Why is Christmas a holiday in secular France?

The Local
The Local - [email protected] • 21 Dec, 2022 Updated Wed 21 Dec 2022 13:49 CEST
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A fan dressed up as Santa Claus holds a French national flag (Photo by ABDESSLAM MIRDASS / AFP)

France is a secular republic and has laws in place to ensure that religion plays no part in the state - so how come the Christian festival of Christmas is a public holiday?


Even though France is known for being a secular state - where public officials cannot wear religious signs, religious clothes and symbols are banned in schools, and displays of religion are not allowed in public institutions - Christmas is still a public holiday.

During the Christmas holiday season, it would not be uncommon to see a large Christmas tree in front of a town hall - or even inside of a school building - which might seem contrary to the principle of laïcité (secularism).


December 25th is also a public holiday, and schools take a two-week break over Christmas. And it's not the only one, in fact roughly half of France's 11 public holidays (or 13 if you're in Alsace) represent Catholic events.

The reason for this is essentially one of practicality.

The law around laïcité (secularism) was formally codified in 1905 and by the time there was already a fairly fixed calendar of holidays and festivals. The idea of suddenly getting rid of popular festivals, like Christmas, would go down pretty poorly with the population at large, so the politicians at the time didn't suggest it.

READ MORE: EXPLAINED: What does laïcité (secularism) really mean in France?

The same principle has remained - in essence, French politicians are reluctant to take away vacation days from the French, although several secular holidays have been added to the calendar since then, including May 1st which became a public holiday in 1919, Armistice Day to commemorate World War I and Victory in Europe Day after World War II.

A long-standing tradition

People in what is now France have celebrated a winter festival for thousands of years and several 'Christmas' traditions actually pre-date the birth of Christ. Christmas trees find their roots in antiquity, when Romans decorated the interior of their homes with evergreen branches to symbolise life, while the Bûche de Noël references the pagan festival of Yule.  

Some French Christmas traditions may have begun with religious origins, and have transformed to become more secular over time.

The traditional seafood platter originally comes from the Catholic tradition of abstaining from eating meat during holy periods such as Lent, but these days is mostly simply eaten for enjoyment.

READ MORE: Why do the French eat so much seafood at Christmas?

Although Christmas of course has its roots in the Christian festival marking the birth of Jesus, it's common in France for people of different faiths or no faith to still celebrate the time of year by visiting family, swapping gifts and donning a Christmas jumper.

State secularism

But even though Christmas is a public holiday in France, there are still rules of secularism that apply and like all laïcité rules, they apply to state buildings such as schools, town halls and government offices but not to private businesses like shops, public highways, private homes or churches.

Within state buildings lights, "happy holidays" (Joyeuses Fêtes) banners, and Christmas trees are allowed - because they are not viewed as overt signs of religion - but nativity scenes and cribs are not permitted.


For those with kids in French schools, you may have noticed that there are no Nativity plays at this time of year, for the same reason.

The Christmas crib tends to draw controversy every year, particularly from those on the political right in French politics.

READ MORE: Explained: Why are Christmas cribs a political issue in France?

Most recently, the head of France's right-wing party Les Républicains, Éric Ciotti tweeted an image of a nativity scene with the caption: “Magnificent crib in the hall of the Alpes-Maritimes département [local government office], to keep our traditions alive. Let’s be proud of our roots!”


He follows in the footsteps of many other politicians - mostly far-right mayors - who have erected Christmas cribs in town halls in deliberate defiance of the laïcité rules.




The Local 2022/12/21 13:49

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