France has been preparing for Christmas since before Halloween. If you think I’m exaggerating, I’m not. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not mad about it. I don’t even celebrate Christmas and I love it. The decorations, the festive cookies, the color red….I am a sucker for good holiday marketing, which is why it should be no surprise that European Christmas markets have my heart. I had been to Christmas markets back in the U.S., so I thought of myself as somewhat of an expert. However, what confronted me when I walked to class about a week ago was on another level. On every block, men on cranes fixed light displays above the roads. In one of the main circles, a crew was erecting a ride reminiscent of a tilt-a-whirl with a big metal Christmas tree supporting the spinning, ornament-like cars.
And, of course, in Place Royale, a little Christmas village has seemingly risen from the pavement. From the beautiful cathedrals in center city to the silent Sunday streets, France’s Catholic roots are evident. While I love Christmas and the spirit it evokes, the celebrations don’t always leave a ton of room for other religious groups.
Growing up Jewish in a predominately Christian area, I always wanted to celebrate Christmas like my friends. On Christmas when I was younger, my mom would leave a present in my room with a note signed by “The Chanukah Fairy” so I didn’t feel left out. While the gesture was sweet, it didn’t change the fact that on the TV, on every storefront, even in coffeeshops, everything was about Christmas. During lower and middle-school when I was the only Jew in my class, having to sit out this holiday was devastating. However, every school I went to made an effort to learn about my religious traditions. I would honestly find it weird if someone back home didn’t at least know what Chanukah was, which brings me to the Christmas culture of France. About a month ago, I brought up the date of Chanukah this year to a friend. She genuinely had no idea what the holiday was celebrating or that it even existed. She was, of course, happy to listen to my explanation, but it occurred to me that she may have never had a Jewish friend in her life.
While seeing the streets of Nantes lit up and lined with crepe and mulled wine stands fills me with childlike glee, it also forces me to reflect a bit. While I’ve been in France, I’ve missed Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, and the upcoming Chanukah. These are days that I would typically spend with my family, but here they came and went without recognition. I’ve never been a very religious person, but being in a place where my religion is not as practiced makes me recognize the different ways in which faith infiltrates a nation’s culture. For me, it is not unusual to be somewhere where I am the religious minority, so I am not bothered by it. However, I do hope that the next time you’re talking to someone from a different culture or religious background, you ask them what their celebrations are like. If I’ve learned anything these past three months, it’s that the more questions you ask, the better. Happy holidays, everyone!