The rain in the heights of France is like taxation: recurring, reliable, and inseparable from the drabs of reality. As if on cue, the first gray spangles landed and slid across the panes of our carriage as the TGV split out of the rims of Paris and bounded north towards the département of Pas-de-Calais.

The neoclassical buildings of the metropolitan disappeared, displaced by the unmistakably Flemish flare of stair-stepped gables and brick townhouses, which in their turn were displaced by brown bosoms sprouting from the flat earth. These terrils, gigantesque mounds of coal dust and refuse, mark three hundred years of French industrialization and the center of the Nord—Pas-de-Calais Mining Basin.

Notwithstanding an inscription on UNESCO’s World Heritage List, the cultural terroir of the old mines and their surrounding areas are regarded by many a French as simply the sticks, a rural boondocks populated by blue-collars and blue weather. But beneath the layers of culm is a lively ember, tended by folkloric woods, rustic châteaux, and rich traditions.

More than ever, we were thankful to be here, in a year where nothing could be taken for granted: neither traveling, nor celebrations, and certainly not family. We cherished each other’s company over glasses of cream-colored pastis and trivia. We toured the swatches of forest purchased by Séb’s father and learned about hunting pigeons and game. We indulged our appetites and nourished our spirits in the lull of the countryside. For all the rain, wind, and aching winter chill, Christmas in Pas-de-Calais is a heartwarming affair, with plenty to admire, enjoy, and love.

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