In France, Christmas isn't the only time of giving and receiving unwanted presents.
Just ask anyone who lives or works here and you'll be told about that New Year's tradition of giving (ahem) "voluntary" tips for services rendered - aka les étrennes.
It's a practice that dates back to "way back when" - Roman times apparently - although you'll probably be able to fill in the gaps to discover the real history by doing a proper Internet search (which doesn't include relying solely on Wikipedia). But that's for those of you who really want the full story.
In this country it's a convention which happily persists - and confuses.
You "give" to postal workers, firefighters, rubbish collectors and (where they still exist)
apartment block concierges or gardiens.
In each case, it's not exactly voluntary.
And you "receive" (yes it's a two-way process) from shops and businesses where you're a valued customer - with an ever-increasing pile of competing calendars taking up space on your kitchen wall (or wherever you decide to keep them).
As far as concierges or caretakers are concerned, "To celebrate the New Year, it's customary to slip a small envelope (with cash) or offer a box of chocolates or a bottle of champagne to a concierge as thanks." Well that's according to Christine Henry a reporter for the national daily "Aujourd'hui en France".
Those services include ones not necessarily stipulated in their employment contract such as watering plants, walking the dog or simply being (extra) friendly!
It's also, as Henry points out, a tradition as much in decline as the job itself as the French are counting their centimes and some at least are reluctant to dig very deep into their pockets.
As far as sapeur-pompiers or firefighters are concerned, well nobody in their right mind would begrudge "giving" them the odd five or ten euro note now, would they?
And right now they're busy knocking on doors offering their 2013 calender - at a price - which you of course set.
You'll end up buying it, unless you're a complete misery, because of the 250,000 firefighters in France, almost 80 percent of them are volunteers and you could well owe your life to them at some point in the future.
And similarly you'll probably already have been offered - and "made a contribution" to - the Almanach du facteur or the Postman/woman's calendar.
Yes another flippin' calendar.
What in the past might have featured pictures of historical figures and events is nowadays more than likely to contain photos of cute kittens, puppies and meaningless landscapes.
Once again even though it's free, a contribution - left to your discretion - is expected. And you can hardly refuse to "buy" one.
In all fairness, certainly in rural parts of France, those delivering the mail provide a service above and beyond the proverbial call of duty.
Posties can be a Godsend to many an elderly person stranded in their homes during bad weather.
Finally there are the rubbish collectors. They too are traditionally entitled to "a little something" but more and more local authorities have clamped down on the practice in recent years because "fake dustmen" have been going from door-to-door pretending to be collecting on behalf of the real ones.
The main problem with all this less-than-warm-hearted virtually institutionalised giving is that nobody really seems to know how much to give or whether to give at all come to that.
When even the French are confused, what hope is there for the rest of us?
Watch out for a report or two on French telly over the coming days as there might well be some possible guidelines.
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