“When the gods want to punish you, they answer your prayers,” wrote Karen Blixen. One of my prayers as a child was to spend Christmas day with both my parents. They were divorced when I was three. My mother, a Swede, left my Italian father for an Englishman and I was brought up in Berkshire.
This year, thanks to Ciao Bella, a book I have written about being reunited with my father, all is forgiven and my parents are coming to our house in France for Christmas. 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 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 multi-cultural 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. It is 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. So I will not only 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 are normally in bed by 10pm (like me).
In France the children leave their shoes instead of stockings by the fireplace to be filled. After years of stockings they might feel rather short-changed with the amount of presents 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 presents 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 dish called Jansson’s Temptation, in that order. Pudding is a fruit salad and 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’ll all be horribly hung-over, 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 home-made tortellini to be eaten in a chicken stock, 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 chose.
Pudding would be a much lighter version of our Christmas pudding called a panettone, basically a cake filled with candied peel and raisons, or a 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 Italian Christmas I’ll go for is the panettone, which they sell in my local supermarket. If I can unwrap it before my aunt arrives no one 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 would be certain to be a happy ending,” he says. “They won’t be back again next year.”
I am not English, but for me Christmas just 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’ll obviously keep a bottle of aquavit close by in case of emergencies, either to drink or 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 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. Helena is also working on a thriller called Thin Ice that will be published in spring 2021 as well as a novel about the relationship between Virginia Woolf and Katherine Mansfield called Sense of an Echo.
Her latest non-fiction work Smart Women Don’t Get Wrinkles came out in hardback in 2016 and in paperback in April 2018.
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