Christmas in Provence

 When I was 13, my family moved to a hill-town near Montpellier in Provence.  I remember going to a Christmas market, the Foire de Santonnier, in a neighboring village.  We wandered along windy lanes looking at intricate figurines made by local artisans.  My mother bought a beautiful miniature baker who held a basket full of delicious baguettes.

© Guillaume Piolle / CC BY 3.0

Called santons, these figurines are a local tradition dating back to the French revolution, when churches were forcibly closed and nativity scenes were forbidden.  In protest, Jean-Louis Lagnel, a Marseillais, fashioned small figurines from the local red clay.  He made them to represent common tradesmen and plain townsfolk.  They were assembled into private nativity scenes and kept hidden from the authorities.  The idea caught on and soon became a widespread regional holiday tradition.  

Traditionally, santons have costumes and tools associated with each trade common to a typical provençal town of the 1800s.  (Some modern santonnier's dress their figurines in more contemporary garb).   Each santon comes bearing a gift for the infant Christ, who lays in a manger under a star-topped stable. The nativity is sometimes set in a larger landscape with a hill, a river and olive trees (depicted with branches of flowering thyme). I remember seeing as a child the santon that is known as “le Ravi.”  He is the village idiot or simpleton.  Unlike the other figurines, he does not come bearing gifts, but stands with his arms raised up in surprise and delight at the birth of Jesus.   

Le Ravi dans le creche

By Daniel Ferrier (collection personnelle)
[GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC BY-SA 4.0-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0
(http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

By dierk schaefer
[CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons


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