Twenty years ago, Christmas did not mean that much to the French. Of course, the church made a lot of the religious aspect, but celebrations were much more limited than in the UK. Where there were lights in public places, they were mostly strings of white bulbs across some streets, or more often, outlining the roof, doors and windows of churches and public buildings.
In fact, these subdued illuminations were often quite elegant, in a minimalist way. Driving through the countryside one would frequently see in the distance a church or mairie in outline, like a simple line drawing. In the streets there would often just be branches from fir trees, stuck in holes in the pavement, with little parcels attached, and sometime sprayed with white or glitter paint. No one stole the packages, or damaged the branches.
There have been many changes since. As prosperity has increased, and the supermarkets and other major retailers have grown, so the forces of commerce have brought about a new form of Christmas, requiring much spending communally, commercially and individually, to the extent that it has become more like Britain. (The same thing has happened with halloween, which did not exist until the supermarkets used it as a marketing exercise and a new revenue stream.)
Every year has seen more street decorations, strings of multicoloured lights everywhere, across streets, wound around lamp posts, on buildings. There would be complicated designs, with messages, blinking and flashing, more and more complex each year, every town and village trying to be a little more colourful than the next. Many were boring, many were often interesting and striking.
People began to decorate their houses inside, and put up Christmas trees. Six or seven years ago, some individuals began to decorate their houses on the outside, with more and more lights, reindeers and so, just like so many lost souls in England. No infant school can end the term without a visit from le Pere Noel – in fact for a week or two the whole region seems to be crawling with Father Christmases, like London is with foxes. And now some villages are complaining that people are stealing the light bulbs and even complete sets of lights, such as garlands, angels and stars.
One common external decoration on private homes is a three foot high Sanhta Claus, climbing the outside of the chimney, or by a window. Whether because they are quite difficult to attach, or because of the winter winds, many of them end up dangling awkwardly from a rope. It rather looks as if there has been a widespread outbreak of lynching dwarf Father Christmases, which is not the most festive of images.
This year there may be the beginning of a retreat. Whilst in most places the lights are brighter, the arrangements bigger, the number greater, some towns are rethinking their approach. This is partly because there is a greater awareness of the environment and energy implications, partly because of the world financial position, and partly, I think, that it has all become rather silly.
One factor is changing their displays to light emitting diodes (LEDs) rather than incandescent bulbs. These are much cheaper to run, cheaper to make, and because they are small and have to be used in groups any individual failure has little visible impact. The problem with LEDs used to be that they were not very bright, but technological improvements have increased their brilliance, and enabled arrays of individual LEDs to be created simply, and in different colours. The strings of lights that you can buy for your Christmas tree, that blink, flash, and chase each other, are LEDs. In fact, the halogen bulb in my desklamp here failed, and the replacement is an array of LEDs instead of halogen.
Some towns, such as St Lo, are reining back their displays overall: they have their lights for 16 days only, they turn them off at 10 p.m., and they have limited the illuminations to some rather tasteful white streams of lights hanging like a waterfall from a footbridge over the river Vire, and a few boxes and lights around the commercial centre.
Maybe we are seeing the start of taste and good sense prevailing over the interests of big business. If that could happen anywhere, it would probably happen in France first.