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Tradition trumps hype in French Christmas

Some Christmas traditions are universal no matter where you celebrate the holiday. Families and friends gather to share a meal, exchange gifts and attend church services. A spirit of hope and giving fills the air. But depending on where you live,...

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Some Christmas traditions are universal no matter where you celebrate the holiday.

Families and friends gather to share a meal, exchange gifts and attend church services. A spirit of hope and giving fills the air.

But depending on where you live, the holiday takes on unique traditions.

Three French friends - all with ties to Concordia College's Department of French - agree there are some major differences between the celebrations here and those in their home country.

In France, Christmas takes on regional influences and stricter religious traditions. In the United States, there are more lights, more music and more cards.

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"The marketing about Christmas in America is no comparison to France," said Pierre Schmidt, a teacher's assistant at Concordia. "It's way higher here."

Colleague Véronique Walters, an instructor, and student Céline Hein, who also works in the department, share similar views as Schmidt.

The three French natives took time to reflect on the similarities and differences between the countries come Christmas time.

"It's much more commercial," said Walters, 38, a resident of the United States since 1994. "We didn't send Christmas cards like people do here."

Hein said Christmas music in France is religious. There aren't groups that go caroling to the tune of "Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer," "Frosty the Snowman" or "Jolly Old Saint Nicholas."

In France, where 90 percent of the population is Roman Catholic, regional influences and religion dominate the holiday's

traditions.

Most families display a Nativity scene, enjoy elaborate meals, and put candy and little presents in slippers, not a "red sock."

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The commercialization of Christmas - displays set out before Halloween, music playing in stores and decorations lighting up neighborhoods - surprised each of them.

"I think it makes it more impersonal," said Walters, who described the holiday as more low-key and cozy in France.

Schmidt, 26, got married about 1½ years ago. He met his wife six years ago at one of Concordia's Language Villages and looks forward to his third Christmas in the United States.

His birthday falls on Dec. 26 and his mother's birthday is Dec. 24. It makes for a special time of the year.

"I've always enjoyed that time of the year," said Schmidt, who recalled spending Christmas as a child with family, watching cartoons and building forts.

Walters remembers parties hosted by her parents and elaborate meals with specialty items.

Hein, 21, said she's spent most of her Christmas holidays in the United States because her father lives in Maple Grove, Minn.

Still, the differences in Christmas celebrations are easy for Hein to point out.

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"It's kept more of its traditional and religious aspects, at least in the south of France," said Hein, who added that seafood is a main course for Christmas meals.

Nativity scenes included figurines depicting regional influences like fishermen, shepherds and herdsmen.

"I like the regional spin on things, particularly with the Nativity scenes," Hein said. "In the U.S., I can't think of any Midwest aspects of Christmas."

But there's one part of Christmas that Hein finds much more appealing.

"The snow," she said. "It helps a lot. It's not Christmas if there's not snow."

Readers can reach Forum reporter Steven P. Wagner at (701) 241-5542

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