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?




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?