Thursday, November 1, 2007

For All the Saints

Today is Toussaint -- All Saint's Day -- and everyone goes to the cemetery to visit their friends and family members who have passed on. I went to the Montparnasse cemetery and saw people cleaning graves and planting flowers (as in the photos) and reflecting quietly. A few tourists looked around too since the cemeteries of Paris are always a popular sight. They're a calm and peaceful place in the middle of a busy city, and they're so different from most American cemeteries with their enormous monuments and sculptures.

Many things are closed today since Toussaint is a pretty big holiday. The streets were extremely quiet this morning. But the day begs a set of interesting questions about why a secular country which has no official religion celebrates a religious holiday. Of course, we do this in the US by closing so many things for Christmas. But France's relationship to its Catholic heritage is more complex. In addition to Christmas, they take off for days like Pentecost and All Saint's. Every night on the weather report, they tell viewers what the next day's liturgical holiday is -- what saint's day or festival day it is. France has its national holiday too on Bastille Day in July, but many of the days on which things are closed are religious in their origin.

Clearly, this reflect's France's tradition as a Catholic country which, although having officially separated church and state in 1905, is still steeped in a cultural tradition which emerges from that faith. In the US, we have a longer tradition of religious pluralism, even though much of that pluralism was between different Christian sects and denominations. The battles in France over religion and politics have been long and sometimes bloody -- the 16th century Wars of Religion, for example, or religious violence during the French Revolution. These fights are part of why many people struggled to separate faith and politics since people were literally killing each other because of their beliefs. But as holidays like Toussaint indicate, that cultural memory is deeply embedded and, despite the history, hasn't gone away.

I also wonder if these kinds of religious holidays perhaps aggrivate tensions between France and its Muslim immigrant populations, especially because it reveals a certain hypocrisy over the way that French society deals with religious expression. The big battle here during the last few years has been over whether Muslim girls could wear headscarves in school. The girls and their families argued that head coverings were a symbol of faith and of modesty required by their religion. The government countered that there should be no religious symbols in any French school because schools are a secular space where everyone is a citizen first, not a part of some other competing identity group. France has traditionally disliked the idea of hyphenation: there are no Franco-Africans or Franco-Italians in the way we have African-Americans and Italian-Americans, and the French census does not record statistics about race or ethnicity. To be "French" is supposedly to give up any claim on some other identity.

But when the stores, libraries, restaurants, and indeed much of Paris seems to have shut down for Toussaint and when they announce that tomorrow is Saint So-and-So's holiday on the nightly weather report, surely Muslims and other religious groups must wonder what's going on. How can one identity be so culturally ingrained and empowered that it controls the calendar while another identity can't be expressed by wearing a simple piece of clothing?

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