ALPENA — Anaelle Fortin has a unique perspective on Christmas this year.
Fortin, a French exchange student, has experienced a full American Christmas while staying with Wendy and Randy Servia and their family, and she’s loved every minute of it.
That experience has included a family trip to Frankenmuth, wearing Christmas pajamas, seeing huge Christmas decorations, cookie decorating, stockings, and so much more.
“Everything is very huge,” Fortin said. “Everything in America is bigger than in France. I took so many pictures for my family back home.”
Longstanding holiday traditions are important to the Servia family — which includes Wendy, Randy, their son, River, and their daughter, Savannah — and they’re happy to share them with Fortin, which has reminded them how special those traditions are.
“To see it through Anaelle’s eyes, she doesn’t take anything for granted, and I think she’s here and she’s all in,” Wendy Servia said. “She’s away from her family and we recognize that…it’s fun to show our silly things to someone else.”
The holiday celebrations for the Servias usually start during Thanksgiving weekend.
On Thanksgiving Day, the family goes down to Frankenmuth and stays through the weekend at the Bavarian Inn Lodge. The weekend includes a trip to Bronner’s CHRISTmas Wonderland for new ornaments, wearing matching Christmas pajamas and sweatshirts, and other family fun.
“It’s fun to show something that we’re just used to doing and to almost, like, fall in love with how special it is all over again,” Wendy Servia said. “We do it every year, but with someone else who’s even more excited than we are, to see it through her eyes, I treasure it even more.”
That includes Christmas pajamas, which Fortin said aren’t really worn in France.
“She was just about in tears when I gave her her pair of pajamas,” Wendy Servia said.
Fortin is a part of Rotary International’s Youth Exchange Program, which Rotary Club of Alpena and Rotary de Cherbourg — Fortin’s hometown — participate in.
Fortin’s own holiday celebrations back home include going to church, having a big Christmas dinner, decorating a tree, and opening gifts after Santa visits on Christmas Eve when her family is at church.
Fortin said her hometown in northern France is usually decorated for Christmas, but she’s been amazed at how much bigger decorations seem to be in the U.S. and how much earlier decorating begins.
“Christmas is a big deal here and I feel like decorating begins very, very early,” Fortin said. “In France, we begin the first day of December and we finish on the last day of December, after Christmas, and that’s it. Here it’s like November, and maybe even October, there are decorations in the shops.”
The Servia family home is decked out in decorations too, and the family made a point during their Bronner’s visit to add some French-related ornaments to their tree.
“We have an ornament this year with Anaelle’s name on it,” Wendy Servia said. “She got her own stocking with her name on it. We added a French ornament to our tree. Our big tree is (decorated with) all memories, so she’s part of our tree this year with our family.”
Fortin’s family and the Servias have also sent each other Christmas packages this year. The one sent to France includes a Nativity scene, Bronner’s ornaments and a big American flag blanket for family movie nights.
Participating in Servia family Christmas traditions have only added to Fortin’s enjoyment of her American experience, and strengthened her bonds with her host family.
After adjusting to life away from home — which included bonding with the Servia family over episodes of “Emily in Paris” and making French comfort food — Fortin has found plenty to enjoy during her time in Michigan, and plenty to keep her busy.
As a student at Alpena High School, Fortin joined Alpena’s cheerleading team, was named Homecoming Queen this fall, and went boating with River and his friends. She also attended a football game at Michigan Stadium and has kept in constant contact with Savannah, who is a student at the University of Michigan.
“I’ve talked to Anaelle every day since she got here,” Savannah said. “We always send each other voice memos. She’s come to visit me at college, she went to the Big House and she got to experience a college football game. I call her my sister.”
With more fun in store over the Christmas holiday, the Servias look forward to including Fortin in their celebrations and, of course, getting a visit from Santa Claus.
“She’s just part of our family, so we’ll see if Santa knows where she is. Santa will visit and I’m sure will find Anaelle in America,” Wendy Servia said. “She’ll meet more of our family like she did over Thanksgiving. This is new to us, too. We didn’t know we’d experience it this way, but she’s our exchange daughter. She’s a sister to Savannah and River.”