To Crèche or Not To Crèche

Political correctness sometimes verges on the downright barmy. France is a secular society, which is fair enough. Public employees in France are not permitted to display ostentatious symbols of religious affiliation, such as foulards (headscarves) or large crucifixes. These issues came close to home this week.

Le Figaro newspaper reported today that SNCF (national rail company) employees at local town Villefranche-de-Rouergue decided to celebrate Christmas by setting up a crèche in the station foyer. They have done this for the past 10 years. This, of course, is an ‘ostentatious religious symbol’. Never mind the fact that, whatever your religious leanings, you can’t have failed to notice what time of year it is.

Someone complained. The regional management didn’t actually order the crèche to be removed but the employees responded by covering the offending installation with a tarpaulin and a notice saying why. So, something that might have given a lot of people pleasure has been denied to everyone because of someone’s bigoted self-righteousness.

The issue is clouded by the fact that, although SNCF is a privatised company, it has a ‘public service mission’. It’s clearer for state and public buildings, such as mairies and schools. The SNCF management has apparently opened a dialogue with employees about the subject of secularism because of the polemic this has raised.

I can’t believe how petty and small-minded the whole affair is. France might be becoming a multi-cultural society but celebrating Christmas is part of French history, culture and tradition. I don’t happen to be a believer myself but I’m not going to deny myself the pleasures of Christmas – including singing in carol services and enjoying my presents (assuming I get some).

The SNCF workers have my sympathy and solidarity. And, since I’m not a French public servant, I’m posting four photos of local crèches that I have enjoyed. I hope you do, too.

First, the crèche in the church at Parisot, traditional but carefully thought out.

Christmas crèche at Parisot

Christmas crèche at Parisot

Second, the crèche under the halle at Parisot from last year, complete with live donkey:

Living crèche under the halle

Living crèche under the halle

Next, the crèche last year at Cajarc, where le Choeur de Parisot sang Christmas carols. I thought this was rather clever.

Original idea for a crèche at Cajarc

Original idea for a crèche at Cajarc

Finally, the crèche the villagers of Loze install every year in a cave in the limestone hillside below the village. The figures are half life-size, if a bit moth eaten. But I think this is a lovely tradition. 

Crèche at Loze

Crèche at Loze

You might also like

A crèche with a difference
French Christmas traditions
Seven Signs of Christmas

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About Vanessa Couchman

My husband and I moved to an 18th-century farmhouse in SW France in 1997. I am fascinated by French history, rural traditions and customs and enjoy seeking out the reality behind the myths. I run my own copywriting business and write short stories and the occasional novel in my spare time. My husband appears here as the SF, which stands for Statistics Freak, owing to his penchant for recording numbers about everything.
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10 Responses to To Crèche or Not To Crèche

  1. amelie88 says:

    So they just put a tarp over the nativity scene? That’s too bad! If you’re living in a part of the world where the majority of the population celebrates Christmas, I think it’s fair to assume you will be seeing Christmas decorations around, regardless of secularism (which I have come to regard as a religion in itself in France). My office building here in NYC has a decorated Christmas tree in the lobby with some wreaths adorning the walls along with some potted plants next to the elevators (thought that may all be gone today, I wasn’t paying attention). During Hannukah earlier this month, there was a menorah for the Jews (NYC has one of the largest Jewish populations int he USA).

    We do get a little PC here in the USA over holiday greetings (especially with the high population of Jewish people here and other non-Christian denominations). I always have to remember to say “Happy holidays!” versus Merry Christmas because you never know who is Christian and who is not (though sometimes it is easy to tell by a person’s last name, you can guess at that person’s origins). It would be nice to just wish everyone a Merry Christmas–you still get a day off of work, even if you don’t celebrate it!

    • nessafrance says:

      In today’s multi-cultural societies, it’s becoming increasingly difficult not to tread on someone’s toes. I still tend to wish people a Merry Christmas but sometimes I change it to Festive Season, although even that is loaded, I suppose. Down where we live, Christianity is still the majority religion so you’re not likely to offend too many people by wishing them ‘Joyeux Noël’. Secularism in France is in danger of becoming as bigoted as any fundamentalist religion.

  2. pfornari says:

    This is so incredibly narrow-minded. Like you, we are not religious, but a simple creche is one decoration we always have, and the Moslems and Hindus who come to our house are delighted to admire it. I’m reading Alain de Botton’s ‘Religion for Atheists’ at the minute, and wholeheartedly agree with him that there is something to be said for the harmless rituals that bring us together at specific times of year…

    • nessafrance says:

      Quite agree. And it’s possible to live according to Christian principles without actually being a believer. Alas, over the centuries the over-zealous application of religions of all stripes has been responsible for some terrible atrocities. And now, to avoid upsetting or offending anyone we risk losing sight of the important cultural and historical aspects of all religions that we can all appreciate.

  3. lizgyooll says:

    I missed that story … how incredibly petty! Public servants seem to be the same everywhere and extrordinarily small minded; much better to celebrate all and this is probably a lot less aggravating and less dangerous for everyone.
    We came to your fantastic carol concert last night; such a very lovely event and we’ve not done anything like this in all the years we’ve been in Italy; the Catholic church is sadly without such merry singing. The Parisot church is also very gorgeous and we were meaning to come and find you at the “salles des fetes”, but in our wanderings after the concert we missed it and went to the bar in the car park instead … pity really. Happy Christmas!

    • nessafrance says:

      I’m so glad you made it and enjoyed it. I did look out for you but didn’t see you and it took so long to clear the church afterwards that you would have moved off by that time. Nothing is very well signposted there so the only advice I can give is to follow the crowds!
      Joyeux Noël.

  4. Evelyn says:

    There’s a lovely creche in the Cajarc church this Christmas…regional flavor complete with a windmill with revolving sails! I agree that we’ve gone so far trying to appease (or not offend) anyone that nothing has much meaning anymore. It seems so silly If you don’t believe in the story of Christmas, then just enjoy the traditional decorations, lovely music and festivities!

    • nessafrance says:

      Whoever is in charge of the crèche at Cajarc does a good job! I must try to get over there to see it. This whole story saddens me. As you say, nothing has meaning anymore.

  5. Sara Ellen Ben-Eliahu (Garvin) says:

    Good for you that you didn’t let this sad and ridiculous phony “equality of all beliefs but traditional observance of almost none” go by without posting a strong statement to help restore our human dignity and make a plea for commonsense. It is becoming increasingly difficult to maintain a sense of Reality as wave after wave of challenges sap the strength of those values that have defined our historical development and been the source of all progress toward free expression and secure societies. Time is running out for us all — there is no place to hide from fanaticism.

    • nessafrance says:

      Thank you for your comment. I feel sad that ‘live and let live’ still doesn’t seem to work. We bend over backwards not to offend people and in the process end up with nothing at all.

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