It seems that every town now has its own Christmas fête and Tarascon is no exception. But besides stalls selling vin chaud, fresh crêpes, Santa costumes for babies, (wonder if they’d fit the dogs?) Christmas decorations, cakes and biscuits, foie gras, etc., here in Provence we have stalls selling santons and last week was la foire aux santons and I don’t think I’ve ever seen such a crowd in my town before.
What you may ask were they all there for and what are santons? Santoun in Provençal, means little saint and they are little figurines made from clay to represent the Nativity.
But, as Jesus was born in Provence (I know and all this time you thought his birthplace was Bethlehem) besides the usual figurines of Mary and Joseph, the baby Jesus in the crib, the shepherds, kings, sheep, donkeys etc, you also have miniature representatives of all the people in the town or village who would also have gone to give their blessing to the newborn baby Jesus.
And there’s even an Artist santon!
How did this all come about? From the middle ages, (apparently St.Francis of Assisi started the trend in his church at Greccio in 1223) the nativity was played out in churches in Provence by the local townsfolk and included live sheep, goats and donkeys creating the crèche vivante, or living crèche (nativity scene). After the French Revolution, however, when many churches were forced to close and Midnight Mass was banned (along with all forms of idolatry) the crèche went underground to turn up in peoples homes in miniature in the form of santons.
They are still made by hand today by crafts people called santoniers some are painted after being fired and others are clothed and given the tools of their trades to hold.
Some people create whole village scenes with santons complete with trees, watermills, hotels, churches etc. which people come from far and wide to see.
Today the tradition of the crèche vivant, is again part of the Midnight Mass in a few towns and villages in Provence including Tarascon. Sadly I have never made it (blame it on too much vin chaud and mince pies) but this pageant which wound its way through our town on the day of the foire aux santons gave a precursor of what one might be expected to see.
A boy on a donkey led the procession with a herd of sheep behind.
Followed by musicians, this one is a carpenter by day (seems very befitting) and made our shutters.
Oh and haven’t we seen this lot before in a different guise?
I’m not quite sure what the connection was with Christmas and these men dressed up as Roman centurians, but I’m sure there was one.
Oh and I almost forgot, for two weeks there was a pop-up chalet restaurant in our town, serving fondu, tarteflette and raclette, giving us a taste of the Alps without having to leave the comfort of our warmer climes, complete with fake snow and reindeer.
What customs do you have that are particular to the part of the World that you live in at this time of year? Please leave a comment telling us what they are.