This year I braced myself for the typical French Christmas, which entails a big festive dinner on Christmas Eve and then opening presents. It's seven years I've experienced this and yet it still seems to destabilize me.
I think it goes deeper than just cultural differences. Of course, there is family history involved. For instance, my mother-in-law's house has three floors (four floors if you're counting "US-style"). There is a staircase in the middle of the house and there is one room on each side for every floor. People in this family retreat to their rooms, doors closed, until a repas when everyone descends and comes together for the meal.
This feels really alienating for me. I grew up in a house where, for better or worse, we were forced together a lot. There were times I shared my room with my sister, and sometimes it was also with my step-sisters. My mother always directed me to include my step-sisters and so I am used to spending holidays doing things with a lot of people. Being alone in my room for the entire day and just coming together for meals feels strange.
Another aspect to living in France is that, as I've read about and experienced, that the French can tend to treat foreigners like a chair. I don't mind it for an event here, or a meeting there. I sat quietly trying for a whole year at each A.P.E. (PTA) meeting just reciting to myself, "I am just a chair. I am just the chair. Just the chair." It helped so I didn't get upset thinking "why am I here?" and "why do I bother?" I was able to practice my French by listening to the ladies speak fast and try to see if I could keep track of the subjects.
However, after seven years with my family, it's hard to accept that it feels like I am still just a chair. I don't know if it's a French-thing, or if it's this family's-thing. So, after seven years of trying to participate, trying to acknowledge, trying to be noticed, I decided "why bother" and just acted like the chair, and treated them like chairs too. We're all just chairs in the room. When someone came in, I didn't look up and acknowledge them if I was reading, just as when I would enter (or exit) a room, no one looked up or said anything to me.
Meals at the table were the same. In the past I tried really hard to follow the conversation, keep eye contact with whomever was speaking and even sometimes try to interject a word here or there. I'd often pester my poor husband asking to confirm what I just heard, or how did the conversation jump from heating to the Tete à Claques.
This year I just gave up. Stared at my plate and concentrated on my son, who was thankfully sitting next to me. It felt odd. Very odd. Because I normally enjoy people and I enjoy being able to be a part of a dinner party. But when no one talks to me, no one asks any questions, and it's been seven years like this...I really felt like just giving up. From an observers point of view, it's basically an opportunity for my sister-in-law's family (her, her husband, their daughters) to interact with my brother-in-law and mother-in-law. Even my poor husband seems kept at an arms-length distance. I find the whole thing very strange.
After dinner I got my son ready for bed, it was already past his bedtime and the family moved upstairs to the salon (living room) to open presents.
Christmas morning we opened gifts just the three of us, snacking on scones I'd made for us to snack on. My son opened his gifts and then said, "on va à Paris?" (we go to Paris?) My husband was a bit sad--I was surprised. We didn't press him but did inquire, "why do you want to go back right now?" We couldn't tell if it was because he didn't feel comfortable there (like me) or if he didn't want to open all the boxes, only to have to pack it all up again (a hassle). Either way, we left the next day.
Normally my in-law family wakes up late and just loafs around reading on Christmas day. This year my sister-in-law and her family rose early, breakfasted, showered and left by 9:00 AM. They were all heading to Scotland on Christmas day. This departure added to the feeling that Christmas was over.
The fact that "the family" celebrates Christmas the night before, coupled with the largest contingent leaving Christmas morning, made (for me) our small family celebration (my husband, son and I) feel like we were strangers in a strange home. This is what I mean by ou pas for our Christmas.
I'm not happy about how I behaved over these few days, but I felt it was my best defense. It was definitely a defense--I wasn't feeling a l'aise (comfortable) but I also wasn't feeling mean. I think it was a symbolic throwing my hands up. I don't like being so closed-off and silent. I prefer, nay, I LOVE being A PART of something, being a part of a family activity, being a part of the conversations and events. But I've felt so not-a part for so long, I just didn't have the energy this year to make the effort only to have nothing in return.
Either way, I'm glad my son was the one who spoke up and as a result we got to pack up and leave 1 day earlier. As we were walking out my MIL began talking about us visiting over the school Winter Holiday, just one month away. I can't even begin to think about it! Plus I'd rather go somewhere warm, or have some of my family visit (another topic!).
When we got home Simon saw the gifts I'd bought and left under the tree, and the filled stockings, for when he comes home. He yelled with joy and was so excited he ran over and began tearing open all his new gifts. NOW all the boxes were being opened, multiple toys half built and everything strewn about. Now it felt like Christmas. Safe. Happy. Comfortable. Home.