1905 And All That – or – Jesus Mary Joseph, Vegetairains with Crew Cuts and Free Thinkers

Thoughts on the “F” Word and some seasonal religious rantings

So, what’s in a creche? (Or Nativity scene) Well, Jesus, Mary and Joseph. Now, to use a seasonally inspired, biblical expletive that has unfortunately fallen out of contemporary usage:

– Jesus Mary JOSEPH! –

I suppose in current usage we would simply say WDF or Wot Da **** ! – But I don’t like the “F “ word – employed so easily and so often that it seems to have lost all its full force and meaning. Ah, even the dear old BBC let the “F “word through nowadays, where it was once banished and blotted from TV and radio with a massive BEEEEEEEP.

No! I refuse to start with the F word. I don’t like employing this expletive, now fallen into accepted common usage and used too liberally by many authors in the name of authentic dialogue.

Consciously listening to how I speak. I don’t use the F word in every sentence. I don’t like expletively-enriched speech. There are many ways to express one’s inner felt feelings rather than “effing” them.

So, « Jesus, Mary Joseph !!!! What’s in a creche ??? » Or « Good God! What is all the fuss about, it’s only a creche ??!! » Remember though, this is France (where the “F “word has been used for years on the airwaves – even during prime time TV, though over here, the “F “word is a “P” word) I digress.

1905 and all that

Yes, this is France – a Republic, and a secular one at that, meaning that there is (and has been since 1905) a strict separation between Church and State – not like in the UK, where the Queen is just one step away from God because she is head of the Anglican Church and defender of the faith.

The separation of Church and state means quite simply that God has no place in public life and (theoretically) symbols of a religious nature, are banned in public places – meaning that when a local Mayor decides to put a Nativity creche scene in the entrance to his town hall as part of the Christmas decorations, he is (theoretically) breaking the law- but as we all know, law is open to interpretation.

Posters of the Pope

In real terms the century old state/Church divide means that all displays of faith – any faith – are banned in public places (I have already explained this at length on the blog). So (for example) all those Muslim girls who choose the wear the seemingly inexhaustible array of body-hiding Islamic religious garb can do so at home, in the street, even in the supermarket, however they cannot wear it at school. Muslim mums taking their kids to the local council creche have to « unwind » themselves before they set foot in the building. A Catholic wearing a very visible crucifix might be asked to « hide it » when they enter a public building. Jewish people might be asked to remove their skullcaps before they too enter a public building. If you are a mayor in France, you can paper your office from top to bottom with photos of the President (as if you would want to) but you can’t put up a poster of the Pope. Time was that many school classrooms in France had a crucifix on the walls – they were ripped down years ago. On the upside, this secular stance means that parents are not forced to sit through lengthy, tiresome and poorly-performed Nativity plays at primary school, because schools don’t put on Nativity plays.

To the case in hand – we are at the offices of the local County Council in Nantes, where the employees have put up a Nativity scene as part of the Christmas decorations – seems innocent enough BUT, a local activist from the local « Movement for Free Thinkers » has complained to the local Court for Administrative Affairs » that the aforementioned scene is contrary to the secular precepts of current Republican law, so, the Creche is removed. However the employees of the local Council offices appealed against the decision, citing another clause from the law that allows « faith based » decorations on « cultural and historical grounds. »

Nantes is a large city of France’s Atlantic coast. It lies at the extremity of the Vendée region – France’s historic Catholic heartland. This is the part of France where people still carve a crucifix in their bread with a knife before cutting it, this is the part of France whose official symbol is a heart pierced by a crucifix, the whole thing surmounted by a crown – not very republican, and this is the part of France that rose up in mass against the French revolution. Even when Napoleon was busy conquering Europe, he was still sending armies down into the Vendée to suppress Catholic inspired anti- revolutionary uprisings. So, we are in a pretty traditional part of France, where traditionally, Nativity scenes are part and parcel of the Christmas landscape. However, all it takes is one complaint.

This « small matter » of a creche in Nantes has been headline news for about a week, even knocking football and the trials and tribulations of François Hollande off the front pages of most national newspapers. It is a very Franco-French faith affair. None of the nativity detractors has used the well worn argument that, the presence of a Christian symbol in a public place may « offend » people of other faiths – NO, here we are in a good old Republican left and religious right wing, seasonal bust up – and yes, we get the same bust up every year. In 2013, it was the staff of a provincial train station ordered to cover up their Nativity creche because it might « offend » people, and before – well we have had everything – high schools and nursery schools ordered to remove Christmas trees because they are a Pagan symbol, right down to towns who refuse to put up any form of Christmas decoration in predominantly Muslim or Jewish areas because they may offend the locals. Oh, Jesus Mary Joseph! It’s Christmas for god sake – you live in a predominantly Christian country, just accept it – BUT, the problem is not coming from other faiths – I know plenty of Muslim and Jewish families who put up Christmas trees and exchange gifts – the screams of offended secular indignation are coming from Franco-French republicans – free thinkers if you will (that is what they call themselves) – I guess a bunch of no-fun, crew cut vegetarians who just don’t like Christmas. (Sorry I’m getting carried away here.)

Free Thinkers

So, my experience of free thinkers, based on years ago when I was coming to terms with Thomas Paine – who was a free thinker in his time mode and a great thinker – in current times however, I enrolled in a group of local “free thinkers” – a loose collective of free spirits who met once a week to talk about “stuff” in a downtown bar – well I quickly learned that French freethinkers will leave you free to think as long as you think what they think and if you think differently, then at best you are looked down upon with benevolent pity because you are obviously too dumb to think the free-thinking thoughts of the free thinkers, and at worst – you are just a fascist.

All those displays of religious symbolism that transgress the uniquely secular nature of our Republic, are catalogued and deliberated upon by the National Observatory of Secular Affairs – yes it sounds very ominous, very Orwellian, very « Brave New World. » (Yes I know that George Orwell didn’t write it).

Cultural Exceptions

So, on this subject of state and religion and cultural exceptions. Normally in those areas where religion is a strong part of the cultural landscape, you can have a “religious” decoration in a public place. For example if you live in Provence in the south of France, a Nativity scene is quite Kosher, because one of the Provençal traditions is producing hand-sculpted religious figures to use in Nativity scenes. In the very Lutheran east of France – Alsace and Lorraine – that part of national geography that was under German control from 1870 to 1918, kids in local schools celebrate St Nicolas’ Day on December 6th. In some schools kids actually get a day or a day off, whilst in others, someone disguised as the iconic patron Saint of children, will come round the school, handing out sweets and candies – and always in tow, is Black Pete – there to chastise naughty kids. I have never heard anyone question this tradition, though in these “five-a-day” times of nutritional political correctness, St Nicolas now hands out fruit and Black Pete – well there are Quite a few people who would simply ban Black Pete on the grounds that he is racist – often played by a blacked-up white guy.

Because the East of France was under German control for over 40 years, the area has kept a few Teutonic practises of the time such as extra religious holidays – Good Friday being one. In other parts of France, when major retail chains open up their stores in the Sundays before Christmas, in Alsace and Lorraine (like in Germany), stores stay firmly and religiously shut. The other major difference between this Eastern part of France and the rest of us – Religious education in schools. The argument goes that Alsace and Lorraine were firmly under German control, when at the 1905 separation of Church and State. Not being part of France at the time, they have been allowed to keep their religious difference for cultural reasons.

So, I said that we are in a good old left-wing republican versus right wing religious bust up. However all politicians of whatever hue, do “religiously” respect and uphold the secular. No matter how far on the right, no politician would suggest the return of Religious education in schools or even the revoking of the 1905 law. Though Nicolas Sarkozy upset many people on the Left by saying that the French should remember their Christian roots, he sought to update and modernise the religious law taking into account France’s new religious make-up. Yes, in 1905, France didn’t have around five million Muslims and the law was designed to deal mainly with the Catholic Church – age-old enemy of the revolution. 1905 was all about Republicans beating up the church and no more.

Catholic Bashing

What the press call “Catholic bashing” is still alive and well in France, even some 235 years since the French revolution. When the Hollande government set out their law on same sex marriage – Catholics took to the streets in their millions (or thousands, depending on whose figures you believe.) There were huge national demonstrations against a law, which many Catholics saw as ridiculing the institution of marriage and pretty much destroying the family – and we had a few months of good old republican Vs religious bust up, with those on the left accusing Catholics of being homophobic and the Catholics accusing the Left of “Catholic bashing”. Enough said on this.

Made in China

Back at the Nativity scene. We have a cheap, plastic creche scene in our house. It has just gone up under our pagan tree as we spent the day decking our halls with the tradition boughs of prickly proverbials. And as I stood unpacking Jesus Mary and Joseph, I couldn’t help noticing the « made in China » label. I wonder if the controversial creche in Nantes was of oriental origin?