It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas here in the south of France, despite the fact that the weather is still in the mid-fifties, there are palm trees in my backyard, I live next to the Mediterranean Sea, and the only snow I have seen is that from fake machines. However, Toulon and France in general do not disappoint with their wonderful marchés de Nöel (Christmas Markets.) Additionally, there are plenty of lights that illuminate all parts of the city. (FYI, Toulon started constructing the lights and Christmas market, I kid you not, in October. I wonder how long it will take to take everything down once January 6th hits.)
I started my own Christmas celebration with my very own advent calendar, filled with Milka chocolate, of course (my favorite brand here in Europe), and by traveling to Lyon to see the magnificent Festival of Lights, or La Festival Des Lumières.
The Christmas market is also quite standard in every city in the southern part of France, and Toulon is no exception: the market is set up in the main square, Place de La Liberté. There is a crèche (nativity scene) fake trees, a display resembling Santa’s Workshop, and rows upon rows of vendors selling various items, from mulled wine to hot nuts to crêpes to chocolates to jams, to things such as jewelry and scarves and small trinkets to give as gifts at Christmas time. what’s even more trippy is that the market also blares American Christmas carols- it’s almost as if I have 99.1 WMYX with me all the time. (For my readers outside Milwaukee, this is the radio station that begins to play non-stop Christmas music the day after Halloween.) the market is a fun way to kill some time- buy some hot chocolate or mulled wine and have a look around.
Perhaps the most important shops and boutiques within the Christmas markets here in the south of France is the ones which sell crèches, or Nativity Scenes. I recently learned that les crèches provençales, or Provence-style nativity scenes, here in the Côte d’Azur are much different compared to anywhere else in France. This is because les crèches provençales contain the Provence-style buildings and include people and culture unique to the way of life here in the south of France (ie: vendors, certain saints, animals, etc.) From what I have understood, the crèche is the token Christmas decoration in anyone’s house. All of the French people whose houses I have visited this month have been so excited to show off their crèche. So, of course I had to buy my very own crèche as a souvenir!
In the eastern and northern parts of France, particularly Alsace (next to Germany) and Nord-Pas-de-Calais (next to Belgium) the most important day of the Christmas season is December 6th- when St. Nicolas, who originated from these regions of France, comes to town by donkey carrying baskets of sweets and gifts for children. The story goes that there were three French children who wandered away and got lost in the woods. Then, they were captured by an evil butcher (today known as Père Fouettard) who killed and salted them. But alas, Saint Nicolas to the rescue! He revived the children and got them home safe; St. Nicolas is now the protector of children and now comes bearing gifts for children at night on December 5th.
My friends (fellow assistants) and I have been busy celebrating as well. Last night, we held a pot luck and Yankee Swap (aka White Elephant with actual nice gifts.) We had a 10€ limit and then everyone put their gifts in the middle and drew a number, which determined the order in which we chose. I was number 24/27 and ended up stealing mulled wine and chocolate from my friend Chris. It was such a great evening and I cannot communicate how much I appreciate these fantastic people. This upcoming week, I will be celebrating the holidays with my colleagues and BTS students, which includes many lunches and apèros before the holidays begin on Friday!
Speaking of the holidays, I should probably fill everyone in on my plans, now that they have been finalized. I am one of the few assistants from the Toulon area staying here in France over the holidays and I could not be more excited. Here are my plans:
1. December 20-22: I am going to take the night train to Strasbourg, France (in the Alsace region) and enjoy 2 days of Christmas markets. This area of east France is known specifically for its amazing markets- I am excited to see how they measure up to those here in Provence! I have never explored the east of France before, so I am excited to go and see the Germanic influenced houses and architecture as well.
2. December 23-27: I’m heading back to Caen, in Normandy, to spend Christmas with my host family. There will be 15 of us total and I am so excited!
3. December 28-31: I’m heading down to the southwest part of France for a few days to spend some time with a French family I know from the states in the village of Carbonne; it’s quite a trek from Caen, but I don’t really care, it should be a great experience.
4. December 31-Jan. 3: I am spending New Years in Paris! There will be a few assistants there so I can’t wait! We don’t start teaching again until the 6th, but I want to give myself a few days back in Toulon since I’m moving!
As I said, there are a ton of Christmas celebrations here in France (again, despite France being a secular, or laïc country). I feel so happy to have the chance to experience my favorite holiday in my second favorite country!