As is probably evident from my selections, I’m very interested in the traditions of Christmas-keeping in other times and places. I was in Paris only once, as a toddler, and I don’t remember that. Henry James’ description is so vivid, it feels like a memory of my own.
PARIS, CHRISTMAS, 1876
By Henry James
I have never seen Paris so charming as on this last Christmas Day. The weather put in a claim to a share of the fun, the sky was radiant, and the air as soft and pure as a southern spring. It was a day to spending the streets and all the world did so. I passed it strolling half over the city and wherever I turned I found the entertainment that a pedestrian relishes. What people love Paris for became almost absurdly obvious: charm,
beguilement, diversion were stamped upon everything. I confess that, privately, I kept thinking of Prince Bismark and wishing he might take a turn upon the boulevards. Not that they would have flustered him much, I suppose, for after all, the boulevards are not human; but the whole spectacle seemed a supreme reminder of the fact so constantly present at this time to the reflective mind—the amazing elasticity of France.
Beaten and humiliated on a scale without precedent, despoiled, dishonored, bled to death financially—all this but yesterday—Paris is today in outward aspect as radiant, as prosperous, as instinct with her own peculiar genius as if her sky had never known a cloud. The friendly stranger cannot refuse an admiring glance to this mystery of wealth and thrift and energy and good spirits. I don’t know how Berlin looked on Christmas Day, though Christmas-keeping is a German specialty, but I greatly doubt whether its aspect would have appealed so irresistibly to the sympathies of the impartial observer. With the approach of Christmas here the whole line of the boulevards is bordered on each side with a row of little booths for the sale—for the sale of everything conceivable. The width of the classic asphalt is so ample that they form no serious obstruction, and the scene, in the evening especially, presents a picturesque combination of the rustic fair and the highest Parisian civilization.
You may buy anything in the line of trifles in the world, from a cotton nightcap to an orange neatly pricked in blue letters with the name of the young lady—Adèle or Ernestine—to whom you many gallantly desire to present it. On the other side of the crowded channel, the regular shops present their glittering portals, decorated for the occasion with the latest refinements of the trade. The confectioners in particular are amazing; the rows of marvelous bonbonnières look like precious sixteenth-century caskets and reliquaries, chiseled by Florentine artists, in the glass cases of great museums. The bonbonnière, in its elaborate and impertinent uselessness, is certainly the consummate flower of material luxury; it seems to bloom, with its petals of satin and its pistils of gold, upon the very apex of the tree of civilization.