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Our first Christmas in France was filled with new experiences, some shocking, like the sudden arrival of Christmas decorations in October, others deliciously soothing like the welcomed appearance of vin chaud (hot, spicy, mulled wine) at every single outdoor event we attended.  This year I learned that life is better when indulging in a warm, alcoholic beverage.  Hordes of grumbling, shoving, faux-merry Christmas market revelers turn amiable and festive after just one sip from a Santa-festooned mug of piping hot vin chaud.  While shopping at our Sunday market, cupping the warm, aromatic brew in my frosty hands, my snot-encrusted, whining children magically sound like two jolly carolers, spreading cheer (as opposed to their nasty cold virus) throughout the crowd.  The local ski club charges the bargain price of 1 Euro for this cold weather staple and the Thoiry pompier (firefighters) give it away for FREE.  You gotta love municipal workers who dole out free alcohol on a Sunday morning.  Vin chaud, welcome to my life.  I think we are going to be very, very good friends.

Christmas of 2010 will forever stand as the year of Santa.  It was the year that my three-year-old became a card-carrying member of the “I ♥ Santa” club.  For the first time in her little life she fully realized the power of the Claus and spent the majority of her December dreaming about Santa, asking questions about Santa, and drawing pictures of Santa.  Her behavior magically improved, she was kinder to her sister and less apt to erupt in ear-piercing shrieks.  She efficiently collected data on the Big Man in Red, grilling us like a seasoned Law and Order detective.  Where does Santa live?  Who does he live with?  What is Mrs. Santa’s real name?  How many elves reside with Santa?  What do elves eat?  She peppered me with questions until I would cry mercy and seek outside counsel in the form of my infinitely more creative husband.

We were officially Santa crazy at the Hirschauer house and it didn’t help matters much that there were Santas everywhere in our little French town.  Now, French Santa, or Pere Noel, is a different breed from the traditional sack-wielding, sleigh-driving, jolly old elf that we are familiar with in North America.  Pere Noel doesn’t seem to ride in sleighs or pal around with reindeer.  The French take a much more “Mission Impossible” approach to delivering presents.  The Santas in our town dangled from ropes, and shinnied up drain pipes like furtive cat burglars.  They hung from military grade cables, looking like a band of special ops taking over the produce section in our local grocery store.  The houses on our street were teeming with acrobatic Santas.  One family had as many as ten tiny Pere Noels scaling the front and side walls of their maison.  Their backs were always to us, faces turned away from passing cars and pedestrians in an attempt to conceal their true identities.  Why so furtive Pere Noel?  Are you spending the holidays spreading cheer and goodwill towards man, or are you pocketing a few trinkets for the Mrs.?

The girls were a bit confused by this new twist on the lovable Christmas icon. After seeing a life-sized Santa dangling precariously from a top-story window Emma exclaimed, "Mommy! Santa is falling!" Burglarizing Santa, Nyon, Switzerland

Poor Santa dangling from the ledge was not nearly as disturbing as this headless Santa in Geneva.

Thieving Pere Noels, however, have nothing on the strange, bough-straddling Santas that were immortalized in neon lights and illuminated our street this holiday season.  What is a bough-straddling Santa, you may ask?  Well, it is a Pere Noel with an odd penchant for placing Christmas tree branches between his legs and riding them like a bucking bronco, or a witch on a broom.  Why does Santa do this?  What possible place does a Santa with a fir-tree between his legs have in childhood lore?  And why is it that the French do not believe in a Santa that drives a reindeer drawn sleigh?  According to the French, Pere Noel either rides a phallic tree bough or burgles his way into our home, and I am not sure which option is less disturbing.

A right jolly old elf! (Freud would have a field day.)

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