This year my husband and I agreed to spend Christmas apart. Fear not, this is no dramatic announcement of impending divorce, but rather a reflection on the bloated airfares during the season of goodwill. In due time, I will tell of why we presently live one on either side of the Atlantic Ocean, but for now I will keep my council. It was my very own idea and I feel that it was a worthy protest, though I imagine it was inconsequential to the point of silence to those responsible for pumping up the prices with such unfettered glee.
Unwilling to risk being peeved by my own decision, I settled on a different solution to the celebrations than sitting in solitary splendour brooding over a meal for one all the while being eyed meaningfully by The Beady Greedy Bean.
In France, as in many other countries, la veille de Noël (Christmas Eve) is traditionally the biggest celebration. A large and lengthy meal with your loved ones culminates in the stealthy arrival of Père Noël (insert your own word for the snowy bearded wonder with grandeose paunch and snazzy white fur-trimmed scarlet suit) who soundlessly leaves gifts around midnight. It is a time of great joy and festivity for most but for others, to many others, it is a sad, solitary night, a time to dwell on past pleasures and the knowledge that there is little solace in the idea that the sun will rise again on the morrow. I speak of the old and alone. Those whom, for whatever reason, have no-one to care for them, those that subsist on tiny incomes and those that tend to be invisible to the masses. So I signed up to assist the Big Christmas Eve dinner laid on by a wondrous charity called Les Petits Frères des Pauvres. Translated as ‘Little Brothers of The Poor’ you may recognise the international federation it belongs to. If you don’t, I urge you to check it out for yourself. If you feel so inclined.
Donning the compulsary Bonnet de Père Noël, but fortunately no beard nor plumping suit, I had three seniors to collect from their homes, because I had also volunteered my car named Franck. I had one gregarious gentleman (aged a twinkling 98 if you please) and two lovely ladies (87 and 89 respectively). I delivered them to the venue, parked Franck and then joined the, incidentally mostly millennial, gang to serve dinner, play games, sing songs and greet Père Noël bearing gifts at midnight. Before we started and after we had seated our table after table of venerable guests there was a silence to remember those who fell serving in the Résistance. Grenoble is one of three cities and two villages awarded the Ordre de La Libération at the end of The Second World War and it is hard to describe how moving it was, that moment of respect standing head bowed amongst those who were directly touched by the indescribable bravery of those who refused to be cowed.
It was 2 a.m when I finally took my exhuberant and energetic charges home to their still silent dwellings. We had sung songs I knew and others I didn’t, played games that had to be explained to me and others that were comfortingly familiar and danced polkas they foot-perfect, I flat-footed. I feel tremendously priviliged to have been allowed to join in and to give beaming cheer where otherwise there would have been the bitter chill of loneliness in a world that too often scurries past rather than observing, for a moment, and perhaps acknowledging that, if we are deserving of conviviality and gaety and levity and simple companionship, then they surely are too. The waning years of human life should not label the bearer untouchable and past your sell-by date and fit to be cast into a metaphoric bin as though your odour is no longer tolerable.
I was motivated to share this moment by the WordPress Weekly Photo Challenge labelled ‘Silence’ and as ever you can view, if you feel disposed to, the far more meritorious entries to the gallery here.
The picture was taken in Massachusetts in February 2016. Of course the United States has seen far more than it’s share of snow this winter season and the fat lady is not ready for the final song yet. I imagine, amongst all the chaos and hardship such weather induces, there has been that sense of muffled stillness that snow produces. That softly muted quiet that I love. Because silence can certainly be golden. It can also be heartbreakingly heavy.
PS: The title is taken from C S Lewis that wisest, gentlest most considered of scolars. He said ‘I have learned now that while those that speak out about their misery usually hurt, those who keep silence hurt more’ … I recommend to everyone that, apart from the ‘Chronicles of Narnia’, you should read his work more widely and that his letters, published in several volumes to the many he corresponded with contain much wisdom, whatever your beliefs or views on faith and spirituality. That aside, I did, of course that morning in the woods, feel that I had stepped into the kingdom of Narnia.
There is a second part to my Christmas which I will chronicle separately in due course
And your bonus: The Tremeloes singing ‘Silence is Golden’. Although Frankie Valley and his Four Seasons recorded it first, this is the version as an English girl that I remember best.