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.