Wednesday, January 2, 2008


Christmas lights began going up at the beginning of November, and I expect they will come down next week, when school starts again and the holidays are over. But what lights they have been. We have been used to fairly effulsive Christmas lights and attendant decorations in America, from the tasteful and restrained wreaths (with bows that match the sofa inside) of our city neighborhood to the nativities shaped out of chicken wire in parts of my hometown. And, always, the flourishes that decorate lampposts and line busy streets: bells, stars, candles, the bells always silver or gold, the stars always white, the candles generally yellow but occasionally venturing towards red or green. Everywhere we've lived in America the decorations have been about the same, like they are all turned out by some company in Kansas that uses the same designers as Hallmark, and all the designers have agreed on the same model of a Currier and Ives Christmas.

We are not in Kansas anymore. Every village has its own set of lights and its own interpretation of the holiday, and I have not seen any repeats. Valbonne, across the valley and over the hill, has strung white and blue stars across its narrow pedestrian streets; the white stars alternate lighting up with the blue. Along the main road there is a string of white light bulbs that swings between the plane trees, and a sign over the road that wishes all who pass beneath it Joyeuses Fetes. Biot, on the far side of the valley, went Valbonne one better: its illuminated sign across the main road reads: Le Village de Biot Vous Souhaite des Bonnes Fetes, while Mougins, home to a lot of English expats, chose Mougins Vous Souhaite Joyeux Noel Happy Christmas, for those non-French speakers who don't have time to consult a dictionary while driving.

Up the hill in Le Rouret, the church is outlined in blue lights and the sign between the church and the town hall is trimmed in quantities of white tinsel: Joyeuses Fetes, but this time in block letters instead of the more staid and evidently traditional cursive. Opio, our nearest village, chose the tasteful, understated 2008 in lights over the first rond point, and Bonnes Fetes over the second. The Opio church tower is outlined in lights, and, at the top of the tower, there is a--probably it is a star, but really, it looks like an asterisk, or an enormous jack from a child's game, and each spoke lights up in turn until they are all lit, and then it flashes a few times before going dark and beginning again.

The merchants at the rond point where we are regular customers all pooled together for their decorations. They took plastic mineral water bottles and cereal boxes and wrapped them in red and gold shiny paper, and strung them from the evergreens. They covered the plane trees with blue flashing lights and fat red tinsel garlands. They hung Santas from every possible place-- windows, lamp posts, archways--an addition that is somewhat startling if your (American) Santa climbs down the chimney from the rooftop instead of up the house on a rope or a ladder, as does Pere Noel. When the nylon Santa dolls, clinging to their ropes or ladders, twist in the wind, it is hard not to think of Billie Holiday singing Strange Fruit, and if you are looking for cultural dislocation, well, there you are. Figures of men hanging from lampposts, windowsills, sides of houses are just Santas in this part of the world, and, if someone lit a cross in their front yard, it might be for the light and warmth (I'll let you know at Easter).

The overall effect at our shops was of decorations done by slightly intoxicated preschoolers: irregular, awkward, asymmetrical, unselfconscious, joyous. Even the Santas. Wherever the merchants bought the first few Santas must have sold out, because they are all different, different material, different sizes, even different shapes. So I think that there was not a plan for this last July, or ten Julys ago. They went out and bought what they needed, when they needed it, and if they could get by without buying something, then they did. No Christmas decoration catalogue came in the mail from Kansas. No one with an MBA did a study that showed that we would all spend more money if there was an extra Pellegrino mineral water bottle wrapped in shiny red paper and dangling from a tree. Decorating for Christmas is an American import, I know, but it has changed into something very French: beauty and decoration for their own sake, not for profit.

All season the village decorations have been reminding me of something and finally last night I figured out what it was. The girls had gone to a friend's house for a slumber party, and C. and I went looking for a restaurant open on New Year's night. We walked down a street that was decorated in white and gold and red squiggles, all lit up and bobbing in the breeze, and I thought of Whoville. Such an American connection to make: Dr. Seuss's Grinch. Whoville in the Christmas cartoon of my childhood was covered in just the sort of random, bizarre, brightly colored decorations as we have enjoyed for the past few weeks. The decorations are Seussian--Seussian gothic, maybe, if you include the Santas.

I had worried a little about putting on Christmas in a foreign country, away from all of our usual traditions, worried that it wouldn't feel like Christmas. But I think it worked. Family and friends who are family came, and we decorated and cooked and talked and ate and talked some more, which is what we always do, and, what was different, we hiked and went to museums and open-air markets. And on Christmas Eve we went outside and looked up at the stars and drank eggnog, and came inside and sang carols that we knew by heart. So we honored the holiday.

And, as I think back over it, our holiday itself seems Seussian. Without all the parties and shopping and rushing around that have been such a feature of Christmas, we celebrated anyway. I have always loved the ending of the Grinch. When the Whos gather around the tree in the village place and sing Welcome, Christmas! come this way, my eyes always well up. And here, in this strange new place, festooned with beribboned water bottles and Santas hanging from the lamp posts, I have felt like a Who: Welcome, Christmas! Bring your cheer. Welcome all Whos, far and near. Christmas Day will always be, just as long as we have we.

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