Our Man in Paris: Ever seen a Frenchman in a Santa hat?

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The Independent Online

Search where you like, you will not find a Parisian wearing a Santa Claus hat with red flashing lights. A sweet, and dour, German woman complained to me the other day: "The French have no sense of fun. They are too southern. They don't understand Christmas. Have you ever seen a pretty, French Christmas tree?"

There is a great deal to be said for the quietness, and tastefulness, of Christmas in France: no holly borders; no infestations of cheeky robins; no illuminated santa hats; no reindeer-antler bonce-bouncers.

Christmas in France is a private, family affair which starts on the evening of the 24th and is all over by the 26th. Excessive consumption of food is encouraged; excessive consumption of drink is not. A recent survey discovered that the average French family spends €400 on Christmas, less than half the average spent in Britain.

However, my German friend does have a point. Sometimes you wish that the French were more seasonally adjusted.

In the square near our flat, there is a municipal Christmas tree, which has three tatty blue balls. The Champs-Elysées has been using the same Christmas decorations every year for as long as I can remember. White lights, scattered permanently in the trees, are switched on some time in early December. The effect is charming but tired, like an elegant old lady wearing a cheap necklace.

Our local flower market offers magnificent, tall Christmas trees but most Parisian families go for trees as big and decorative as loo brushes. At over €300 each for the taller examples of the needle-holding varieties, they can perhaps be forgiven. Our own large, but cheap, needle-shedding tree, with its collection of tasteful ornaments bought by my wife in America, always attracts astonished comment from French friends.

In an attempt to find a pretty, French Christmas tree, I turned to the 10th annual Paris show of "designer Christmas trees" - trees conceived by 120 of the world's leading fashion designers and auctioned for a children's charity.

Surely Karl Lagerfeld, Tom Ford, Giorgio Armani and others would know how to decorate a tree? The show - which lasts until 3 January at the Artcurial auction house, 7 Rond-point des Champs-Elysées - is fun but is more about the designers than it is about Christmas or trees.

Karl Lagerfeld's "tree" is a white, woman's jacket on a silver coat stand, draped with tinsel and baubles. Tom Ford's tree is a collection of photographs of babies' faces, arranged in a fir-tree shape on piano wires inside a golden frame. Giorgio Armani's tree is red and made of Styrofoam. Gaspard Yurkievich, the French-Argentinian menswear designer, has sent a small television on a yellow pedestal (presumably a statement about the electronic substitute for Christmas trees in many homes).

Only the Christian Dior fashion house sent anything which resembled a fir-tree: a fake tree with a white, plaster woman's head at the peak.

There is, however, one traditional form of Christmas decoration at which the French excel. The large department stores in Paris compete with each other to have the most original, or witty, or artistic window displays. They even, provide little platforms to allow toddlers to press their noses to the glass without being held up by Maman or Papa.

This year Galeries Lafayette on Boulevard Haussman has an ambitious sequence of animated displays showing the problems that Santa Claus encounters delivering presents to, among other places, Count Dracula's castle and a haunted, Scottish mansion.

Printemps, next door, has moving tableaux made from dolls and soft toys on strings. An orchestra of frogs (the creatures, not the people) boogies to a jazz number. A crowd of oversexed teddy bears in Liquorice Allsorts stripes attempts endlessly to seduce a crowd of dolls in pink skirts. This might be a satire on the French office Christmas party - if office Christmas parties existed in France.

All I want for Christmas is a contractual loophole

President George W Bush refuses to forgive France for having its own opinion of the war in Iraq. His free-spirited brother, Neil Bush, is more understanding. The Second Brother - if you count the First Brother as Jeb Bush, governor of Florida - has virtually emigrated to Paris.

Neil, 48, the most controversial member of the Bush family, divorced his wife of 22 years and the mother of his three children earlier this year. According to Sharon Bush, Neil informed her that the marriage was over by e-mail.

The presidential brother is now engaged to marry a Texan divorcée, Maria Andrews. She has been living in Paris with her three children since the summer and Neil - although officially still living in Texas - has been spending more and more time with his intended.

He occasionally collects his fiancée's children from their multilingual school in western Paris and introduces himself by saying: "Hi, I'm Neil Bush, brother of the president".

Jacques Chirac, smarting from President Bush's decision to exclude France from Iraqi rebuilding contracts, should invite Neil over for Christmas drinks at the Elysée Palace. The younger Bush's business interests, revealed by his divorce proceedings, include work for a company which offers advice to businesses on how to break into the Iraqi rebuilding market.

You can call me Brandie

The latest fad among French parents is to give their children brand names instead of Christian names. There are already 500 little girls called Chanel, according to the newspaper Le Figaro, and at least one Mégane, named after Renault's mid-range family car. The fashion comes from the US, where there are children called Porsche, Armani and Canon. One French family has apparently named its son Périphérique, after the Paris ring road. Lets hope that the idea catches on in Britain and we have a generation of children called Burberry and M25.