For the past two weeks I have been experiencing the full blast of UK pre Christmas blitz. For the first time in many years we are spending the month of December in England.
We had been warned to prepare for a culture shock, and boy, did we have one. From the moment we arrived at Gatwick, to find no trolleys and a ten mile hike to passport control, to the unmitigated horrors of the M25 at 11 pm. And can anyone tell me why as members of the EU we had to queue for so long to get into the country anyway? I thought being in that elite club brought privileges like speedy entry into fellow EU countries. Apparently not. And why are the passport checkers such a surly lot?
'This is my home country' I feel like saying.'I might have been away for a few years, but I have as much right as as anyone to come in. I promise I won't linger. I'll leave, thankfully, as soon as Christmas is over.'
But England still does have a few things to offer that France doesn't. Ignore the frantic shopping mania, the every man for himself obsession there is still a vestige of Christmas spirit lurking about, particularly in the more rural areas of the country.
Ever since the 1930s France has had a strict policy of non-intervention between church and state. In the multi-cultural world we inhabit today this is probably a sound decision, but it makes for a very quiet Christmas. No nativity plays in the schools, no village carol services.
In the primary school days of my own children there were times when I felt I couldn't face yet another rendition of the nativity story. With the village school striving for something a bit different I've sat through the most bizarre variations of the journey to Bethlehem, but somehow ever since we've lived in France I've had a yearning to see assorted children wearing dressing gowns and Mum's tea cloth on their heads intoning monotonously ...'Lo, we have seen the star in the East...etc.'
Our little French village is as quiet as the grave on Christmas Eve. No merry drinkers pile out of the bar and reel into the church to finish off a jolly evening singing Once in Royal David's City lustily (and incoherently). Everyone is merry-making behind the shutters with their families, settling down to a gargantuan supper which will stretch across many courses and several hours. Presents will be opened, toasts drunk and the next day...Christmas Day...will be like our Boxing Day. Very hung-over. And after that on the 26th it's straight back to work for a few days until the whole thing starts again for the Revellions de St Sylvestre (New Years Eve, to the non-French.)
So, on Frday we will gather in the local church for an evening of Christmas carols, there is a crib service on Christmas Eve that I might go to if I'm well ahead with the next day's catering,and on Christmas morning we will be going into full-on Olde- English-Charles Dickens-Yo-Ho-Ho Merry Yuletide.