Paris does up the decorations at Christmas, but its excesses seem to have a limit. It prefers to show off, but its interests are more internal. New York shines brightly during the holidays, and enough is never enough. When you walk through Paris during the holiday season, however, despite the shimmer and shine of the boulevards and department stores, you don’t get quite the same sense of individual decorations or, let’s face it, desperate overindulgence, as you do even in Manhattan. People are much more private here. They take the holiday for the time off but the goodwill toward all is really a bit much.
It’s rare to see someone’s nicely decorated Christmas tree shining through a window in Paris. It’s rare to see anything in a window other than a desperate smoker puffing into the breeze from above the street through an open shutter than to see into an apartment. The French close their windows to the public. They draw their “volets” against prying eyes from the street or, for those within, to the sights of the street outside. You’ll occasionally see a not-bad Christmas tree in many a tiny foyer in Paris, but to me they’re all a little sad.
The more dazzling Christmas decorations are mainly public displays of gaudiness rather than individual shows of festive vulgarity as in the U.S. The Avenue des Champs-Elysées, which is not quite as hellishly congested as Times Square but equally irritating for the unassuming pedestrian, goes all out with a panoply of seasonal gleam. And you see quite charming displays in different neighborhoods, such as the Rue de Courcelles in the 17th arrondissement, which has lovely strings of lights above the street, rather like Columbus Avenue in Manhattan. The patisseries of Paris also display their seasonal specialties, like those delicious bûches de Noël, or later, the galettes des Rois for the feast of the Epiphany in early January. You get a sense of the season, but only up to a point. You can have too much decoration.
And within the apartments, not much at all. It’s rare to see a wall display of Christmas cards sent from friends and loved ones. Cards aren’t quite as big a deal in France as they are (or as they used to be) in the U.S. It’s more customary to send a card to welcome in the New Year (if you do bother to send a card) than to wish someone a Merry Christmas or even Season’s Greetings. So you offer “meilleurs vœux” or best wishes, in lieu of something particularly religious (regardless that all major Catholic feast days are public holidays in France ). When I first sent holiday cards to my friends in France, often in early December, most of them were astonished to receive something Christmassy so long before the actual date. And when I added “meilleurs vœux” to the “Joyeux Noël” they were taken aback by my rush toward welcoming in a new year.
The new year in France is important not just for the marking of time, but for the start of the first of the twice-yearly sales (or “soldes“). So you hold off your good wishes until the prospect of saving money is right around the corner. Unlike in the United States, where everything’s on sale all the time, sale dates are pretty restricted in France: about a month in January into February and then for another month in the summer.
Still, the French do celebrate. Christmas may be for giving, after all, but it’s also for feasting. You just keep it to yourself, or in the family. And it’s not Christmas all the time, or at least not what I have been used to at home.
Certain films do turn up year after year around this time, rather like perennial showings of A Christmas Carol or White Christmas in the States. While there’s no French Hallmark Channel with 24 hours of Christmas dreck (often addictive), certain holiday movies (or certain movies that become holiday staples) are shown on television. One perennial is La Grande Vadrouille, with Bourvil, Louis de Funès and Terry-Thomas, a comedy about the Occupation, but another, and one of the more memorable, at least to me, is Le père Noël est une ordure (or Santa Claus is a piece of filth – or worse), a black comedy about a suicide prevention hotline (there’s one particularly gruesome and, yes, hilarious, suicide in a phone booth), as well as a string of macabre run-ins and pileups, including other deaths and also a bitter man in a Santa Claus suit. It’s funnier than it seems. Though it might pay to be French to really appreciate it (the late Nora Ephron did a wan remake in the 1990s).
But movies like Le père Noël est une ordure offer a particular French take on Christmas: a time of year when despite spending a few days en famille you really want to mock the solemnity of force-fed seasonal mirth and laugh at other people’s dire misfortunes.