The Slow Decline Into Christmas

Don’t know about your part of the world, but Christmas seems to come earlier every year. We get bombarded by adverts and junk mail and festive hype, here is a post on the decline into Christmas in small town France.

The inexorable and inevitable slow decline into Christmas. Everyday my mailbox is clogged up with voluminous toy catalogues from local supermarkets and toyshops, announcing their soon-to-be starting, Christmas toy fairs.

The thin, acne faced youth who regularly fills my letterbox with tons of junk mail, must be working overtime, and when I look at the gangly stick-like, lumpy-faced young man, I wonder how he manages to actually carry all those catalogues. Yes, there is a secret – he has a small shopping trolley with wonky wheels, creaking under the weight of catalogues, that he drags around behind him as best he can on the uneven, pot-holed pavement.

The run up to the festive season is not just toys, it is also chocolates. Numerous representatives of deserving causes have been going round the neighbourhood, knocking on doors, distributing chocolate catalogues.

« Buy our delicious Belgian chocolates, and for every box, one Euro goes to cancer research. » says a smiling charity volunteer. Delivery guaranteed before Christmas if I buy now.

One young man was doing the hard sell on hand made chocolates – « made in a workshop by local Downes syndrome children, » he informs me. I just want to ask if the kids have washed their hands before they make them.

Soon, we’ll have all our local public service workers beating a path to our door to sell calendars – the dustmen, the postman, the firemen – they all get hundreds of calendars printed up, and then they hawk them round their customers. The proceeds are for their « Christmas box » – I remember last year, as two of our bin men, hovered for several long minutes at our front door, trying to get us to buy a calendar. I tried to explain that the postman and the local firemen had got there before, and we already had two calendars, we certainly didn’t need a third one – but we finally bought a third one out of « fear » – Yes, there was that one Christmas when we didn’t buy the dustmen’s’ calendar and for the whole of the next year, we got sloppy rubbish collections, bits of rubbish lying on the garden path or our bin, left in the middle of the road. So, what happens if you don’t buy these calendars – will the local fire fighters leave your house to burn simply because you didn’t buy a calendar? Will the vengeful postman refuse to deliver your mail? When the world is howling gales, Storm force winds, snow drifts and driving rain, the mail always gets through, and I suppose that my weather-beaten postman does deserve something in his Christmas box, as do the firemen and the dustmen – if they could all get together and just sell the same calendar ….

Other signs that Christmas is on the way … those municipal workers who look after street lighting are busy stringing up festive lights all round town – two months to put them up and two months to take them down – the big switch on is usually on December 1st. This is a good logical date for a Christmas switch on; I’ve never been a great fan of a November switch-on as happens in London.

And finally, a sure sign the festive season is upon us – the Great Creche Controversy – this is typically French.

So, what’s in a creche – apart from Jesus, Mary, Joseph, a few animals, some shepherds and the Three Kings (when they finally arrive) ? Well this is France, a staunchly secular republic, where Church and State have strictly been separated since 1905, with the result that anything pertaining to religion is banned from public life – meaning no crucifixes hanging from the walls of school classrooms; no wearing of openly religious garb in public places (public buildings) – So, when I arrive in London and I am greeted by a female Customs Officer sporting an Islamic head scarf … well this is unthinkable in France, as would be the lady at the local tax office wearing a massive crucifix – you get the idea.

Christmas being Christmas, it is that time of year when people like to put up a crèche, and a few years back many schools, town halls and even some public offices would set out a Crèche (or Nativity scene if you prefer). No one gave it a second thought, until organisations of « humanists » and « free thinkers » began to take local mayors or school head teachers to court, because they were infringing the 1905 law on the separation of Church and State.

On a case-by-case basis, in some parts of France, judges ruled Crèches illegal because of their obvious religious symbolism, in other parts of France, judges rule that a Nativity scene was okay because it was part of local cultural heritage. In Provence, in the South of France for example, where the making of traditional Crèche figurines is a centuries-old cottage industry, it has been deemed okay to have a Nativity Scene in a public building on cultural grounds. On France’s highly catholic Atlantic coast however, judges have ruled that Nativity scenes are illegal because they are of a religious nature. In Eastern France – Alsace and Lorraine it is okay to have a crèche simply because in 1905, when Church and State went their separate ways in France, this part of France was actually under German ruled – having been annexed by Germany after its victory in the 1870-1871 Franco/Prussian war – so, as part of Germany, the French law didn’t apply, and when the staunchly Lutheran Alsace and Lorraine returned to the Gallic fold in 1918, they did a deal with the government, whereby they were allowed to « opt out » of certain parts of the 1905 law .

Now, as myself, you might think that this is all very trivial and, that the good folks of France would have better to do than go around trying to outlaw Nativity scenes, but those who indulge in this are very serious about what they do, and they see themselves as upholding a pillar of the French Republican Framework. I suppose that I am one of those unconcerned agnostic French types who don’t mind a Nativity Scene at Christmas, but who support the ban on ostentatious religious garb.

There are ways around the Crèche ban. Some local authorities set up the Nativity Scene next to Santa’s Grotto at the Christmas fair, avoiding the religious issue value and setting Jesus, Mary and Joseph on the same footing as Santa’s Elves.

Anyway, as we approach Christmas there will certainly be more crèche controversy and … well, don’t people have better things to do?