What's French for Scrooge? Christmas spirit sags in 'City of Lights.'

A majority of French say they're not looking forward to Christmas this year and complain that it's too commercial. A spate of random attacks on crowds in recent days has added to the holiday gloom. 

Gonzalo Fuentes/Reuters
French soldiers patrol the Christmas market along Champs Elysees in Paris on Dec. 23, 2014. French security forces stepped up protection of public places on Tuesday after three acts of violence in three days left some 30 wounded and reignited fears about France's vulnerability to attacks by Islamic radicals.

Hordes of people press against the display windows of Printemps and Galeries Lafayette, Paris’s most venerable department stores. In one window, a group of marionettes float in a winter wonderland; the other features a cluster of hot pink monsters.

Off in the distance the Eiffel Tower glows, as does the Grand Carousel at Concorde. At the Grand Palais, built in 1900 for the Universal Exhibition in Paris, skaters circle a giant rink under a glass ceiling.

Like most French parents, Caroline Boucher is excited about Christmas this year because her young son is. "The gifts, the smile, the innocence of children, that is what Christmas is to me," she says.

There doesn’t seem to be any lack of seasonal spirit in the “City of Lights” –­ except perhaps among the French themselves. A new survey by YouGov, a UK pollster, shows the French to be the scrooges of northern Europe: Only 37 percent of French respondents say they are looking forward to Christmas this year. This compares with 76 percent in Denmark, 74 percent in Norway, 71 percent in Germany, and 69 percent in the UK.

Many Europeans say Christmas has become too much about shopping. For the French this is particularly irksome given the country’s prolonged economic swoon.

And, in a familiar refrain, 76 percent of French respondents also say the real meaning of Christmas has been lost. That's not surprising. While the city’s department stores are no doubt festive, they are also very much a commercial affair. The floating marionettes in Printemps are dressed in Burberry trench coats. And inside the store’s glass doors lurks a frenzied assault of labels and brands.

Every year, the famous Champs-Elysees becomes a giant Christmas market, with light displays, visits from Santa Claus, and 100 stalls selling Christmas decorations, scarves, lavender soaps, and mulled wine. But compared with Germany’s traditional Christmas markets, it feels like a commercial onslaught.

Soldiers patrol markets

Across France, Christmas preparations have assumed a more solemn tone this week, after a driver rammed his car into the center of the Christmas market in the western city of Nantes, killing one and injuring nearly a dozen others. Two other seemingly random attacks elsewhere have added to a sense of unease and insecurity. On the Champs-Elysees, soldiers armed with automatic weapons are on patrol.

Ms. Boucher, a hospital administrator, says the French generally have a different notion of Christmas than other Europeans and Americans. "Here we don't have a big dinner with 20 relatives around the table," she says. "It is not a big family affair."

According to the YouGov poll, only 2 percent of French plan to spend most of Dec. 25 with an extended family; that figure rises to 23 percent in Denmark.

France has a long tradition of secularism: A 1905 law strictly separates church and state. Echoing the so-called “war on Christmas” in the US, the city hall of Melun, near Paris, made news with its legal battle to keep its nativity scene in its garden, over objections that it was too overtly religious. Yet such cases are rare in France because so few public spaces display Christmas crèches.

Denise Brial, a filmmaker and feminist activist, says culture, as well as secularism, guides France’s approach to Christmas. “We French are not religious, we are revolutionaries,” she says.

And the French, she adds, are not shy about expressing any negative sentiment. “We’re pessimists,” says the Parisian with a shrug, “whether about Christmas, or anything else.”

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