Monday, December 19, 2005

Holiday Time

France is nominally a Christian country. Although separation of Church and State is enshrined both in French law and in daily practice, some national holidays – as well as school vacations - are based on the traditional Roman Catholic Church calendar: for example, Easter Monday, Whitmonday (lundi de Pentecôte), the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin (le 15 aout - Assomption), and All Saints' Day (Toussaint) spring immediately to mind.

Known in French as les fêtes de fin d'année, the holiday season at the end of the year encompasses both Christmas and New Year's and can be considered to extend to Epiphany, on January 6th (yes, the Twelve Days of Christmas !). Upon arrival, the American expatriate here is surprised – even dismayed, sometimes dumbfounded - to find that some facets of the traditional American Christmas and New Year's are simply not reproduced here. The French celebrate in other ways and, of course, over the years a winnowing process takes place: just what will the expatriate keep for her/himself from the American festivities, and which French holiday traditions might s/he adopt ?

The short answer to the first question is that one preserves the holiday traditions that one is comfortable with. Frequently some modification takes place, due to local circumstances.

Take caroling, for example: the French are not prone to gathering in groups and moving from house to house while lustily belting out "We wish you a Merry Christmas !", "God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen !" … or even Petit Papa Noel. On the weekends before Christmas, homesick Americans can find Carol services and gatherings at American churches (American Cathedral and American Church of Paris) and well as at least one English house of worship (Saint George's Anglican). There are also Christmas arts, crafts and bake sales at these institutions – and others, including the American Wives of Europeans Annual Holiday Bazaar - during the weeks preceding Christmas. For several years now the Choral Society at American Cathedral has put on a wonderful Handel's Messiah Singalong at the beginning of December. Clearly Americans looking for traditional Christmas activities can find them relatively easily and quickly, if they so desire. One need not remain isolated.

Sending Christmas cards to all and sundry is also a tradition unknown here. One will not find a huge selection in the shops, no matter how hard one tries. However, the French do traditionally send greeting cards (Bonne Année only) during the month of January. By the way, here it is considered unlucky - as well as very bad form - to wish someone a "Happy New Year" before the New Year has, in fact, rung in. However, one can extend one's New Year's greetings throughout the entire month of January – as long as they arrive before January 31st, that's OK. The French certainly know how to take the stress out of such things. In Amerloque's experience, American expats are quick to seize the advantages of the French system, even going so far as to send French New Year's cards back to the family in the States, much to the receiving family's disapproval.

Long term expat Americans en mal du pays equip themselves expeditiously with recipes for Christmas cookies (and appropriate traditional cookie cutters !), wassail and eggnog, all of which are absent from the French tradition … and the shops.

Ah, the shops, and the shopping ...

There is no Thanksgiving here, so there is no kickoff day to open the Christmas shopping season, such as Black Friday in the USA. Sometime in November, generally after Toussaint but before Armistice Day (le 11 novembre, a national holiday), department stores and shops begin unpacking, installing and unveiling their Christmas decorations and products. The increased commercialization of Christmas seen in America, the United Kingdom and other Western countries over the past few decades has been mirrored here. Hence the media is filled with items about best-selling gifts (le palmarès des ventes), dangerous toys (les produits non-conformes), addresses of the "best" places to shop, and other information designed to separate the consumer from her/his euros without too much pain. Shopping is very much an individual affair, and an expat can do in France exactly what he or she would do in the USA.

As in America, along with the shopping come the open-air Christmas decorations, of which there are many to be seen and appreciated, from simple Christmas trees (les sapins de Noel), with artificial snow and presents, to city-sponsored outdoor Christmas lights on lampposts and buildings. Some of the designs and colors are uniquely, inimitably French; in Paris the lights on the Champs-Elysées are always worth a visit. Nativity Scenes (les creches) and the associated figurines (les santons) are usually fairly elaborate. It's always enjoyable to view the decorations at the major Parisian department stores ... just like in New York, Chicago or LA !

Now, the second question: which French holiday traditions might an American expat adopt ?

In the USA, Thanksgiving is a time when families come together, while, in France, Christmas is that time. Hence the Christmas Eve dinner (le reveillon de Noel) is a special moment when all the members of the family gather 'round the table – perhaps after having attended a Midnight Mass or other service – to feast on traditional French dishes, ending up with the Yule log cake (la bûche de Noël). After opening the gifts found under the tree on Christmas morning, the family shares the Christmas Day luncheon / dinner, which nowadays usually includes turkey. New Year's, on the other hand, is an occasion to make merry with one's friends. New Year's Eve festivities (le reveillon de la Saint-Sylvestre) are generally devoted to eating, drinking and partying well into the morning hours. Many restaurants have special menus for both the Christmas and New Year's reveillons and it is not unusual for childless French couples (or emptynesters !) to simply dress to the hilt and go out for a great meal and celebration at a nice establishment – sometimes at considerable expense.

Given the vast variety and top quality of French foods, the American expat rapidly discovers - depending on the region and the weather - that traditional fare such as smoked salmon, caviar and foie gras can be amply complemented by simple boudin (blood sausage) or boudin blanc (white pudding), escargots (snails) and specialties such as cornues, springerle, Winachtsbredele and fougasse (one of the thirteen traditional Provençal desserts).

In Amerloque's experience, the expat adopts the partying and the food with nary a qualm – and why not ?

The cornucopia of French foods is huge and takes more than one lifetime to discover. A French food tradition worthy of note – and adoption if one wants to be part of French life forever - is the inordinate attention paid to the price of the truffle (la truffe), an essential ingredient in many a holiday dish. Weeks before Christmas, the media begins speculating on the quality of the truffle in the current year … Was there enough rain ? Was it not too dry this year - almost droughtlike – for a bumper crop ? Are there fewer truffes this season, or will it be a bounty year ? The focus then shifts to the local farmer and his truffle-sniffing animal, traditionally a pig. More and more dogs are being trained as truffle hounds, and the media is always ready to run a report on a local rustic (usually down Sarlat way) who has switched from pig to canine. Then come the inevitable reports about "foreign" truffles, from China, Italy or an unnamed "Eastern European" country, and their perceived – or real - lack of quality. The culmination of the truffle saga, every year, is inevitably the first day of the truffle market in the Perigord at the beginning of December: a secretive business run on words and handshakes among those in the know, virtually closed to outsiders – but one which the media penetrate so that the price per kilo can be triumphantly announced to the waiting world. Knowing the (usually astronomical) price of the bit of truffle one is eating adds a decided fillip to the Christmas boudin and paté.

Not yet a nationwide tradition – but rapidly becoming one – is the Christmas Market. Based on the German Christkindlmarkt with its Saint Nicolas, glühwein, gingerbreads, wooden market stalls, Black Forest-like Christmas decorations and inimitable folksy atmosphere, the marché de Noel is particularly well developed in Alsace and Lorraine, in the east of France – for obvious historical reasons. The attentive marketgoer can find glassblown ornaments, holiday handcrafts (including puppets and nutcrackers and cuckoo clocks), jewelry and, naturally, a staggering assortment of cookies, cakes, muffins, strudels, nuts, crepes, chocolates and beverages. In the past decade or so, millions of tourists have been drawn to Alsace to visit the numerous Christmas Markets in season; in recent years, municipalities and organizations throughout the France have jumped on the Christkindlmarkt bandwagon. Instead of lasting weeks, though, local markets might last an afternoon, a day or a weekend. They vary widely in quality and commercialism and, while most cannot but weakly rival the "real" markets in Eastern France and Germany (apparently the one in Mayence, i.e., Mainz am Rhein, was particularly beautiful this year: "the equal of Nuremberg", according to a expert member of Amerloque's immediate family who has just now returned, ecstatic …), they offer a uniquely French and European experience for American expats who wish to deviate slightly from the beaten track. Sometimes one will even find that any profits from a city-organized marché de Noel are used to help the less fortunate: solidarity in action.

Finally, the French economy takes a significant breather during the Christmas season. Moreover, school holidays usually begin on the weekend before Christmas and generally end several working days after New Year's. In America, members of a given family might arrange to "be home for Christmas" for a few days. Here, with five weeks paid vacation the general rule, many families arrange things so that members can take the entire Christmas week off together, perhaps on a skiing holiday, ... or simply at the country house (la résidence secondaire). Amerloque, among other expats, has wholeheartedly adopted this French tradition.

Of course, each American expat has her own story, his way of celebrating Christmas, depending on factors such as job, current financial circumstances, family ties, location in France, interest in Christmas and time spent in both the USA and France. More or less emphasis is placed on American and French traditions, local and national - choices are much more personal and relevant, when two cultures coalesce in celebration. Amerloque has found that binational families try to combine the best of both worlds and develop unique traditions, so that each Christmas past - and each holiday season - can be remembered with happiness as each member grows older.

Joyeux Noël !


Text © Copyright 2005 by L'Amerloque

Monday, December 12, 2005


The French people have spent over two hundred years moving religion to the private sphere and divorcing it from public life. There is separation of Church and State in France, and it didn't happen by accident. France is nominally a "Roman Catholic" country and is considered to be the Church's "eldest daughter". One will not see, however, a motto such as "In God We Trust" on coins or banknotes, nor will one hear the President of France saying "God bless you" (Dieu vous bénisse) during his Bastille Day or New Year's Day speeches, nor will one see the Ten Commandments displayed in any state building.

France has a long history. The French Revolution (begun in 1789) abolished the Concordat of 1516 between Pope Leo X and King Francis I of France, which among other measures had given the King the right to nominate bishops, abbots, and priors but reserved to the Pope the right of confirmation and special rights of appointment. When Napoleon Bonaparte was First Consul, just before the Empire (1804-1815), the Concordat of 1801 was signed. It was an agreement between Napoleon and Pope Pius VII that reestablished the Roman Catholic Church in France. The Concordat consolidated Napoleon's position, ended the royalist-clerical rebellion in Western France, reunited the clergy, and won the support of the large majority of peasant farmers. Roman Catholicism was recognized as the religion of most French citizens.

Then, at the end of the 19th century, along came the "Dreyfus Affair", a political scandal which bitterly divided France. In 1894 Alfred Dreyfus, a Jewish artillery officer in the French Army was charged with passing military secrets to the German Embassy in Paris and convicted of treason. He was innocent - his conviction rested on fake documents, a put-up job which higher-ups had tried to cover up. The Dreyfus Affair split France between the dreyfusards (who backed Dreyfus) and the antidreyfusards (those against him). There were several controversial issues (including but not limited to anti-Semitism) and the country was violently fractured for several years. Basically, the right wing (the antidreyfusards) supported a return to monarchy and clericalism – involving the Roman Catholic Church heavily in public life - while the left wing, far more anticlerical, supported the Third Republic on the dreyfusard side. To cut a long and fascinating story short, Dreyfus was pardoned in 1899, and reinstated in the Army.

The Dreyfus case happened at the end of a quarter century of often acrimonious but incisive debate about the place of religion in modern French life. It was clear to the French, at the beginning of the 20th century, that something had to be done to reduce the role of religion and reestablish the primacy of the Republic over Catholic, royalist France. The final version of the law separating Church and State was approved on July 3rd, 1905 by the Assemblée: 341 for vs 233 against) and by the Senat on December 6, 1905 (179 for; 103 against). The Parliamentary debates had lasted a total of ten months.

The Law separating Church and State was promulgated on December 9, 1905. It is still in effect today, one hundred years later. Last week France celebrated the centenary.

The following year (1906) saw the "inventories": all Church real estate, although belonging to the State, was placed at the disposal of the relevant religion; each edifice had to be inventoried, which led to violent demonstrations throughout France. The 1905 law was accepted by the various Protestant congregations and the Jews, but Catholics entered a kind of "resistance", which only ceased in 1924 when the Catholic hierarchy regained the right to manage the religion's assets directly.

There are forty-four (44) articles in the 1905 Law, which marks the foundation of French laicité. The first two are basic and are learned by all French schoolchildren:

Article 1: The Republic ensures the freedom of conscience. It guarantees the free exercise of religion. La République assure la liberté de conscience. Elle garantit le libre exercice des cultes.

Article 2: The Republic neither recognizes nor remunerates nor subsidizes any religion. (La République ne reconnaît, ne salarie ni ne subventionne aucun culte.

Since the passage of the 1905 law, religion in France has been considered private - and has no place in public life. That is why, for example, a young Muslim girl cannot wear her hijab to a state school and why a Sikh cannot wear his turban and why a Jew cannot wear his yarmulke (aka kippah) and why a Catholic cannot wear a conspicuous cross. Civil servants on the job are bound by the same restraints. The French feel that allowing the symbols of belief to be displayed in public, state buildings or by a civil servant is proselytization – or the intent to proselytize - for that religion. Eliminating the symbol simply eliminates any and all questions of indoctrination or influence or aggression on other individuals. In this way freedom to believe – and, importantly, not to believe - in any God or higher power whatsoever is guaranteed to all. Of course, one can wear what one wishes on the street, in the supermarket or at the opera. That is not the issue. Those are public places … but are not dependent on the Republic's finances, which is the issue. It couldn't be more clear.

It should be noted that when the time came a few years ago to draft the proposed European Constitution to be submitted to European citizens for approval, France voted against including a reference to Europe's Christian heritage, rather than for, as Poland did. This is in keeping with the spirit of the 1905 Law. Of course, there are certainly other observations to be made on the separation of Church and State as it is practiced in France. One: why, for example, are many national holidays – and the school vacations – based on traditionally Catholic/Christian holy days ? (Answer: because when the holiday/vacation was established, there was no significant Muslim presence in France, as there is nowadays.) Another: should government money be used to finance the construction of mosques and Sikh temples, so that Muslims and Sikhs can also benefit from certain dispositions of the 1905 Law pertaining to the upkeep of "cultural" venues ? (No clear answer to that one for the future, at least: for the moment, under the 1905 Law, the answer is "no".)

Recently on CNN, M. de Villepin termed "social unrest" the three weeks of civil disturbances France had just undergone. The centennial of the 1905 Law falls in the middle of French soul-searching as to the whys and wherefores of this unrest (aka "riots"). Several months previously the Minister of the Interior, Nicolas Sarkozy, had called for a "revision" to the 1905 Law to take into account the changes that have occurred during the past century, notably the immigration of millions of Muslims. He further set up a committee to "study" the 1905 Law and suggest certain "changes"; the committee is expected to make its views known sometime during the first half of 1906.

Along with immigration, the separation of Church and State is currently one of the major topics being debated in France. It is a very sensitive issue: last Saturday, thousands of people (12,000 say the organizers; 5,000 say the police) marched in the streets of Paris to preserve the Law of 1905. Even 500 or so Freemasons (francs-maçons), including the Grand Masters of the nine French lodges, came out in support of the separation of Church and State enshrined in the 1905 Law, which, they say, is "being threatened" (referring to Sarkozy's study group). This underlines the importance of the issue: Masons in the streets as a group are rare. The last time the Masons were out in such numbers was in 1994, when they demonstrated to protest possible changes to the Loi Falloux, a law relating to religious instruction in schools dating from … 1850.

Given current events and the tenor of present thinking in France, it is clear to Amerloque that the debates and discussions about the 1905 Law will increase in frequency, intensity and volume in 2006. Readers who love France and the French way of life should indeed take note.


Text © Copyright 2005 by L'Amerloque