Last Christmas passed in a sleep-deprived fog: le Petit and his little cousin were five months old, and although the huge family gathering in Troyes was festive and fun, it was more about the adults than the kids. Le Petit was more interested in the wrapping paper than the presents, and was years away from understanding complex Christmas concepts like the nativity or Santa Claus.
This year was different. This year was the first Christmas of the next generation.
I stayed up until past midnight on the eve of Christmas Eve embroidering le Petit and his cousin's initials on two handmade stockings while my husband slowly wrapped a heap of presents spread out on the floor. On the morning of the 24th, we packed up the car and headed for Troyes to celebrate with the same gaggle of family that was there last year. Eleven adults, two toddlers, one tiny and cozy family house, a giant dinner table, a Christmas tree and far too many presents: all the elements were all in place.
When we arrived, Grandpa joyfully grabbed le Petit from his car seat and whisked him into the house while my husband and I started to unload the car. I ran inside to the sound of le Petit screaming. It had been three months since he'd last seen the house in Troyes and far longer since he'd seen many of the members of the family, so when he found himself in a strange place with a bunch of strange people and no mom or dad, he was terrified. He remained skeptical of the proceedings through lunch, but then settled down easily for a nap. Once he was asleep and the house started to empty out as people disappeared for last-minute shopping, my husband, his parents and aunt and I started preparing le Petit's Christmas.
In my husband's family, we open presents after dinner on Christmas Eve. In true French style, dinner usually takes three hours and by the time we start exchanging gifts it is past midnight. This year we hoped le Petit would be asleep, so we decided that the père noël, or Santa Claus, would come by for the children before dinner. My father-in-law dug up the thirty-five-plus year old Santa suit that I'd seen pictured in photos from my husband's childhood, and my brother-in-law was chosen to play the lead role.
We were stacking up presents for le Petit and his cousin under the tree when I saw it: the present that made me cry. It was a bright red ride-and-push-along car, styled like a 1950s Ferrari. My in-laws had found it after a good month of searching through all the toy shops in Paris and Troyes. It was straight out of a little boy's Christmas dream, big and shiny and perfect, and it brought tears to my eyes.
Suddenly there I was, thousands of miles and decades away from Christmas morning in Olympia, Washington, but I could still see the presents laid out for me. There was the doll house with the same wallpaper and carpet as our house and the picture of me in a gold frame over the little fireplace. There was the Brio train on the hand-painted train board, with the tiny wooden signposts that my grandfather made just for me. Le Petit will probably not remember this Christmas, but I'd already filed it alongside so many of my own happy memories.
Later in the evening, Santa finally made his appearance, with camcorders rolling and cameras flashing. Le Petit's cousin was scared and buried her face in her mother's shoulder, but le Petit was unimpressed. He was quite ready to stare down the big guy in a red suit, with a beard and a cane and a face half hidden by a hood. With much prompting he opened two presents, then slid off my lap, grabbed my hand and led me to his high chair, letting me know that Christmas Eve or not, it was dinner time. We gave him a cookie and he munched and watched as my brother-in-law struggled to unwrap the red car.
Much to our surprise, he fell asleep easily that evening and slept well despite the din of the adults downstairs feasting into the wee hours. On Christmas morning he opened the rest of his presents over breakfast, taking time to examine each one carefully. His favorite -- and my least favorite -- was a plastic train that whistles and plays music as it chugs along.
At noon on Christmas Day we all regathered at my husband's aunt's apartment for the second big meal, and le Petit scooted around the place before and after a long nap. Dazed with too much wine and food, we took our traditional early Christmas evening walk through the quiet streets of downtown Troyes with le Petit bundled up in his stroller. We stopped in front of the town hall to admire the centerpiece of the holiday decorations, an animated polar bear family. "Bear!" said le Petit. We took him into the cathedral to admire the crèche. "Baby!" I said, and crouched next to him to explain the story. He squirmed and whined so we headed for the door; they'll be plenty of time for that next year.
On the 23rd I was frantic, my presents were unwrapped, half my to-do list was undone, and I was worried that our Christmas would fall apart because le Petit would refuse to sleep. On the evening of the 25th, I realized that everything was close to perfect after all, and that le Petit had given me the gift of the first real Christmas I've had since I grew up.