-goers like us – the cost was alarming.

Once in England, we soon realised the folly of our ways. At the best of times, traffic in the UK is hellish; at Christmas it’s positively apocalyptic. You rush hither and thither, visiting friends and relatives, living out of a suitcase and spending much of the time, when most self-respecting folk are tucked up warm and snug within the bosom of their family, driving up and down motorways in weather that’s fit for neither man nor beast. And when we got back, neither refreshed nor relaxed after our exhausting trip, we returned to a glacial house that would demand at least four days’ worth of wood before an equitable temperature was restored.

Now, whenever I feel the slightest bit nostalgic for family Christmases past, I remind myself of one year in particular. It started badly with an argument between parents, with my mother accusing my father of being too merry at too early an hour. Things escalated as the grandparents rushed in to defend their particular offspring and we ‘kids’ chipped in with our two-penny worth. While the battle raged, there was a knock at the front door. I opened it and my giggling younger brother fell over the threshold, drunk as a waiter who has spent his tips on seasonal alcohol. Later, at the meal table, my mother gave a memorably maudlin peroration that concluded with a toast to ‘the fam’ly! Hic. My wonnerfll fam’ly’. Yes, our wonderful extended family – just a couple of years before both of my sisters were divorced, to be followed soon after by their older brother.

And so, for the last decade, we have stayed put. Just the three of us, with no obligations to anyone else, we can please ourselves. Our circle of friends now serves as a kind of extended family. On Christmas Eve, in the tradition of old friends from Sheffield, we invite people over to partake of pink fizz and selected nibbles – and kick them out before 10pm (unless my attempts to get people dancing on our terracotta dance-floor have borne fruit), so there’s time to take in a good film, fill our three stockings with inconsequential gifts and leave a little glass of port and a Clementine on the dining table for the old fellow with the white beard… Now I think of it, isn’t it rather strange that our dog doesn’t wake us with his apoplectic barking: a strange man in a red suit in our sitting room, with a team of reindeer stamping their hooves on the gravel outside? I guess it’s just another miraculous aspect of Christmas.

Nowadays, too, thanks to the miracle of 21st century technology, we can beam by satellite the post-prandial speech of our gracious British Majesty into our outmoded television set on the mezzanine level of our French home. We can even behold our parents and other assorted loved-ones as we speak to them on Christmas morning via Skype.

This year, despite the aversion of wife and daughter to such Yuletide delicacies, I have a Christmas pud of my very own to look forward to. I’ve just bought myself a carton of pre-package crème anglaise to accompany the heaviest dessert known to humanity. There’s a week to go and everything’s almost ready for our umpteenth small-but-unflustered family Christmas in France.

Bring me that figgy pudding, then, and bring it right NOW! Personally, I’m not going till I’ve had one – and I’d advise all my fellow expats to do the same.

Whatever happened to baking, Maria? I remember one year, my dad attempted a Christmas cake. He left it cooking all night on a very low heat, but it was still undercooked when it emerged. I don't miss Christmas cakes that much, but would like to learn how to make a decent mince pie. I miss mince pies, along with crumpets and muffins. Happy Christmas and happy baking.

We will be a deux for Christmas Day (pheasant) and going to English friends in the next village for Boxing Day. I will have friends and neighbours round in the New Year.