Monday, December 10, 2007
La Foire Aux Santons
It is during this time of year that the little saints come marching in...and in fact, take over the place! Santons, or “little saints” have their origins in Italy, starting back in the 12th century – yet another reminder of the Italian influence in Provence.
The original “living nativity” scene was put together by St. Francis of Assisi and the pope at the time didn’t so much appreciate the gesture of bringing the scene to life. So Francis began creating miniature figures of dough, adding more characters than just the original three. These little nativity scenes were a big hit.
Fast-forward to 1789 when the churches in France were closed during the French Revolution. Of course, life-sized and miniature nativity scenes became a forbidden practice. But the people of Provence were (still are from what I can see!) a clever bunch and found a way around the ban by replacing the religious figurines of the scene with everyday people from the village. They began with a public modified nativity and that evolved into the creation of statues representing those people who had participated in the public presentation. The main idea was that each person represented was bringing a gift from his or her trade to the Baby Jesus. Regardless of the rank in society, each person had something of value to offer: the stick-gatherer brings wood to warm the stable, the woman who gathers lavender offers a basket of the lovely flowers, along with the mushroom gatherer, the snail hunter, the shepherd...and so it goes.
Santons became an instant success and in 1830 the first santon fair was started in Marseille. Before long, there were fairs throughout Provence, a tradition that continues today along with the seasonal sales of santons in shops specializing in provençal items.
The santons make their entrance in the fairs (La Foire Aux Santons) at the end of November and go through December. (In Marseille, the fair continues from November to Twelfth Night, taking it into January.)
Made by traditional methods of the 19th century using clay from around the area, creating these characters is a specialized craft, with each artisan having his or her own recognizable style. Their attention to detail – the expressive faces, colorful dress, and miniature baskets of products of the region – gives each santon a unique charm.
Some are created from clay and left in their natural state while others are hand-painted with a careful eye for detail. Still others are more ornately designed with fabric clothing and toting real baskets of fragrant mushrooms or lavender flowers or tiny blocks of soap or other typical representations of the bounty of Provence.
Representing village life in another time, many santons are portrayed as older people in activities, professions or trades that have long since disappeared - evidence of the craft being handed down from generation to generation as well as a good dose of research to make sure each figure is historically accurate.
The personal santon collection does not make its appearance in the homes in Provence until the week before Christmas, with the baby being place into the scene on Christmas Day and the three wise men not arriving until the 12th Night. (I’m not exactly certain when the circus elephant made it into the mix, but why not?!)
The caped and wind-blown figure of Frédéric Mistral is a perfect fit in the annual gathering of little saints as it was he who led the 19th century revival of provençal language and literature. Fitting that he should have found his way, through the bitter cold wind that is named after him to join the others every year.
Like many others (well...except for my sister) I find these little figures charming. My little terracotta collection will be coming out in the weeks ahead to make a quick appearance in the provençal digs of La Fourchette.
In the meantime, I’m enjoying wandering around in the Marché Noël and sipping a bit of this lovely stuff to keep warm.
Whatever tradition you may be celebrating at this time of the year, you might want to whip up a batch of this the next time there is a holiday gathering of friends in your village. It’s just another little provençal tradition that you, too, might want to incorporate. (Even if you are in warmer climates and adding this is like adding a circus elephant to the nativity scene...why not?!)
Vin Chaud (Mulled Wine)
1 bottle red wine
zest of one organically grown orange
zest of one organically grown lemon
the juice of the orange that has been zested (but not the juice of the lemon)
6 Tablespoons of raw sugar
1 whole cinnamon stick
3 whole cloves
a grind of fresh nutmeg
Combine ingredients in a pot and over a very low heat, infuse the spices in the wine for 30 – 45 minutes. Bring the heat up to just barely a simmer for another 30 minutes. Serve hot in mugs or heat-proof glasses. Drop a slice of orange into each cup to garnish.
Serves 4 to 6