A French Village In Winter
If you’ve ever wondered whether Santa and his reindeer come to France, here’s your answer. These reindeer, in the small and extraordinarily lovely village of Yvoire, are the rustic, handpainted proof. I especially liked them, because they were about as different from outlet mall reindeer as one can get, without having a species transplant. They’re recognizably real animals, yet they hint of Christmas. They might be Santa’s reindeer, or they might have just wandered down from the Alps. Who can say?
Christmas in France is much more restrained than it is in the US, except perhaps at the dinner table, and this year that’s especially noticeable. Festive displays are small, there are fewer lights, and the papers are full of tips on how to economize over the holidays. We’ll be going to Strasbourg in a couple of days, which I gather is the center of the French Christmas Universe, and then we’ll see how widespread this restraint really is. But in Yvoire the Christmas spirit was tucked away here and there, small and bright, looking like the elves had cobbled it together on a fun but short night out.
Back when Shel and I were young lovebirds we came to Yvoire and thought it was the most beautiful town we’d ever seen. We dreamed of living there someday, each house prettier than the next, the lake all around, mountains in the distance.
So when we decided to pay it another visit, we were both prepared for disappointment. After all, we’ve seen so many lovely French villages now, surely, we thought, it couldn’t be as drop-dead gorgeous and enticing as it was in our memories. How wrong we were.
Perched on the French side of Lac Léman, it’s ancient and graceful, inviting visitors to tarry and wander. A few hundred people do live there, hardy souls that can accept the fact that it’s drowning in tourists in the summer and nearly deserted in winter. Except for the reindeer, clearly there to please the locals, and the prodigious woodpiles in front of some of the houses, I’d have thought that no one at all lived there at this time of year.
They’re making a museum of ancient tools, like this grape press and jam kettle, which will undoubtedly attract even more tourists. It’s sad, because although that will certainly bring more money into the village, it will probably also contribute to the ongoing death of its authenticity as a place to live and work and raise your kids. There are a lot of dead villages dotted all over the countryside, places where no one lives any more, or where there are still a few residents, but no bakery, no cafe. And without one or both of those as a gathering place, a center of village life, people soon lose touch with each other, and many move away.
The Alps in the distance, with less snow than one would expect at this time of year, have seen a lot of people come and go from Yvoire since it was founded in 1308. They’ve seen the butcher, the baker, and the candlestick maker desert the town, since the year-round population is no longer big enough to support them. It’s still as beautiful as we remembered it, but there’s no bread baked there anymore, and now we understand what that means.
It’s so easy to be seduced by the quiet, the lapping of the lake, the charm of the reindeer, and for a while I let myself imagine wandering those streets daily. But soon I realize that every loaf of bread would mean a car trip, every peaceful summer’s day would see the town taken over by tour buses and boats, and my wish to live there subsides. It was a sweet dream, and we’ve dreamed it for a dozen years, but we’re over that now.
Still, I wouldn’t mind having those reindeer in my front yard.
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