I have lived in New York, Chicago, Los Angeles and Miami. In all of these cities, Christmas is just another day.
In New York, for instance, it takes a lot more than the birth of Christ to slow the pace of city life. From Chinese food and a movie, to Orphan Christmas lunches hosted by friends, to Christmas-themed burlesque events, walking tours, nightclubs, and blowout sales–most large American cities offer unlimited options to non-celebrators of Christmas.
And for me, a hardened New York workaholic, nothing screams peace on Earth and goodwill to all men like a quiet Starbucks, full of free armchairs, with wifi servers flowing with untaxed bandwidth. Christmas in New York and London is not just another day—but the perfect day. Where I can enjoy the best of urban life—the food, entertainment and action—with no crowds of slow-walking tourists there to ruin it.
Because of this, it was without any trepidation that I approached the prospect of a Christmas alone in Paris. I ignored the raised eyebrows from colleagues and friends–themselves planning complicated travel. After all, my blended Jewish family had always been less concerned about the virgin birth, and more determined to take advantage of cheap Christmas Day flights. And besides, I was living in Paris. A world-class, multi-cultural city that was that ten times more exciting than any one holiday tradition. Right?
France, a “secular country”, shuts the F down between December 25th-December 27th. No one does anything but eat, take sacrament, and walk. And God forbid if you didn’t pick up milk the day before, because there is nowhere to get milk for a week.
It’s not quite as bad as Italy, but it’s still pretty bad.
My Christmas in Paris began like most other non-work days—over a delicious bowl of Fitness and Fruit with UHT milk. At around 10am, after catching up on emails, I went for a walk. The Marais, where I lived, is a historically Jewish neighborhood. The cobbled streets are lined with gorgeous ancient synagogues, happening falafel bars and absurdly high-end boutiques (pink alligator-skin Oxfords, anyone?). Between the tourists, the immigrant locals and trendy scenesters, the Marais is on pretty much 24/7. So when I stepped outside that fateful 12/25, it was shocking to be the only sign of life for miles around. Every store was firmly boarded-up. Apartments’ window shutters, usually wide open for prying tourists’ eyes, were also shut tight. Whatever scenes of holiday joy were going on inside, were strictly family only. It was a Christmas Armageddon.
At one point, I decided to hit up the local Monoprix, a grocery store with reliably late hours and a diverse product range. Chatêlet—the closest location to the Marais—is the kind of neighborhood you walk through wide-eyed, when you’re hoping to be offered drugs. But all down Rue de Rivoli, everything from Quick Burger to Brioche Dorée to the shady liquor store, and finally, Monoprix, was dark and vacant. At 11:15am, I trudged home empty-handed to my cold apartment. I sat alone in the dark, eating leftovers (pasta with marinara) and watching the only DVDs I owned at the time: The Usual Suspects and Maid in Manhattan.
At 4pm, I ventured back out. Perhaps the problem was Christmas Morning. That is, after all, when families wake to the leavings of Père Noël—and there are very nasty words reserved for employers who deprive their underlings of Christmas morning en famille. Perhaps now, in the harsh light of the afternoon, life and business would be back to normal?
Again, nope. I trawled another lonely loop down Rue de Rivoli, up to Opéra, through the 2eme arrondissement, around Place de Vosges, and back up Rue Saint Honoré. I crossed Hotel de Ville – maybe the ice rink would be open? It wasn’t. There is nothing so depressing as an empty public ice rink.
And yet! Out of the corner of my eye, I spotted families, wandering with the aimlessness of heavy digestion. I followed them towards Notre Dame…and that’s where all the people were: Church. The bells rung, the lights inside danced with the shadows of warm, worshipful figures. I watched for a moment, and contemplated going inside. How warm it looked, how vibrant and accepting. How nice to belong somewhere, to be loved and wanted. But alas, I could not bring myself to go inside amongst the Catholics. (What if they found out I was Jewish? What if, god forbid, they made me take sacrament? How could I show my face at home again?!) In my head, I heard the hysterical voice of my grandmother: “Terrible things happen to Jews in Europe!”
Slowly, sadly, I returned home. I reheated the pasta, restarted Maid in Manhattan, and went to bed early. If I couldn’t celebrate with the French, at least I could get an early night and prepare myself for the next great French tradition – one that more readily complied with my Jewish heritage: