le beaujolais nouveau

Though sprinkles of snow have been falling in Royat for a week or two and the cathedral has been playing Christmas music since fall vacation and I started wearing mittens on Wednesday and the Christmas tree and market and lights have started popping up around town, yesterday was the first day that felt like winter to me.

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Yesterday, wine shops and restaurants had signs in the windows, “Beaujolais nouveau est arrivé!” It was the first day to sell this type of wine, and it was a grand fête all around France. You see, in France, new wine can’t be released and sold before a certain date. The Beaujolais nouveau is different. It is released early (thus, nouveau) on midnight of the third Thursday of November. That was yesterday.

Our resident director, Joëlle, invited the Kalamazoo College students to a cave for a behind the scenes look at the great French celebration. It was more than I’d expected. We walked into a small wine shop and followed a few other customers down a metallic spiral staircase. I could hear music and laughing and felt like I was being led down to a secret society–one where there would be poker and costumes and lots of money and booze. Instead, I found a jazz band and cheese and tame looking French people drinking the freshest red wine of the year. It was awesome.

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One of the coolest parts about this big party was that it was open to the public. And the public came. The wine was free and flowing and so was the cheese and music. The French people were happy and chatty and called it a night around 10 p.m. It was a Thursday, after all. But even those who had work the next morning tried a glass or two or three of the fresh, spanking new Beaujolais.

The wine wasn’t particularly good. It was really brand new, as the grapes were probably gathered in early October, around the time when we did our own vendanges. It’s quite easy and pleasant to drink, but the party isn’t really about the taste. It’s about celebrating the beginning of a season.

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I think the reason the reason yesterday made me feel like winter was beginning was because of the Beaujolais Nouveau. In the United States, we have Thanksgiving to mark the beginning of the Christmas season. After Thanksgiving it’s okay to play Christmas music, to decorate the tree, to put lights up everywhere and wish people a Merry Christmas. Here, Thanksgiving doesn’t exist. I’d been wondering how French people knew when to start celebrating, but now I think I know. It’s the Beaujolais Nouveau.

Here’s what’s wonderful. This celebration comes earlier than Thanksgiving does in the States. A whole week earlier. And now I officially feel ready for Christmas to begin. So bring on the Christmas music and lights and markets and snow and hot chocolate and everything French and Christmasey. I’m ready. Oh, and joyeux noël to you too.

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