For the last week of December, we took a train down to Provence to visit with friends through the New Year's celebrations. Provence is every bit as beautiful as you've heard…and possibly even more beautiful than that. I knew Provence was famous for the lavender fields, but there is so much more to it. The countryside, villages and homes gave an impression of Italy or Spain (or both) blended together with France. The landscapes are varied, marvellous and breath-taking. We wandered the town of St-Remy-de-Provence, played on the seashore and climbed onto the church roof in Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer, explored the Pope's Palace in Avignon (a UNESCO World Heritage Site) and climbed the fantastic ruins of Chateau des Baux. Almost daily, I asked Hubby when we can move there.
In the church in St-Remy-de-Provence was the most unusual Nativity I have ever seen. The scene was forested with a windmill on a hill. No stable in sight, the Holy Family were placed in a rocky cave. This was no separate story with only shepherds and the Three Kings to witness. All around, there were peasants in brightly coloured clothing looking on at the scene.
I began to notice similar Nativity scenes in other churches and shop windows. Often, the peasants did not seem to notice the Holy Family at all. Women would be posed for gossiping. A man had fallen asleep on sacks of grain. Many shops sold these figures in stunning variety, and I was charmed and captivated by them. Thankfully, my dear friend read up on them in (far-better-than-mine) French and taught me all about them. These brightly-colored peasant figures for Provencal nativities are called "santons."
During the French Revolution, traditional religious nativities were banned; decorating your home, however, was not. Artisans began creating hand painted terracotta figures depicting typical local life. Scenes would be created mimicking local landscapes with village people, animals, and yes, a baby. In this way, people retained their nativities during this time of enforced secularism. The tradition survives to this day, with the only real change being a definite Holy Family and Three Kings added in. We saw santons for sale ranging in size from tiny (4 cm) to that of typical dolls (around 30cm or so). The doll size santons were typically dressed in clothing and carried tactile accessories (baskets with flowers, straw hats, etc.). There was a shop in Baux that sold paint kits with plain terracotta santons. On our last day, I could resist no longer and purchased seven 4cm santons for our home. Being after New Year, the Holy Family figures had all been sold, but there were the Three Wise Men/Three Kings. This morning, we set them out in honour of the Epiphany and will finish the day with a Galette du Roi, another French tradition we are excited to embrace.