10 December 2007

’Tis the Season

It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas. In the American suburbs, this will be manifest in the sudden appearance of elaborately decorated houses, brilliantly lit in what the New York Times the other day called “a gift to Con Edison.” Right about now, for a few weeks, the sidewalks of Manhattan will smell not like garbage but like Christmas trees, sold on every corner for a price only slightly lower than that of a comparably sized truffle.

Christmas carols will be playing throughout the Western world, and you can measure the duration of your meal or your shopping excursion by how many times you hear Brenda Lee’s “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree.” I insist that Christmas music isn’t as good as it used to be: what happened? Surely it’s not only that I have now heard the songs so many more times that they have lost the freshness they had when I was six, or that I no longer have the weeks-long pleasure/pain of listening to my mother singing along, often keeping time with her foot on the accelerator. If I can survive that rough treatment, and recall it so fondly, surely I could bear up under any arrangement, no matter how souped-up or treacly or rocked-out.

In Paris, and even in Beynes, decorations have gone up. But the cities of France, possessing more beauty the rest of the year, don’t give themselves a seasonal makeover. Christmas decorations are treated as accessories here, the way a Parisian woman might add a foulard or pin to her already impeccable toilette. Beynes puts up a few lights along the Rue de la République, snowflakes and globes that add a little sparkle to our nightscape, and that make it easier for me to find my keys when I come home in the evening.

Paris, for its part, is already the City of Light. Although it has no objection to a little extra illumination this time of year, it sees no need to compete with London or New York, cities whose Christmases are festooned with tinsel and garlands and are moreover trademarked. There is no Balzac “Canticle de Noël” to rival Dickens’s “Christmas Carol,” and Kris Kringle specifically inhabited Macy’s, not the Galeries Lafayette, in Miracle on 34th Street.

What the Parisians do take seriously, and competitively, is Christmas shopping, and already the crowds are out in force. Late Saturday afternoon, returning from Beynes, I found myself in a Métro jampacked with shoppers. I was unable to stand entirely upright; I had to lean backward over the seat behind me, clutching my backpack before me. My hands were pressed hard against the breasts of the young woman in front of me, in a way that at any other time of year would have gotten me slapped. But I couldn’t lift a finger. Neither could she raise a hand against me. There was nothing for it. We were stuck. In Utah, we would be legally married now. When we came to my stop, she shoved another man out of the way, grateful to let me pass. And I heard her exclaim, as I drove out of sight, “Va crever, espèce de salaud.” I could almost believe myself in New York at Christmastime.

This year, as in many years past, I’ll be spending Christmas with the Boutrits at l’Enclouze. There are advantages to this: we will eat extremely well, for starters, and we are unlikely to hear *NSync’s “It’s Christmas” or Elmo & Patsy’s “Grandma Got Run over by a Reindeer” even once. And it is a fine thing to spend a holiday with my adopted family. Though I’m grateful to anybody who feeds me, on any day, I’m especially grateful to those who take me in at Christmas, and the Boutrits have proven stalwart. Yet it still feels as if I’m intruding on someone else’s holiday. It’s a hard thing to be a grownup without kids: Christmas belongs to them, and not to you, and you find yourself standing to one side and looking at your hands a lot, no matter where you are.

The alternative, however, is to ignore Christmas altogether, not only the holiday but the buildup, and I’m not prepared to do that. If we don’t mark some days as special, then all the years will be the same, and therefore monotonous, humdrum. And I refuse to be a Little Humdrummer Boy. So I play Christmas music, usually when I’m alone, and to get me in the proper spirit, I don’t leave song selections to the public-address system of the department store. I seize control.

I’m a strict traditionalist, for the most part: Julie Andrews, Bing Crosby, Johnny Mathis, and Vince Guaraldi, whose Charlie Brown Christmas album is one of the most potent pieces of art ever known. Apart from Eileen Farrell’s, I’ve never cottoned to opera singers’ Christmas albums: too much egg, not enough nog. But I’ve got an oddball hit list, featuring Cyndi Lauper (“Home on Christmas Day”) and Tammy Wynette (“It’ll buh-yee a ba-LEW Cree-yiss-muss withawut YEW”). I do try to keep the season bright.