The fullness of four

Robert arrived on Christmas eve into an airport bubbling with the joy of families and lovers reuniting. The emotion was too much for Delphine who, at the sight of her much-awaited dada, collapsed prostrate on the floor. With the writhing weight of a three-year old between us and a seven-year old skipping excitedly at his side, there wasn’t much room for husband and wife to tenderly reunite. I envied the lovers; eyes just for each other as they moved together for a welcoming embrace.

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But who could feel melancholy for long in the company of two such jubilant children, and a father thrilled to be in their midst. I herded the joyous trio to the car, installed Robert in the front passenger seat with a welcome bretzel to nibble and navigated our way out through the milling holiday traffic of the airport carpark and onto the highway.

Finally cruising freely, I could begin to notice the changes around me. Our Peugeot, always compact, had never seemed small before. But now it felt filled to its four corners with human life. Then, as we entered our little Alsacian chalet home, I felts its dimensions shifting around me to accommodate this much-awaited visitor. The ceiling in the living-dining seemed a little lower, the seldom-used coffee table and couches was now a playspace for dad and kids, my bedroom – formerly a solitary and minimally furnished space – became a room for two: a spread of other clothes on the bed, and a book and glass of water on the far bedside table.

Later that evening, sitting in church for the Christmas eve carol service, we were specially welcomed by the Pasteur as “la famille Waites” – her warm words then repeated to the congregation in English by an American parishioner who welcomed “the Waites’ from Australia.” I felt like the Royal Family. Another difference. In all the previous Sundays, I had been the Australian woman sitting at the back keeping her eye on her two young children playing in the corner. Now we were a family of four filling a pew.

At dinner on Christmas night, we lit the four candles in our Advent couronne for the last time. This year the fourth candle had had a double significance: the usual one of marking the last Sunday in Advent meaning that Christmas is imminent, and also, this year, the fourth Sunday candle-lighting moment had meant “dada arrives tomorrow!” So on this Christmas night, here was another difference: as I looked up from my plate of bûche de Noël Christmas cake, I no longer saw a vacant fourth chair opposite, but my husband’s face.

Just one person more, but we’ve gone from the lightness of three to the fullness of four. We no longer feel like a parent and two young children cast adrift from accustomed shores and on a sometimes precarious adventure. Instead, I feel the familiar moorings that hold our family in safe harbours.

So this is a time of restoration, a chance to replenish energy, before we say farewell to our fellow traveller in just a few days time. I will make the most of this chance to share the load of parenting. I will savour the moments where I can step back and watch my children from the middle distance, knowing that their dad has got them covered at close proximity. I will perhaps even appear in a photo. But more than all this, I will relish the rare opportunity to ponder, with an immediacy previously denied, the wonder of our experiences here with my fellow traveller for life.

‘tis the season: celebrating Ecole Steiner style

Steiner schools know how to celebrate Christmas. It’s all in the build up. Rudolph Steiner was a big fan of marking the seasons – partly as a way to imbue children with the wonder of the world around them, and partly as a way to help them understand the passage of time.

The season of Advent (the period marked by the four Sundays before Christmas) provides a rich supply of material. The first sign at Ecole Steiner Haut-Alsace was the appearance of the Christmas couronne in Delphine’sJardin d’enfantskindergarten room. Not the “crown” that I’d thought when I’d first heard the term, but instead a table decoration: a Christmas wreath adorned with the four candles of Advent.

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Each morning in the dim light of wintery morn, early arriving children would sit around the couronne watching the warm flame and singing Christmas songs. Once experienced, I was enchanted. For the whole month of December I set my alarm clock a little earlier to get on the road a bit sooner and arrive at school in time to enjoy the whole tender tiny ceremony.

An important waystage on the way to Christmas here in north-eastern France is the celebration of St Nicolas on 6 December. Of course the school celebrated. For days before, we’d added songs about St Nicolas to our traditional Christmas ones. This child-loving gent is known to secret bon-bons (sweets) into children’s slippers to greet them on 6 December. In the jardin d’enfants, little children arrived on the day to find tissue-paper parcels bound with fine silver thread stuffed into their “inside shoes”. Excited fingers discovered walnuts, mandarins, a spiced biscuit and a little bell inside. Delphine wore hers on a string around her neck for days afterwards. My own little reindeer.

The excitement lifted another notch with the arrival of the school’s marché de noel – the first in the school’s new building. In fact, the building itself looked like a Christmas present, beribboned as it was in its red bunting and green pine boughs. I’d helped out with the decorations the previous day, working alongside my fellow craft group parents.So it was with a feeling of belonging and a faint proprietary air that we turned up on the big day.

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It was a cold, overcast morning but nothing could dampen the mood. The whole school was there to celebrate its achievement of moving into their new school building, as well as opening their doors and warmly welcoming the local community into their new home. We ate enormous amounts of home-made cake, watched an exquisite puppet show, ventured into the magical “grotte des lumières” (cave of lights) and perused stalls of lovingly-made objects – including the most delicately detailed beeswax candles I’ve ever seen. I even managed to buy Delphine’s Christmas present with the quick understanding of the stall-owner of my hand-gestures and pointing.

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But last night was the turning point. In so many ways: The last day of school for the year. The winter solstice bringing with it the darkest day of of the year. The official beginning of winter in this part of the world. And the school’s nativity play.

Apparently this is an annual tradition that had been postponed for two years running as the school was relocated from temporary home to temporary home during the purchase and then elongated restoration of their current home. But last night, it was back on. In this school, it’s the staff who dress up as all the usual characters. There was a bubbly air of expectation as we walked into the hall, proper stage-lights illuminating the stage setting of decorated pine tree, manger and hay bales. Windows flecked with rain drops adding another wash of stars to those hanging from the ceiling.

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I looked around the room as families and children filed in. So many familiar faces now. I knew at least a third of the children by name. I could match them with parents, whose names I mostly didn’t know but whose personalities were now warmly familiar. It suddenly hit me. I’d looked at so many of these faces for over a year as I’d poured over the Facebook page of this school, steadily falling in love with the spirit of its community. And now here I was, in the midst of it all. I felt doors sliding. A sensation of having stepped out of reality and into the pages of a beloved book.

So although Delphine squirmed on my lap and later sclathed on the floor, and Silas had to be relocated away from an irresistibly chatty neighbour, I could feel the magic of Christmas shot through the fabric of pragmatic parenting like golden thread in silk woven from warp and weft yarns.

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All Christmas Markets Great and Small, but which is the fairest of them all?

One of the reasons I chose to make Alsace our home for the northern winter is its famous Christmas markets. And it had delivered. In fact, I’m overwhelmed. There is a dizzying number to choose from: everything from high-production value events featuring multiple differently-themed markets in the one town, through to a few craft stalls in a local community hall.

I dropped by our local tourist office in Thann last week to pick up some information to help me navigate. There was a rack groaning with brochures. With Delphine about to pull apart the Christmas decorations, I gathered a random armful and made a speedy getaway.

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But glossy brochures aren’t the only source of information. I’ve also been gleaning the details from posters and flyers pinned up on telegraph posts as I fly by on the way to school. These are for the more local, low-key numbers. But I’ve actually found this type of market to be more charming and approachable than the larger scale stunning kind.

Take the Christmas market at the Kruth Ski Club. It was held on what I consider to have been the “opening weekend” of the Christmas market season: the weekend of 24-25 November. I’d already had to make a choice between at least five other village markets that weekend, but the appeal of a Christmas market in a ski lodge had been irresistible.

Up, up into the mountains we went following the occasional sign. I was grateful for the directions I’d received the night before from my neighbour’s friend. We’d been invited around to eat Baeckeofe cooked in our honour. Over the steaming plate of three types of meet and tender root-vegetables I’d mentioned my plans for the morrow. “Ah,” she’d said, “it can be hard to find. You need to turn left at the church in Kruth, follow the road up the mountain, turn right at Frenz then pass on through the village.” Her instructions were spot on, and we arrived to a fanfare: a quartet of musicians playing the long wooden alp horn.

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It was a delightful market with local ski lodge volunteers serving up tarte flambée, crêpes with nutella and presiding over a steaming cauldron of vin chaud (mulled wine).

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The following week’s excursion to Colmar was a completely different affair.

Last year Colmar won second best Christmas Market in Europe. It is indeed beautiful. And big. There are five separate markets spread out over the historic centre of the town all with different themes: artisans and antiques, land and tradition, children’s delights, specialities of the region. The multi-coloured, cross-beamed mediaeval houses make for a charming backdrop to the cluster of wooden cabins in which all these various delights are found.

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But on a Saturday morning, it was mayhem. As the French would say, there was the world. And indeed there was. After a month of living in France, I finally encountered tourists. In the café where we escaped for morning tea, we listened to a group of Spaniards singing happy birthday. Stepping out the door we encountered a bus-load of Chinese tourists and pushing through the crowd I heard the unmistakable twang of Aussie English.

I thought with Colmar we’d seen the worst of the crowds. I’d been asking for it going to such a famous market on a weekend. So I didn’t think twice about going to another one that was in a village, rather than an internationally ranked town, on a Saturday. And how could I resist the call of a mediaeval Christmas market? So in all innocence, we set off early the following Saturday morning for Ribeauvillé.

I started to get a sense of what we were in for when I noticed roads lined with parked cars kilometres out from what “Henriette” (our GPS) said was the market’s location. The closer we got, the thicker the traffic became. We circled around the village looking for a car park. Gendarmes in evidence at roundabouts and event staff everywhere. Eventually we found a spot in the local sport’s oval that had been requisitioned for the weekend as a public car park. We had to walk 20 minutes up the road.

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An oh, mon dieu, we couldn’t move! A slow moving snake of people was jostling along, pushing their way through the canyon of mediaeval buildings leaning towards each other over a winding cobblestoned passage. At times we were completely at a stand still. The pram was not an asset. Even the charming mediaeval garbed performers and the surprise arrival of a flock of geese following their fowl pied piper through the crowd couldn’t entice us to stay. I found a side road and we made fast our escape.

Driving back home in the car, I reflected on how wrong first impressions can be. I’d been disappointed when we’d gone to our very first Christmas market. It had been the small kind in a community hall: local crafters were selling their lovingly-made wares, small-scale farmers were selling their best cheeses, yoghurt and dried sausage, and there was a small “restauration” in the hall’s kitchen where you could pick up a plate of choucroute and sausage with a glass, of course, of vin chaud. It had all seemed a bit low-key. After all, I’d come to the Christmas market capital of the world. I’d expected more.

But now I’ve come to recognise these types of market for the true gems they are. What you see there is real. Made by the people in the room, with love and care. In Colmar and Ribeauvillé I saw the piles of merchandise that is immediately recognisable as products designed only ever to be souvenirs. Bought in the moment, discarded when the suitcase is too full.

I cherish the things I’ve bought at the three local markets I’ve been too: a chocolate butter paste I bought from the young women whose mother proudly told me her daughter had made them all herself, a spiced fruit compote that I’ve been eking out on my breakfast cereal each morning, and the gorgeous hand-made Christmas card that is destined for a lucky recipient at home. My only regret is that I didn’t buy more of these cards. At all those glossy large-scale markets I’ve been to, not one Christmas card have I see. So that’s it. I’ve decided to frequent the big end markets no more. Because now I know which type of market is the one where I feel the true spirit of Christmas.