Our first Christmas in Clermont has been nothing short of magical. Since Thanksgiving is not celebrated in France, we found ourselves looking forward to Christmas more than ever this year.
It was so much more subtle than I envisioned. In mid November, we first noticed lights being hung in the streets, but nothing was lit. The big department store in the main square had beautiful while lights cascading down and reflecting onto the square, but that was it. Very slowly, we started to notice a storefront here and there with a hint of Christmas; nothing over the top. As is true with almost all things French, they have a way of doing things so subtly yet tastefully… This was a store front I walk by several times a day and was my favorite by far!
As mid-November passed, the big square at the top of the hill, Place de la Victoire, was blocked off and lined with tiny red huts, a net of lights hanging from overhead, all in preparation for the annual Marche du Noël, the Christmas market here in Clermont. We had heard so many wonderful things about it and were so excited to visit; and it was so close to where we lived! At Christmastime, people flock from all over to Christmas markets all over Europe to sample all kinds of regional food and drink; some are much bigger than others. Ours here in Clermont was our very first and lots of fun!
An entire week was spent setting up the giant Christmas tree (Sapin du Noël) in the center of Jaude, the big main square near our house along with a massive Ferris wheel and a few rides for smaller kids, even a roller coaster! We had heard about it, but could not really believe it until we saw it with our own eyes! We watched as they removed big blocks from the ground in the middle of the square and dug a huge hole several feet down into the ground in which to place the trunk of the tree.
It took several days to decorate the tree and deliver and assemble the many parts to the Ferris wheel. It was so exciting to watch!
The last Friday in November was the Inauguration des Festivités de Noël, the lighting ceremony and the kick-off to all of the Christmas festivities here in Clermont. We were in Paris that weekend but when we returned that Sunday night, we were thrilled to see our entire city all lit up!
The Marche du Noël was finally open so Chuck and I headed up there one night for some vin chaud (hot spiced wine) and a bretzel (big soft pretzel) before dinner out. It was unlike any big soft pretzel I’d ever had…
That first week back was crazy catching up and getting back into the groove after traveling and time with family the week before, so it took us a few days to get back up to the market with the boys. There were so many things to see- all kinds of local handmade items like wool blankets, scarves, jewelry, wooden hand-carved games like chess boards, rubies cubes, etc. The boys were excited to check out all the tiny handmade toys and of course the food! Everywhere you look, there is cheese/sausage/breads/pizzas, oysters, escargot, a regional specialty known as Truffade (sliced potatoes cooked in duck fat and baked with cheese; served with sausage or even more magical- duck confit). There are beignets, macarons, chocolates, candy, cotton candy (barbe à papa) hot spiced cider, wine, etc. Of all the little trinkets there were to pick from, Wells opted for a police gun and handcuff set. The boys opted for a big paper cone stuffed with hot churros covered in cinnamon sugar (I would have picked Nutella or cookie butter!) but they were still to-die-for 🙂
Some years, I feel like we can be slow to get into the Christmas spirit and it may be mid-December before it even feels like Christmas. Maybe we are so busy that we trying to find time to cram in a tradition here or there. Maybe the weather is sunny and mild and not very winter-y.
This year, the first of December started with a big giant snowstorm, where it snowed for 2 days straight! So strange to worry about safely walking (up, over and down a big, steep hill) rather than driving. Of course, there is no such thing as closing school for snow, so off we went that Friday, trudging through the snow, slipping and sliding as the boys stopped every few minutes for a mini-snowball fight. By the time Owen made it to school that day, he was soaking wet. The boys had outgrown their snow boots from home and we hadn’t gotten around to replacing them. Oops.
That weekend, the boys challenged Chuck and I to a snowball fight and of course, they whipped us.
The snowstorm, along with all of the twinkly lights everywhere, beautifully decorated store windows, etc. really got us into the Christmas spirit early this year. While there are some charming parts to this city, overall, Clermont is a city just like any other, filled with trash, graffiti, traffic, etc. and is definitely not known for its aesthetic beauty. But, this city is just so beautiful at Christmastime.
We woke up early that first Saturday and drove to Ikea to get our Christmas tree. You literally park, walk in to pay at the counter, come out, grab a tree and go! Since all the trees are wrapped up in twine, there is no searching for the perfect shape or fullness, etc. You just hope for the best! I’m pretty sure there were other options- driving far out to cut down your own, ordering one online, even opting for a fake tree, but for 25euros, it was just too cheap and easy to pass up.
Though the height was pretty good, our tree was definitely on the thin side, much more slender than trees we have always had. It was looking pretty pitiful standing alone in its stand, but with lights and ornaments (we had less than last year as many had broken during the move) it looked much more festive 🙂
The Christmas trees here in general are much shorter (waist-height) and they typically are sold in a half log for a tree stand. Supposedly, the tree is able to get the nutrients and water that it needs without needing to be watered. They can be found anywhere- even at the grocery store. The city of Clermont gives each store a small tree to decorate and put outside their store front.
The weekend before Christmas we drove south to a Christmas market in the town of Sarlat-Le-Canéda, a few hours away. We left Saturday morning and about 10 minutes outside of Clermont and up over the hills, we found ourselves in the middle of quite a snowstorm! Totally unexpected and we still hadn’t had our snow tires put onto our car yet!
But, we took our time and after about 30 minutes, we were out of the snow and on our way. We had wanted to stop in Rocamadour, an old medieval city in the Dordogne river region on our way.
There are lots of activities to do in Rocamadour during the warmer months, but we didn’t expect the entire city to basically be abandoned. We didn’t see anyone around for the first 20 minutes that we were driving around! We did, however, see multiple cats running around and the boys decided it might be a good idea to chase them in hopes of bringing home a new pet. Many of you know our history with pet cats. These cats all ran for their lives.
It really was strange how no one was around. We finally found a parking lot at the base of the hill and walked down into the town and found a cute restaurant overlooking the gorge.
After lunch and running around (we basically had the whole “city” to ourselves, we continued on to Sarlat-la-Canéda. We had been searching for a Christmas market a little more expansive that was in a different region of France, but didn’t want to spend all weekend in the car. Sarlat had been recommended to us and Chuck had come across it in his research, so we got to our hotel, unloaded our stuff and headed to the market.
By the time we got to the market, it was dark and absolutely freezing, but the market was beautiful with all of its lights and there were a few heat towers here and there to stand next to.
We loved exploring the many different regional foods/drink as well as handcrafted items- hats/scarves/blankets/bags/Christmas decorations/ornaments, and hundreds more things! The theme at the market this year was British, so there were many all kinds of English food and drink also. The boys and Chuck had fish and chips and I opted for some type of pastry/ pie filled with all kinds of root vegetables and duck. It was soooo delicious. Sarlat is in the Périgord noir region of France, which is most notable for much of the duck-related cuisine (especially foie gras, duck confit) but also truffles (yum). One very popular food here in France is duck, especially foie gras, a delicacy which is made from intentionally fattened duck or goose liver. In fact, it is actually French law that the ducks/geese are force-fed corn via a feeding tube for a certain number of days in order to fat them up quickly and systematically- wth? (wikipedia). You can find it literally ANYWHERE/EVERYWHERE here in France. I mean everywhere. It is on every menu, in every grocery store. Even gas stations sell it. It is served in many different forms- pâte, terrine, mousse; mostly spreadable and in cans and jars, but also sausages, etc. It’s its own genre of food here really. Though I have yet to venture into foie gras (and I’m not sure it will ever happen), it does fascinate me how many variations exist for duck liver in cans. We did buy a few little Christmas gifts and I of course had to buy some truffles- truffle butter and a small jar of summer truffles.
And since Chuck and the boys don’t like them, I can have all 2 jars to myself 🙂
The boys were so glad they had waited to get their barbe à papa, because, even though we ordered the petite option (the smallest size), they were the biggest size we have ever seen!
We walked around a bit, but the cold (and a loud group of over-served girls singing the same song over and over and over again) got the best of us, so we headed back to our château. Chuck had looked for a place to stay that could accommodate all 5 of us, which, as I mentioned in a previous post, is not easy to do here in Europe; most rooms only allow 4. We ended up finding a château about 20 minutes away from Sarlat that had “family cabins” in another building adjacent to the main château itself. We drove up a long driveway that wrapped around to a big beautiful estate with fields everywhere for the boys to run, run and run some more. They literally spilled out of the car and ran for 20 minutes. The cabins were great because we had our own space; each of the boys had their own bed and it was quiet and warm (thank you modern heat!) Because our apartment in Clermont does not have a bathtub, I make it a point to take a scalding hot (or ice cold- see Florence) bath in every place we stay that has a tub. And this one was the best 🙂
The next morning, we awoke to freezing rain so we were feeling lazy and didn’t make it over to the breakfast room in the main house until 9:00 (which started at 7:30).
We walked into the most beautiful room where breakfast was being served only to find that we were the very first people there. It was so beautifully decorated with it’s high ceilings and medieval tapestries hanging on the walls, quiet other than some soft Christmas music in the background and perfectly untouched. The food looked almost too beautiful and perfect to eat. And there was literally every single type of food you could imagine eating for breakfast right in front of us.
There was a big beautiful terrace opening up from the dining room out onto the property which I can only imagine would be heavenly to sit out on on a warm night 🙂 But, here we were, the week before Christmas, freezing rain and all and getting to experience the cozy side of things…
We explored the property a bit and imagined how wonderful it would be to stay there in the summer, the pools, the vineyards, the ping pong tables, etc.
We headed home and got ready for our last week of school.
For the boys, it has been a lot of fun to learn about the different Christmas traditions here in France. The younger boys attend a catholic school and so there is a lot of discussion about advent and the coming of Christ throughout the month. They learn songs and poems about Jesus and participate in a small chapel service the last week of school where the priest teaches them about the nativity scene. We are all learning an entirely new set of Christmas vocabulary and though it will only be useful this time of year, it has been fun.
A few weeks before Christmas, the PTA at school sells all kinds of beautiful handmade wreaths and Advent wreaths in the school yard after school. Each one was decorated so uniquely- it was hard to choose!
They use several-day old, dried out brioche bread rings as the base of the wreath from which they adorn with fresh greens, different colored ribbon, holly, dried fruit, candles, stars, angels, etc. So clever!
A few days before they are dismissed for the Christmas break, there is a Christmas market at their school where the children each bring a few euros to spend on small gifts for their families. Although I haven’t participated much in the PTA or volunteering up to this point, I had signed up to work the market and it was so much fun. I was stationed at the candle table, lined with tons of tiny different candles, candle holders, sparkly LED light up ornaments, etc. It was such a treat having a chance to talk to all the cute little French kids and as a bonus, to practice my French, too!
Their annual Christmas concert is held in the big cathedral at the top of the hill one evening. Each of the boys’ 3 classes spent the month practicing songs to perform that night, both in English and in French. Watching the boys stand up there in the beautiful, massive cathedral, it all came together for me. The last year and a half has been so crazy for these kiddos. So many uncertainties, day in and day out for all of us, but especially them. But, when I saw how comfortable and at ease they seemed up there in front of several hundred French students and parents, I realized that they have now completely settled into their lives here. I never could have imagined last year what it would be like to see them up there singing in French.
The next day, we had a cookie decorating party for all the kids before everyone headed out for their Christmas travels. My friend Michelle was kind enough to open her home to 25 kids! I was excited to have a chance to bake several dozen cookies but with all the ingredients being different over here than back home, I still think I have some tweaking to do. Luckily, I don’t think the kids noticed 🙂
The boys were in school all the way up to the Friday before Christmas. As school wrapped up it also meant that, sadly, it was time to say goodbye to the Pfohls, one sweet family that was moving back to Greenville the next day. We joined a huge group of our friends for a farewell dinner that night. Wells was especially sad- Josie has been Wells’ bestie since we moved here last summer. It has been really sweet for these 2 kiddos to be together in school again (they were in K4 preschool together back in Greenville). I”ll always be thankful to Josie for taking Wells under her wing. She has really looked out for him, showed him the ropes in French school, and has been one of his only English-speaking friends.
Sadly, there will probably be some re-adjusting for him when school resumes, but this is one of the difficult parts of this experience- saying goodbye to friends when their assignment is up and the time comes for them to move back home. Sad for us, exciting for them!
It felt strange to be finishing up school so close to Christmas Day because there were still so many things we wanted to do before Christmas! Movies, gingerbread houses, shop, send cards! But, as time does, the week before Christmas flew by and we decided we would get done what we could but only if it meant stopping to enjoy the where and when. We spent the weekend doing some last minute shopping and baking/decorating a ton of cookies.
On Christmas Eve, we stopped by a bakery and picked up a Bûche de Noël (Christmas log), a traditional cake to have with the Christmas meal, Owen had learned about it at school and we were all curious to try it! We opted for vanilla and honestly, it was just ok. It definitely looked better than it tasted, though none of us are big fans of sponge cake, I guess.
Christmas Eve afternoon, it was finally dry and warm enough to ride the Ferris wheel. What a cool way to see our entire city from so high up!
Christmas Eve was crazy busy in Jaude, there were so many people out walking around, eating, music was playing, bubbles were everywhere!
Everyone was shopping even late into the evening- gathering last minute things for their Christmas meals- the butchers, bakeries, patisseries and chocolatiers were all swarming with people! We went to a nice Christmas Eve service at our little church up in the hills and then home for dinner. This year, instead of a fancy dinner we had a “favorites” meal where everyone picks their favorite dish- on the menu: French toast casserole, cheese grits, sausage, and homemade applesauce and cherry Dr Pepper. I didn’t really see the point in spending hours preparing a some gourmet meal when my crew would rather eat this anyhow 🙂
Christmas Day was very low key. It was the first sunny day we’d had in easily 3-4 weeks and so, though it was cold, we headed out to for a long walk so the boys could get some Christmas energy out. The sun was SUCH a treat!
The next few days were completely quiet. It just might be the laziest 3 days we’ve had. There was lots of sleeping, lots of all-day-pj-wearing, not-leaving-the-house, video game playing, Christmas-cookie-eating, yummy-warm-beverage-drinking. We were counting down the hours until our Mac and MaMac would arrive just a few days later!