Somehow, carrying the snails falls to me. With the boatload of wrapped presents and scarves and gloves that will be lost within eight steps out into the street and small children who may likewise need carrying and possibly be misplaced in a momentary panic, I hoist two stacked platters of Burgundy snails.

They have been prepared in parsley and garlic butter to be recooked at my in-laws’ house. It’s more than a little dumb that I’m arriving with this particular dish because I’m the only one of the group not from around here. Not only not from Burgundy, where I helped pull these snails out of a dewy meadow this past July and where their cold weather preparation is the crowning regional specialty, but I am not of this nation. I’m not of this culture or even this particular coterie of exempted taste buds. The only thing I ever did with snails, before landing abroad, was proceed at their pace.

But I go, quickly now, with the gifts in one arm and the platters placed on top of another and held aloft like a waiter who really just wants to act. My wife and two girls descend the staircase and head off into the evening where it’s been snowing.

As we walk, the glow from the square comes into view. Dijon’s Arc de Triumphe shines at night welcoming free people to the city, but its lights are outdone this time of year by a canopy of Christmas decorations twinkling silver, blue, green and red. Under them sits the kiddie ride and a crêpes stand.  We stop briefly because the girls want one go-around on the enchanted train. While we watch, my wife brings vin chaud, the hot mulled wine the crêpes guys are tending in a giant steaming vat next to the burners and tankers of Nutella.

I set down some bags in the snow to free up one hand, still holding the snail platters in the other like I’m here to serve the town square. I take a sip of the beverage.  It is a hot wave of winter bliss signaling one joyous thing:  the holiday drinking has begun.

From there, we scamper to the in-laws and extended family who’ve been waiting. We climb the stairs and burst inside.

In the crowded living room, all the faces turn toward us and immediately form into a gauntlet of cheek bisous.  Two kisses for each of us.  My father in-law like a triumphant Viking and my brother-in-law and like a Velcro strap that catches on my own stubble.  I get gentle ones from my mother and sister-in-law and a shaky one from the grandmother, La Mamie, who pretends to understand my American accent through her new iPod-like hearing aid.

Champagne is ferried into the room. The cork is popped and the amuse-bouches, small salty puff pastries on little spoons, are passed around. We raise glasses and everyone clinks.  We must now perform a completely new round of greetings and well wishes, all over again.  La Mamie downs her glass first. Our daughters vacuum up their Coca-Cola through festive straws. The room will be spinning for them before it will for us.

To the table we drift, where the seating arrangement is momentarily complicated, because my sister-in-law’s father will fight with his son if they’re beside one another and my wife shouldn’t go next to him either because they might get into politics and the evening will take an even louder turn after she ends up referring to newly nominated socialist presidential candidate François Hollande as Porcinet (Piglet). Also, someone get La Mamie a more comfortable chair, for the love of dieu. The shouting kicks off earlier every year.

Serving trays the size of surfboards holding an assortment of oysters, scampi, crayfish, crabs and lobsters alight before our eyes. Seafood is a tradition that still surprises me every time. It is complimented, naturally, with some Burgundy white wine, a Pernand-Vergelesses, for starters, with other whites and several reds waiting in the wings, in case anyone was worried about sobriety.

We tuck into the food.  No prayer is uttered.  No word of Jesus or the reason for season is spoken.  We are merely together and that is its own divinity. I lean back in my chair, pulling away from the scampi, la langoustine géante, that I’ve still only half cracked and that my daughters are eating like a pair of tiny, incredibly cute jackals. I tune out briefly amid the now well-lubricated chatter rising and joining together in an invisible cloud of dipthongs somewhere just above our heads.

Has it been a good year? Did things honestly get worse the way everyone seems to be saying? Or does the real downhill start from here? More specifically, did I contribute anything of value in the twelve months since I was last at this table? Am I finally satistified to be where I am?

A CNN article recently reported that 59 percent of Americans live in the same state they were born in.  I still haven’t stopped asking myself what if I were one of them.  Why, for Christ’s sake, have I flung myself so far?

I remember always the Christmases before, candlelight services flubbing “Silent Night” while playing in the church bell choir, a new Walkman under our family tree, Charlie Brown’s Christmas special and eating candy canes until they formed a sharp enough point for me to poke myself in the tongue. I remember stepping outside for a minute in socks on our family’s hushed street and listening to the smoke from the chimneys of neighboring houses. I think back to the meals and gifts of yore along with the recent holidays past in anticipation of the similar one coming tonight.

We will come around eventually to the snails. Having been delivered to the kitchen, they’re served with a specially designed tongs and tiny two-pronged forks. If my boyhood self were to witness what I put in my mouth for Christmas in this century, he would never stop gagging.

But these days, I look forward to it.  The snail consumption marks a coalescence of this singular celebration, this singular timeout in the march toward middle age and this singular country that has had the good grace to adopt a slack-jawed space cadet like me.  After twelve messy, hurried months, this odd grouping of folks is together again, reassembling the magic.

This fête has its moments. Any dwelling on other places, near or far, could just as easily be forgotten.

After all, it’s time already for gifts.

 

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NATHANIEL MISSILDINE lives in Dijon, France with his wife and two daughters. He is the author of the 2012 travel memoir SAVE FOR FIREFLIES as well as a recently completed novel. Online writings, by turns comical and puzzling, are on display over at nathanielmissildine.com.

21 responses to “I’ll Be Home for Noël”

  1. Gloria says:

    …held aloft like a waiter who really just wants to act. – – what a great line.

    I also love the image of a tanker of Nutella. That’s precisely the right vessel for Nutella. Mmm… Nutella…

    The Holiday Drinking commenced for me sometime just before Thanksgiving. The Post Holiday Liver Nursing will commence right around January 1st. And this line, “The room will be spinning for them before it will for us.” Yes. T and I will be detoxing from all the holiday sugar on 1/1 as well. 🙂

    I love your, writing, Nathaniel. You make every tale a peaceful, loping walk somewhere not unpleasant.

    Merriest Christmas to you and your family.

  2. pixy says:

    this reminds me of the christmas i spent in england, the land where i knew no one. it’s still the best christmas i’ve had. i was welcomed into a tiny, hearty 1200 year old home, stuffed into a dining room far too small for the amount of people there, gorged on food and kicked ass at their version of gin (beginners luck). sure, there were disagreements and fighting, but everyone was in it together and it was ALL for the kids and that’s what was and has been lacking in all my christmases before and after that one.
    i would love to see what a seafood-filled french christmas is like!

    • I’d love to hear more about the English Christmas, in fact, from you and our Brit contributors here.

      Meanwhile, if you ever feel like sampling the Franco-version for real, there’s always an open seat in front of the seafood platter. Thanks for commenting and happy holidays!

  3. This is lovely, and the moment’s lovely. Lovely, lovely, lovely! And of course you always have well-placed lines like this one that blow me away: “We are merely together and that is its own divinity.”

    When I lived in Binghamton, NY, which is only three hours from the city, I was completely dumbfounded to learn that none of my elderly neighbors who’d lived in Binghamton all of their lives had ever been to the city. I’m not sure they’d ever been anywhere else. In a way, I wish I knew what it was like to be that anchored to one place. I can’t really imagine it. I think I would hate it — but maybe I’m just saying that because I have experience to compare it to.

    I can tell you, though, if I had to be confined to one place it would be the France of your essays!

    Did I mention this was lovely?

    • Thanks Cynthia, that’s a true compliment that you’d want to linger here. You really oughta make your way over to this soil and chronicle the experience for yourself.

      And I have that same near-jealousy toward folks who’ve never left their small pond. I’d undoubtedly hate it too, but it still makes me want for that long-held anchor.

  4. I really like this a lot, Nat. Smooth and evocative. Gloria has already mentioned my two favorite lines, so I won’t bother. The problematic seating was a big part of my holiday as well. A vat of mulled wine would have helped. You have my vote for Best Christmas Post by a long margin.

    • Thank you, Sean. You, likewise, are welcome à la table anytime. The Christmas post can be a minefield of saccharine, but then again I’m capable of finding myself in this minefield year-round, festive seasonal warmth or non. Hope you worked out the seat assignments. The mulled wine has been set aside for you.

  5. Lisa Rae Cunningham says:

    Hey Nathaniel. What lovely holiday cheer. I loved the foreigner in a French Christmas perspective, and your point of view is unique as always. Happy 2012!

  6. D.R. Haney says:

    Hey, Nat, if you have any leftover snails, bring them up to my place. Me and Sean are throwing a New Year’s Eve party, in case you didn’t notice, and there are some French people on hand, so the missus should feel at home. But you’ll definitely need a babysitter. This isn’t a child-friendly kind of bash.

    • Returning to my board because things are getting too heady over on yours. Plus, somebody tried to pants me over there. France Gall and The Dust I’m looking in your direction.

      Here we have more snails than you can shake a tiny fork at. Once you come down from last night, you should stop by to help polish off a few platters. Or you can always join us mid-summer when we pick the hapless creatures out of the surrounding hills.

      Either way, this year is already looking tasty in ways no one could have imagined.

  7. D.R. Haney says:

    I’m sorry to hear about your unfortunate experience at our gathering, but, really, if one must be panted, aren’t you glad it involved France Gall? I won’t comment on the Dust. I didn’t know the Dust was there.

    I’ll be down soon for snails, thanks, but must I now commit to snail hunting in the summer? I can’t think that far ahead. In fact, I can barely think at all at the moment.

    • I tend to assume Dust’s presence whether we actually see him or not, but perhaps that’s wishful thinking. It turned out your soirée didn’t require pants, even if we weren’t with Morrison.

      Incidently, since I haven’t said so, congratulations on your year-end good news. No need to think too far ahead when the plans are coming to you.

      • D.R. Haney says:

        Thanks, Nat. Yes, there has been a turn for the better, though I’ll admit to being a little nervous as to what happens in the weeks and months ahead. A deal is just that until production begins, and things can so easily fall apart. But, hey, I’m optimistic. “This movie will happen, a hundred and ten percent,” I was told.

        • 110 percent is at least 85 in Hollywood-ese, even when adjusted for inflation from the last time I was there. Either way, good to have the odds well in your favor.

          • D.R. Haney says:

            I was just introduced, online, to the attached director, so that’s a promising sign. Hopefully there will be many more, none reading STOP.

  8. Nat, we were just in Paris over the holidays… the vin chaud and bubbling vats of Nutella and crepes were divine enjoyed among the millions of twinkling lights. Your holiday sounds lovely, snails and all… a happy 2012 to you.

    • Yep, they do the twinkling Christmas lights just right over here. I’m glad you were here to experience them, aided by the vin chaud. Next time you definitely need to try the Dijon version. Happy deux mille douze to you, Robin!

  9. Irene Zion says:

    I felt warm and comfy just reading this, Nathaniel! This is obviously exactly the right place for you to be.
    I laughed and choked up a bit when reading this: “…someone get La Mamie a more comfortable chair, for the love of dieu.”
    At our house, years ago, the kids were always dispatched to find the right pillow for Nana, her aching back, you know.

  10. Yep, and La Mamie always stubbornly insists she’s fine on the backless stool. Usually just to get a rise out of the group, I suspect.

    Thanks for the comment, Irene. Happy that I could extend some warmth and comfiness of the holiday.

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