Man is an animal suspended in webs of significance that he himself has spun...

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

The Merry Month of May

As it fell upon a day 
In the merry month of May, 
Sitting in a pleasant shade 
Which a grove of myrtles made....

There are many merry days this month in France. In fact May is like a non-stop festival with no fewer then 4 national holidays.  Since a lot of these holidays are on a Tuesday/Thursday or at the beginning (or end) of a weekend, this means a lot of lovely long weekends.  Last week we had the Fête du Travail
 (a wink and a nod to the world of work)  but that was just the beginning. Here are the other three:

Fête de la victoire de 1945:  On this day, the 8th of May (a Tuesday) the French celebrate the day World War II ended (for them) with the formal surrender of the Germans in Reims.  A more general surrender was signed the day after in Berlin.  National historians can quibble over what day/event/city was the most meaningful but I'd say this is definitely something to celebrate everywhere.

Fête de l’Ascension:   This day falls on the 40th day after Easter (Thursday, May 17 this year) and celebrates the ascension of Jesus Christ into heaven.  A very important date for Christians everywhere (a Holy Day of Obligation even for us Catholics) and a national holiday in France.  You can count on very few people being in the office on that Friday since most people will "faire le pont" (take a day of vacation to bridge the gap between the holiday and the weekend).

Lundi de Pentecôte:  Another Christian feast held the 50th day after Easter to celebrate the descent of the Holy Spirit on the Apostles.  The Pentacost is also known as Whitsunday.  The Monday following (the 28th of May) is a national holiday.

I love each and every one of these official holidays and, as a Christian, I am delighted that two important religious feasts appear on the national calendar (you will definitely see me at the cathedral on the Ascension).  But I also recognize that there is something a bit unfair about it all.  This is (I've been told) a secular Republic where religious freedom is protected but no religion is to be favored above any other by the State. 

In 2003 Jacques Chirac created an independent working group to study the question of secularism in the French Republic.  Patrick Weil, in his excellent book, La république et sa diversité : Immigration, intégration, discrimination, talks about how the working group tackled the issue of religious diversity in a land long accustomed to over 400 different types of cheese but only one recognized religious tradition.   Some of what came out of that working group was (and remains) controversial - the wearing of religious symbols (veils, large crosses, skullcaps), for example.  But there was one suggestion they made that was never applied but seems to me to be a fine idea:  "reconnaître la plus importante fete de chacune des religions minoritaires" (recognize the most important feast of each of the minority religions.)  No holidays would be eliminated but everyone would be free to choose a day off according to his or her religious tradition (not sure how this would work for atheist or agnostics).  

Simple and elegant.  Respectful of everyone's tradition.  In fact it makes so much sense it's not surprising that it was rejected out of hand.  Simplicity is not, after all, a characteristic prized by any French politician on the Left or Right.  

Pity, that....

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