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Christmas in Paris





Why does Christmas feel so vastly different in Paris than in the U. S.? 

It’s a week before Christmas and I feel—Paris feels—calm and peaceful. (Some of that sense of peace comes from the relief of distress I've been feeling about the U.S. Finally people are beginning to revolt against racist police brutality in America.)

But back to Christmas: years ago my mother initiated a Christmas ritual for our Arizona family. Enough with the glut of Christmas shopping! We would each choose one gift for $25 or under, preferably something amusing and original, wrap it and stack it beneath the Christmas tree.



On Christmas Eve we’d gather and pick numbers from a hat to determine order of choosing, then select a gift to open. When your turn came, you could snatch someone else’s opened gift, or take a chance on an unopened one. Easy and fun. Everyone liked this low-pressure, low-cost version of Christmas (except for the vicious fights when everyone wanted the same gift. Kidding. Kind of.).

Sometimes a gift was so original it knocked your Christmas stockings off. My sister-in-law, Leatrice, once gave M & Ms, on which were printed portraits of my mother smoking a cigar. Wish I’d been there for that Christmas—I’d have tackled anyone to get that gift, and never, ever, eat them.



Still, the holiday season in America continued to be fraught with glut—too much advertising, too much treacly music, too much junky Christmas decoration, too many dumb holiday films, too much traffic, too many crowds, too much spending, no matter what you and your family chose to do. Too much everything!



In Paris, it’s the absence of all this that makes the season so pleasurable. The Christmas lights are minimalist. Less really is more. Certain colors are the same—red, silver, gold—but instead of the green of money, there’s more of the blue of the dreaming mind.

I find it amazing that one week before Christmas, I haven’t heard a single note of Muzak—no Rudolph, no Jingle Bells, no Silent Night—instead, the nights really are silent, except for the music of spoken French which surrounds me now as I write in my favorite café.



The window displays are, as usual, works of art, with some references to the season, but with fresh, original approaches.

There are more Christmas parties, but they tend to be attended by friends from all over the world rather than by family (or at least the ones we’ve been to). That’s okay, too. I carry my family inside my heart—they’re always with me. I sometimes think I love best from afar.

The essence of Christmas—the birth of Christ, and Santa Claus or Père Noël, who embodies the spirit of giving—are the same in both the U.S. and France.



You don’t have to be a Christian to acknowledge what Christ represents: the divine embodied in man. I think each of us has an inner image of what divinity is, according to our genius (genius in Plato’s sense of a daimon, a guardian angel or twin soul who follows us all our lives and lets us know when we’re off track by giving us depression or other useful signals). For me, that inner image is not goodness. I was raised by good people, so-called atheists with many generations of Christian ancestors.

For me, that inner image is making art. I was also raised to exult in the treasures of art throughout the ages. For me, the divine center, the Self, is best expressed in art. My own way of honoring the inner Christ, or as C. G. Jung called it, the Self, is devotion to writing five or six days a week, a daily ritual to honor my daimon.

Elaine Pagels, in her bestselling Beyond Belief: The Secret Gospel of Thomas (2003), contrasts the Gospel of Thomas with the Gospel of John and argues that a close reading of The Gospel of Thomas shows that its teaching was: "If you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you. If you do not bring forth what is within you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you."

Another translation is: "There is a light within each person, and it lights up the whole universe. If it does not shine, there is darkness." Thomas emphasized the light within all human beings; John placed the emphasis on Divine Jesus Christ as the center of belief. Pagels is the main modern advocate for a connection between Buddhism and the third and fourth Century Christian sects, which were called "Gnostics" by early Christian heresiologists.



We’re celebrating the same thing this month in both countries. But in a commercial culture like the U.S., profit dominates. In France, quality of life wins out over profit. And everyone profits by that. (Unless you arrive at a store in Paris fifteen minutes before closing, and the proprietor languidly informs you that they’re closed, they need time to tidy up, and get home, go on this week’s vacation or weekend in the country. And then you shake your head, and say to yourself, Jesus Christ! This would never happen in the U.S!)





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Reader Comments (18)

K: Your mother smokes cigars? (Bad news from Havana; buy 'em up while you still can.). Having just come to Arizona after leaving pre-Christmas France, I love this little paean to Paris -- particularly that last paragraph. My first holiday in Paris, a long time ago, a woman blocked me from entering a large store well before closing time on Christmas Eve. But, but...I sputtered, explaining how I just needed... She fixed me with that wonderfully infuriating the-customer-is-always-wrong look and informed that she, too, had holiday plans. I remembered that later when an American friend asked a restaurant waiter for a bag so she could take home the remnants on her plate. "For the dog," she said. Stunned, he replied, "Madame, we have our own dogs."

Saturday, December 20, 2014 at 14:47 | Unregistered CommenterMort Rosenblum

Lovely and illuminating post, Kaaren. Yuletide greetings to you and Richard and jolly old Pere Noel!
God jul och gott nytt år.


Saturday, December 20, 2014 at 16:37 | Unregistered CommenterScott MacFarlane

Lovely....so true about the profit-driven vs quality of life differences!
May we state-side remember to concentrate on quality of life (while
wrapping a few too many purchases)!

Hugs and Happy Holidays!!!

Saturday, December 20, 2014 at 17:13 | Unregistered CommenterSuki Edwards

Restful — prose and pictures alike.

It's a deeply felt and beautifully conceived Christmas gift.

Buon Natale!

Saturday, December 20, 2014 at 19:35 | Unregistered CommenterAnna

Speaking of closing early, the above post reminds me of when Bill & I decided to visit Napoleon's tomb about an hour before closing time. When we arrived a crowd was arguing with the guard who insisted they were closed. Over and over, he repeated it and would not budge. While the argument continued, Bill took my hand and pulled me around the crowd and off we went to see the tomb, the guard yelling at us to stop. Well, we saw it -- ugly, ugly, ugly. But it was worth it for the chase.

Saturday, December 20, 2014 at 20:05 | Unregistered CommenterRuth Lansford

A Happy New Year to you and Richard! I love your description of your Arizona christmases. Berkeley, with its all-inclusive personality, also has very low key holiday decorations -- and the only Christmas songs I have heard are in a very trendy clothing store which seems to have the music playing as kind of arty camp rather than a serious bow to a commercial holiday. Enjoy beautiful Paris!

Saturday, December 20, 2014 at 20:45 | Unregistered CommenterVarya


Wonderful to hear from you. My mother was spoofing once with a cigar in her mouth, and someone snapped her photo. Leatrice somehow figured out how to get that photo reproduced on every single M&M. There's probably a delicious Mexican flavor to Christmas in Tucson (enchiladas made by Jeannette?). You and I have the same roots and haunts. That story about entering a shop and getting Parisian attitude? I never go back to a place if they pull that on me. The customer is always wrong IS the French motto. Might be related to the economic crisis here? And the doggie bags? Perfect French response. Did you read that N.Y. Times article about the French beginning to accept them? A friend of ours did a perfect sweep of leftover salmon into a plastic bag one night--under the table so the waiter didn't see. How I appreciated eating it later.

Much love to you and Jeannette,

Kaaren & Richard

Saturday, December 20, 2014 at 22:11 | Registered CommenterKaaren Kitchell & Richard Beban

Dear Scott,

Thank you so much!

Joyful jul och ett givande nytt år till er och Brenda också, Scott!

Much love,

Kaaren & Richard

Saturday, December 20, 2014 at 22:16 | Registered CommenterKaaren Kitchell & Richard Beban

Darling Suki,

I'll be thinking of you and Fred and Mom and family this week. Wrapping gifts (plural)? But... but... you're breaking the family Christmas rules! Thanks for commenting.

Big hugs and love to you and Fred,

Kaaren and Richard

Saturday, December 20, 2014 at 22:22 | Registered CommenterKaaren Kitchell & Richard Beban


So great to hear from you. Sono contento che siamo riusciti a dare un po 'di pace. Buon Natale e un nuovo anno fruttuoso. Spero di vedervi a Roma. Mi piace far finta parlo italiano. Ha ha!

Christmas love to you and Eric,

Kaaren & Richard

Saturday, December 20, 2014 at 22:27 | Registered CommenterKaaren Kitchell & Richard Beban

Dear Ruth,

This is a wonderful story. Oh, that Bill! We nominate you as the person best suited to handle French obstructionism. Perhaps you should live here?

Much love to you,

Kaaren and Richard

Saturday, December 20, 2014 at 22:30 | Registered CommenterKaaren Kitchell & Richard Beban

Thank you, Varya! Yes, my mother has considerable good sense, not to mention a sense of humor. That makes perfect sense about Berkeley. Almost everyone I know there seems to have a strong connection to Paris. I think there's something similar in the sensibility of both places.

Are you leading any more tours of India? What's next for 2015? If you read this, put the link up here, so anyone reading comments knows about your soulful unusual tours.

Much love to you and Charles and Merriest New Year,

Kaaren and Richard

Saturday, December 20, 2014 at 22:36 | Registered CommenterKaaren Kitchell & Richard Beban


Jesus sat on a rock amid the flames
and slowly and eloquently pronounced each name
of insect flower ditch cloud gate and harness
in order to release us from Adam’s original
blessing which had become a curse
overlooking a thunderous ocean whose pounding waves
were also eloquent and whose watery syllables
also named both the great and small leaving absolutely
nothing out no nuance of psychic perturbation
moon-phase cloud-shape color of day or night and constellation

Finally Jesus arose and every water level on
earth rose with him every creature’s body lifted slightly
and each being was re-infused with divine ringing
as in a cluster of harmonious chimes
running through their scales a million times in almost inaudible
tones so that we see that now every atom and every
atom’s nucleus vibrates
from being called upon again by
Sublime Clarification’s voice
setting it apart from mere chaotic noise
6/12/2001 (from The Music Space)

Sunday, December 21, 2014 at 8:08 | Unregistered CommenterDaniel Abdal-Hayy Moore

I feel calm after reading this sublime post and looking at Richard's photos. The blue lights are indeed "dreamy." (I'll gladly house the big blue stars in the window). Personally, I don't get involved in the commercial fray of the season. I haven't stepped a foot into any place of vapid consumption as all the intention of giving is lost there; it's about buying. Yesterday I calmly browsed my food co-op for herbs and sumptuous powders like Cacao and Lucama to make into something magic and delicious to share and accompany an art card I've made. I do love to shower my loved ones with something unique to marvel over.

"There is a light within each person, and it lights up the whole universe. If it does not shine, there is darkness." Beautiful. May each of you shine like a super nova and be filled with joy.

Much Love to you and Richard,

Sunday, December 21, 2014 at 22:47 | Unregistered CommenterJoanne Warfield

Dear Daniel,

This is a subtle and eloquent poem that illuminates the shift in tone from the Old Testament to the New. Thank you!

Merriness and peace now and in the New Year to you and Malika,

Kaaren & Richard

Monday, December 22, 2014 at 22:50 | Registered CommenterKaaren Kitchell & Richard Beban

Dear Joanne,

Thank you for this beautiful message.

No, I can't imagine you caught up in the Christmas madness. But I can picture you making delicious dishes and art to give! I've sampled both.

Wishing you and Stuart a radiant Christmas and coming year,

Kaaren & Richard

Monday, December 22, 2014 at 22:59 | Registered CommenterKaaren Kitchell & Richard Beban

Beautiful—words and images alike. In the U.S., profit trumps truth, freedom, politics, our rights, healthcare, the quality of food we eat, and even belief systems. I think we should choose/invent our own holiday celebration (not like Seinfeld's "Festivus"), but something serious. How about the Winter Solstice, and how from that time onward we are going toward "Life." Days start getting longer, we're on our way to Spring, incubation, growth, harvest. So, Dec. 21 is really the beginning of the life cycle. Let's discard the commercialization of Christmas and all the hoopla that has nothing to do with anything other than beefing up the economy with our charge cards.

Friday, December 26, 2014 at 21:07 | Unregistered CommenterStuart Balcomb


Thank you! That is a great idea. I'm going to institute that ritual next year: celebrate the Winter Solstice and see if I can resist buying a single thing. Thanks for the inspiration.

Wishing you and Joanna an Art-full New Year.

Much love,

Kaaren & Richard

Saturday, December 27, 2014 at 1:13 | Registered CommenterKaaren Kitchell & Richard Beban

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