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What's the deal with Christmas cribs in France?

The Local France
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What's the deal with Christmas cribs in France?
A Christmas crib in Luceram, southern France. Photo: AFP

A legally secular country plus a widely-celebrated Christian holiday means that Christmas can be something of a flashpoint in France, especially around nativity scenes.

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France is a secular country and has been since 1905, when laïcité (secularism) was coded into law. This means that although individuals are free to worship however they choose, the state must remain neutral.

This applies to state employees who may not display any symbol of religion while at work, and state buildings such as schools or town halls which may not display religious symbols or artefacts.

And yet, come December you will see Christmas trees everywhere, nativity scenes and town halls draped in festive lights - so what's going on? 

Public v private

Well, firstly the laws on laïcité don't apply to all public spaces - only state buildings like town halls.

So while it's illegal to display a Christmas crib in the mairie, there's nothing to stop towns having one in the main square for example, and many do - in some places there is a 'live' crib, a stable scene with real cows, sheep and donkeys just to up the cute factor.

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Likewise shops or malls are private businesses, so they can display what they like, and of course so can private homes. 

Nevertheless, most years a local authority, usually one controlled by the far-right, will erect a Christmas crib in the town hall in deliberate defiance of the laws on secularism.

Obviously, churches do not have to abide by secularism rules and you will see beautifully decorated nativity scenes in churches. 

In fact, nativity scenes are so common that France has its own nativity tradition of santons, which you will see in the south, while some parts of the south-west adopt the Catalan tradition of adding the 'crapper' to crib scenes.

Religious v festive

Then there's what actually counts as a religious symbol.

You might be forgiven for thinking that as Christmas is a Christian festival - marking the birth of Jesus - everything Christmas-related is religious.

France disagrees and would say that festive decorations such as Christmas lights and Christmas trees are not Christian - in fact most towns have Christmas lights including a huge display on the Champs-Elysées in Paris, while town halls are also decorated.

They may have a point, a lot of the traditions of a modern Christmas - such as lights and bringing greenery into the home - actually hark back to earlier, pagan festivals that were co-opted by the Christian church.

But there's also an element of pragmatism - people like pretty lights and gifts and the celebrations at Christmas pre-dated the 1905 secularism laws. We see the same sort of compromise over the religious holidays that are included in the public holiday calendar - the basic argument goes 'yes, we're secular but people like having days off work'.

If you look carefully at Christmas light displays you will notice there are no religious icons like a cross in there, likewise Christmas trees in schools or the mairie usually won't have an angel on the top.

Although schools might have a Christmas tree, they won't have a school nativity play. 

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Consumerism

There's also the factor that as Christmas has become more associated with consumerism and general party vibes in France, more people who are not Christian feel comfortable celebrating it.

It's not uncommon to find Jews, Muslim, Sikhs or people who have no religious faith decorating their homes and buying gifts at this time of year - especially once their children start hearing about a certain Père Noël who will bring them presents. 

Even people who don't celebrate the festival still get an extra day off work (or two days if they live in Alsace) in which to enjoy spending time with friends and family. 

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