Liberté and Egalité – freedom and equality – that’s the credo in France and, yes, it’s true even when it comes to Christmas trees. Everyone has one here. The most beautifully decorated Christmas tree I ever saw in Paris was in the home of friends who invited us over to see the pictures from the weekend before…of their son’s bar mitzvah. France offers equal opportunity access to all the joys of Christmas—exchanging gifts, banqueting on Christmas Eve—no matter what your religion. I truly think this is wonderful (please see the photo below), but I do also think it’s totally paradoxical.
There are Christmas trees everywhere in France. In stores, in public spaces like train stations and city halls, on church steps—which makes sense, except that here there are also half a dozen enormous, sparkling Christmas trees in front of the Pantheon, France’s famous temple of secular greatness. It’s a Republican cathedral of secularity…with Christmas trees.
France has secularism inscribed in its constitution and its identity. It is a deeply cherished and staunchly defended value. The French get freaked out when they see the word “God” on American dollar bills or when you try to explain the American public school ritual of the pledge of allegiance: “…one nation, under God.” They find all this deeply representative of the United States’ excess of religion, a country where everyone seems to believe in God and there’s a dangerous lack of boundaries between church and state. They can even get a little very self-righteous about this.
And yet it’s in the country where God is always creeping into public life that we seem to have devised a much clearer policy concerning religious and secular symbols—or at least concerning the Christmas tree. And the Christmas tree is not secular. For the most part in the United States, if you’re Jewish, even just a little bit, you don’t really ever consider getting a Christmas tree. Quite simply because you’re not…entitled. You’re not Christian, hence you don’t celebrate Christmas, the holiday making the birth of Jesus Christ. Therefore no Christmas tree.
Strangely, in France, in this deeply secular culture that forbids religious or ethnic surveys, that forbids all religious symbols in public places—strangely they seem to be fine with being all flou on the Christmas tree thing. As though it had nothing to do with Christ. “Well Jesus was Jewish, right?” offered my French mother-in-law when I asked her about this paradox. She seemed to think that wrapped things up nicely.
Nobody here really seems very bothered at all by the paradox. In a schoolteachers’ discussion forum, when the occasional renegade teacher wonders about the presence of Christmas trees and Christmas lunches in the intensely secular French school system, dozens of responses scoff at this literalist nit-picking explaining that the Christmas tree is originally a pagan custom, that of the tree as the symbol of life—because it’s evergreen—and joy and prosperity, and that anyway Christmas has become a family holiday disconnected from any religious significance.
So basically, if you follow that logic, Christmas is like the French Thanksgiving. That probably also has something to do with the fact that, despite France’s roughly 10% of Muslims and half a million Jews—informal estimations since religion-based censuses are not allowed—the great majority of the country is Catholic. The majority’s symbols become everybody’s symbols. Undoubtedly those nit-picking literalists who sense something of a double standard may see it a bit like that.
I’m one of those Jews who grew up without a Christmas tree, and so ultimately I’m delighted that now I can be a Jew and have my tree too. Without feeling guilty about the passive assimilationism of it all. It’s really very win win, this paradox. I do feel like I shouldn’t go overboard—for example, I went to the Bangladeshi-run dime store in my street to buy tree decorations and I got them in a deliberately un-red and un-green orange color. You know, more “colourful” than “holiday.”
But like anybody cares around here. Especially not the Jews exchanging gifts over oysters and foie gras.
Vive la République. Vive Noël!