Happy Christmas, Joyeux Noel, Nadolig Llawen (my favourite comment on the latter came from Gavin and Stacey, with Gavin’s mum convinced the Welsh was Nadolig Clarins)…
But every Christmas I end up channelling the distantly Provencal side of my ancestry and dig out my collection of santons, the terracotta figures representing all the people of a Provencal village. They, together with the more conventionally religious figures like the Holy Family and the Magi, make up a Christmas creche. The figures can be large – about 25cm is not uncommon – but mine are much smaller, about 7cm for the standing ones (and the creches can be enormous). My own collection, my father’s having gone astray over the years, started with sheep (sigh), and a shepherd:
to which I soon added a knitter and spinner.
The detail is lovely, with even facial expressions (love the smiley sheep) and details of clothing carefully rendered.
Take a closer look at the knitter, for instance, with her shawl in a traditional Provencal pattern, her stripy sock (which she is only knitting on two needles, a woman after my own heart, has clearly read Knit Your Socks On Straight). She is only 5cm tall, and what isn’t clear here is the beautiful detail of the stone wall on which she sits – there’s even lichen.
Until about ten years ago, most of my santons were male. I’m not quite sure how that happened, but it did, and so I began consciously adding some women to my small personal outpost of Provence. There is a female water carrier, an elderly wood collector and several marchandes, vendors, sellers of things like lavender or ribbons.
The knitter’s needles are metal, and many of my santons have additions such as a bundle of logs or a fishing rod. But the delicacy of the ribbon seller’s basket is particularly fine. The cord holding it around her neck is threaded through two tiny little metal loops on the ends of her basket, and it is carefully and minutely tied at the back. I have an ex-neighbour who is in his mid-80s, and who is a ship modeller (though he also built my spinning wheel); I’ve only ever seen such minute and perfect work on his models. And they are hardly mass-produced, which santons almost are; they’re not unique productions and can even be bought in Parisian department stores in the run-up to Christmas.
It is possible to buy unpainted ones and decorate them yourself if you wish; I prefer the traditional decoration – plus, I’m not at all confident I could get anywhere near the level of detail required to transform a 7cm-tall figure of a letter carrier / postman into a passable version of the older Gérard Depardieu (or maybe it’s just me, or maybe just the moustache). And I’m not sure he’s exactly seasonal, but then neither are the blacksmith, the poacher (easily recognisable as Mond des Papillons from Marcel Pagnol’s wonderful memoirs of his childhood, La gloire de mon père and Le château de ma mère), or the man wandering about with a giant pumpkin on his shoulder.
The most recent additions are a band of ‘gypsy’ musicians, which I love:
Let’s assume they are seasonal, and are playing something festive, like ‘Il est né, le devin enfant‘. Or maybe, since I am ‘tout à fait laïque‘, completely unreligious, like my entire family, it should be a jolly bouncy dance tune to cheer up the darkest time of the year. I’ll go for that!
Have a lovely holiday, if you’re having one that is – and fair play to anyone who is working or volunteering through it. Especially those at our local homeless shelter – and the nearby food banks which, according to Ian Duncan Smith, are completely uneccessary and have a political agenda. Maybe he should think on another person, not entirely unconnected with Christmas, who could also be described as having had a political agenda. According to the Romans. OK, rant over. And seasons greetings!