Goose, herring, lamb or turkey?
With a Swedish mother, Italian father, English husband and a home in France, Helena Frith Powell wonders which traditions to follow for her family Christmas
I have been recently reunited with my father, and my parents are coming to our house in France for Christmas. All I can say is that it seemed like a good idea at the time.
My father will travel from northern Italy with my aunt and uncle, my mother from her home in Devon. The Englishman she ran off with has long since been discarded, and she will travel alone. Joining the party will be my parents-in-law, who are English. Far more pressing than the question of whether my parents will spend the whole week plotting to kill each other is the question of how to celebrate Christmas with this multicultural gathering.
We have been living in France for the past six years, so one option is to go native. This involves a vast Christmas Eve dinner with several courses of cholesterol-attack-inducing foods, such as lobster, foie gras, oysters, smoked salmon and snails. That’s just for starters. Those are followed by a roast bird, preferably a goose, and then a bûche de Noël, a log-shaped cake made with chocolate and chestnuts. To drink, we would have champagne and wine.
The problem with this dinner, apart from trying to fit a goose that will feed eight adults and five children into my oven, is that it traditionally starts after the messe de minuit, midnight mass. So not only will I have to deal with tired and hungry children, but also with adults who have dangerously low blood-sugar levels due to lack of food and who, like me, are normally in bed by 10pm.
Instead of stockings, French children tend to leave their shoes by the fireplace to be filled with presents. After years of stockings, mine might feel rather short-changed with the amount of gifts you can stuff into a pair of size-two sneakers. Gone are the days when children were thrilled with a brazil nut and a satsuma, like I was. Adults in France traditionally don’t open their presents until New Year’s Day, for some reason — maybe to give French men time to buy gifts for their wives as well as their mistresses.
Another option would be to celebrate a Swedish Christmas. This happens on Christmas Eve and involves eating porridge, herring, roast ham and a potato and anchovy dish called Jansson’s Temptation, in that order. Pudding is a fruit salad. It’s all washed down with huge amounts of aquavit. The children open their presents on Christmas Eve in Sweden, so that would keep them busy while we all eat and sing Swedish drinking songs.
Drunk could be the only way to get through this Christmas, but I can’t imagine what we will spend Christmas Day doing if there are no presents to open. Especially as we will all be horribly hungover, an unfortunate side-effect of a Swedish Christmas. I also wonder how everyone around the table, especially my rather sophisticated aunt, will react at being served porridge as a starter.
What about the Italian option? That would make my father, aunt and uncle feel at home. The most exciting thing that happens on Christmas Eve is not the dinner (traditionally, it is meat-free), but your children are asked to write letters promising to behave during the coming year. Maybe I could get my parents to write a similar pledge for the following week?
Like the English, the Italians eat their main Christmas meal and distribute presents on Christmas Day. But lunch does not involve turkey. Instead, I would be cooking homemade tortellini, to be eaten in a chicken stock, and lo zampone, which may sound glamorous but is in fact a pig’s foot stuffed with spiced minced meat, and possibly lamb or capon, depending on which regional Italian menu I choose.
Pudding would be panettone — essentially a much lighter, cake-style version of our Christmas pudding, filled with candied peel and raisins — or pandoro, meaning “golden bread”. I remember one Christmas I spent in Italy as a teenager. My grandmother was still alive then, and she had two women locked in a little room for two days making the fresh tortellini, cakes and delicacies we were to eat. For me this is not an option, so I think the only element of the traditional Italian Christmas that I will go for is the panettone, which they sell in my local supermarket. If I can unwrap it before my aunt arrives, nobody will be any the wiser.
My husband’s helpful tip is that we give them an American Christmas and all go down to McDonald’s. “That way there’d be a certain happy ending,” he says. “They won’t be back again next year.”
I may not have a drop of English blood in my veins, but for me Christmas doesn’t mean anything if it isn’t done the English way. I need to watch or read A Christmas Carol at least once, I have to eat mince pies, I need to roast a turkey and potatoes and I crave the inevitable and mostly inedible Christmas pudding with brandy butter, served to the sound of carols sung by the King’s College Choir. I will obviously keep a bottle of aquavit close by in case of emergencies, either to drink or to bash people on the head with, but apart from that, I shall be sticking to a traditional English Christmas, and I can’t wait.
Helena Frith Powell is the author of Ciao Bella — In Search of My Italian Father, available at the Sunday Times Books First price of £13.49, including p&p (RRP £14.99), on 0870 165 8585 or visit www.timesonline.co.uk/booksfirstbuy
Helena Frith Powell was born in Sweden to a Swedish mother and Italian father, but grew up mainly in England. She is the author of eleven books, translated into several languages including Chinese and Russian. She wrote the French Mistress column The Sunday Times about life in France for several years. She is a regular contributor to the Daily Mail, Mail on Sunday, The Times, Daily Telegraph, Tatler Magazine and Harper’s Bazaar.
Helena has been the editor of four magazines, including M Magazine, a supplement for the Abu Dhabi-based National Newspaper and FIVE, a high-end fashion glossy, also published in Abu Dhabi. Helena was also editor-in-chief of 360 Life, a quarterly glossy magazine published with the Sports 360 Newspaper in Dubai, part of the Chalhoub Group.
Helena contributes regularly to UK-based newspapers and magazines and holds a Masters in Creative Writing from the University of Cambridge. She is working on a thriller set in Sweden as well as a novel about the relationship between Virginia Woolf and Katherine Mansfield called Sense of an Echo.
In 2022 her short story The Japanese Gardener came second in the Fish Publishing Short Story Prize. One of her stories was also shortlisted for the Bridport Short Story Prize. When she’s not writing, she works as a headhunter for the media and entertainment industry for the Sucherman Group.
Helena, who was educated at Durham University, lives in the Languedoc region of France with her husband Rupert and their three children.
More France Please, we’re British; Gibson Square 2004
Two Lipsticks and a Lover 2005; Gibson Square (hardback)
All You Need to be Impossibly French; (US version of above) Penguin 2006
Two Lipsticks and a Lover; Arrow Books (paperback) 2007
Ciao Bella Gibson Square; (hardback) 2006
Ciao Bella Gibson Square; (paperback) 2007
So Chic! (French version of Two Lipsticks) Leduc Editions 2008 (also translated into Chinese, Russian and Thai)
More, More France; Gibson Square 2009
To Hell in High Heels; Arrow Books 2009 (also translated into Polish)
The Viva Mayr Diet; Harper Collins 2009
Love in a Warm Climate; Gibson Square 2011
The Ex-Factor; Gibson Square 2013
Smart Women Don’t Get Wrinkles; Gibson Square 2016
The Arnolfini Marriage; Amazon Kindle December 2016
Smart Women Don’t Get Wrinkles (paperback); Gibson Square spring 2018
The Longest Night; Gibson Square spring 2019