Sunday, 23 December 2012

Advent Ending and Christmas Coming!

Every year in the week before Christmas, ever since H was tiny, he and I have got out our little collection of "santons", or Christmas crib figures, and the homemade stable that goes with them and set up our own version of the back of the Bethlehem inn. Actually, it's more of a draughty shed than a stable. It's made from a reconditioned (or do I mean upcycled?), wooden skittle box, scraps of hardboard and an off-cut of timber for the base. The base is covered with "grass paper" snaffled from D's model railway supplies, to add a touch of outdoor verisimilitude, and it has three pine trees from the same source, whose twisted wire stems go into small holes drilled into the base board. There wasn't quite enough wood to make solid walls so the wind blows in rather less cosily than I feel it ought to, but may be this just adds a touch of realism! You will not find a reference to a ladder, to enable access to the loft of the Bethlehem stable, in the Gospel accounts of Jesus' birth, but who's to say there wasn't one? It enables the seraph to get up there when his wings are tired!

"Santons" are a tradition from Provence and ours come from various trips there over the years. The idea of such figures began in Italy, I think, where St Francis of Assisi started the tradition of setting up Christmas crib scenes. It was taken up assiduously in France, particularly in the south, in the 18th C, during the Revolution, when it was forbidden to celebrate Christmas in churches and people set up tableaux representing the Christmas story in their own homes instead.

Along with the principal players, Mary and Joseph, the baby Jesus, the shepherds and three kings, people wanted to personalise the scenes and include the folk, not just of Bethlehem in the 1st C, but representatives of those they saw around them every day, with whom they lived and worked.

So, in a traditional set of santons, you will find, along with the standard male shepherds, the shepherdess like Marcel Pagnol's "Manon", in "Manon des Sources", the "bûcheron" or woodcutter with his packed lunch tied up in a spotty handkerchief and a bundle of wood on his shoulder, the melon-seller with his basket of rosy, orange-fleshed melons (from the local, melon-growing centre in Cavaillon, of course!), "la marchande de limaçons", the woman who sells freshly-cooked, Provençal snails from a tureen with a ladle, "la gitâne", the gipsy woman, with a tambourine and a baby of her own on her back, the lavender-seller with her apron filled with bunches of the dried scented flowers, from the blue summer fields of Provence, that stretch out far and wide below the peak of Mt Ventoux.

You will find the shepherd's wife, complete with her half-spun spindle of wool. The traditional ox and ass are joined by a cockerel, a hen and chickens and a wild boar from the slopes of Les Alpilles.  The camel, of course, is there but you might also meet an elephant and also the camel boy who looked after the animals en route because how else did they travel in reality?! You will meet the woman with a basket of new-laid eggs and the man with a hamper of poultry on his head. An old woman with a broom joins the throng, (like the Russian babushka), busy with her sweeping, but intrigued by all the excitement to come and see what's afoot for herself.

My favourite of all, I think is "le ravi" - "le ravi" is the Charismatic, the one who is ecstatically filled with joy at the arrival of the baby Jesus and who holds up his arms in an attitude of praise and wonder, overcome by the enormity of God arriving among humanity.

As with icons, which are "written" (never drawn or painted, strictly speaking) according to a set of rules, while allowing for each iconographer's interpretation, but in a strictly limited way, traditional santons have a prescribed form and traditional colouring.  They come in various sizes and may be made of various materials but are most often made out of clay or wood. Mine are clay. The carefully moulded figures are shaped in special moulds, touched up by hand, biscuit-fired and then painted. A traditional maker of santons is known as a "santonnier" and there are some very skilled ones. My santons, are quite small, the larger upright ones each measure only about 7cm high. They have been collected over a period of about twenty five years and all come from the same santonnier workshop in Graveson, a little village near St Rémy de Provence. The workshop is, (or was), run by a lovely and very gifted husband and wife team, M et Mme Rozier. It was still in business when I was last there a few years ago but it doesn't have a website or anything that I can give you a link to.

When H was small, he was enthralled by going to visit this workshop and M Rozier, the santonnier, very kindly allowed him to help mould a couple of figures and gave them to him to take home. At two and a bit, H, not surprisingly, had not a word of French and M Rozier speaks no English, but they got on like a house on fire and I will never forget the two of them, heads bent over the little models as they worked on them together. We took them home with the clay still damp, of course, from the moulding, and they had to be "fired" in the "four" of the kitchen of the "Mas" where we were staying at the time. Unfortunately the oven could not be persuaded to reach the 1000℃ required for biscuit firing(!) so they are slightly more fragile than the professionally finished ones! But it's really special to have them and so far, my amateur firing (and painting) efforts have stood the test of time.

I don't, by any means, have a complete set. There are many others: "le vigneron", of course, the wine-grower, musicians playing tambourines, pipes and drums and other tradesmen, there is the hunter and the fishwife, the washerwoman and "la sage femme et enfant". There are some whose significance I don't know and who have special names - "Barthoumieu" and "Gigie", "Margarido" the old lady who rides a donkey and the elderly couple, arm in arm, "Grasset et Grassette". There are dodgy dealers as well as upright burghers among the throng, because it isn't just  the good and the religious who are welcome in Bethlehem, so the poacher and the thief are also part of the crowd, although traditionally the journey made in this joyful company, changed the hearts of the ne'er do wells! No one is excluded - the crowd includes the young and the old, the frail and the hale and hearty, the good and the bad, the pious and the sceptical.

Everyone brings a gift for the child - something they have made or harvested or grown. And some figures who apparently have empty hands bring unseen gifts like the joyful dancing of "la danseuse", the silvery fluting of those playing "la musette" or the rapturous worship of "le ravi" or "les orants" who are a pair of kneeling worshippers.

The lovely thing about them is that the figures invite interaction. They do not remain static, once initially set up, but move about. The kings travel along a bookshelf as Epiphany draws closer. They are still some way off as of today but they are slowly making their way past the poetry books to reach the stable hopefully by 6th January!

The villagers crowd in and mill about among the trees and along the filing cabinet on which the little set-up stands and people visiting are often tempted to rearrange the figures at whim. That's as it should be and I love coming in to my study and finding that, perhaps, the melon-seller is no longer outside the stable but inside it, hobnobbing with the donkey, or the gipsy is cosily comparing new-mother-notes with Mary. The fierce, "sanglier" or wild boar sometimes lurks moodily behind the pine trees and sometimes he is happy to lie down benignly with the chickens! The angel mostly perches on the stable roof outside, singing his song of peace and goodwill, but occasionally he hives up in the loft of the stable near the battery-powered light bulb. Even angels need a break sometimes!

And along with the quaintness and charm of the idea of ordinary folk mingling with Mary and Joseph and the baby Jesus, is the underlying belief that the baby born in a stable does not belong to the pages of a fairy tale book but is the God who came to be a part of ordinary life with us. Ordinary life then and ordinary life now, in all its glory and all its sorrows. And, as we have seen in the news recently, and as we know in our own lives, life has plenty of both. You may, or may not, feel that that belief is one you share, but that is what Christmas at its heart is celebrating.

And if it's true, then it is indeed a miracle worth going to town for in our hearts. Even a little town, lying still and silent in the hills of the Judean countryside where, as the carol has it, "the wondrous gift is given", the gift of the one, in whom rested and in whom, for many, still rest, "the hopes and fears of all the years".

I know it's the fourth Sunday of Advent today and I am linking in again to Floss's A Pause in Advent but because of the way the days fall, it is the Eve of Christmas Eve too, so ...

... Happy Eve of Christmas Eve to you all! 

E x


  1. Merry Christmas Eve of Christmas Eve to you as well - and Advent blessings too! :) What a delightful tradition. We've always had a nativity scene of some kind but always kept it to the family, the shepherds, and the wise men. I love the idea of expanding it. Thank you for sharing this. And again, have a blessed Christmas.

  2. What a delight! Thanks for sharing this lovely tradition. I want my own collection of santons now!

  3. I have to admit that only the word santon was known to me. Had no idea about the tradition or the figurines or what the story was behind each one. Yours are so pretty, and the way they move around past your books is so sweet. I love that you have had your santons for many years.

    Have a wonderful Christmas.!

  4. Hello Mrs. TT!
    What a lovely post! So beautiful to the eye!
    I see you have Wendell Berry on your shelf. LOVE!
    Blessed Christmas and thank you for pausing this year!

  5. What a lovely collection, they are great.

  6. Dear Elizabeth,
    you have made me travel back in time: one of my mother's nativities (she has quite a collection from different cultures and traditions and we would have a different one on show each year.) is a selection of santons just like yours, and my siblings and I enjoyed playing with them throughout Advent as gradually the crowd of people journeying to Bethlehem (on and maybe more often under the sideboard) increased in numbers. They are indeed beautiful and I love the fact that they include people from all walks of life and background, highlighting that God comes to share ordinary life, then and now. Thank you for this post and your beautiful words and photos and for your blog altogether. I enjoy reading it so very much.
    Sending lots of blessings for Christmas and beyond.

  7. Dear E
    How exciting to have all the local 'characters' included in the Nativity. I love all the bright colours. I hope that you and you family have a wonderful Christmas and a peaceful New Year.
    Best wishes

  8. I never knew of the "santon" tradition - thank you Elizabeth for sharing it with us. We have a small wooden nativity scene I bought when Bella was a baby and each year I chuckle when I find playmobil policemen, toys lions, tigers, small cars and all manner of other items hidden in there - things that certainly didn't feature in the original nativity! The figure do invite interaction, as you say...

    May I wish you and your family a very happy Christmas. It's been a real pleasure sharing this blogging journey with you.

    Gillian x

  9. I have also never heard of the "santon" tradition, but I love the idea behind it. Yes, God always does work in the midst of real life, messy people. I also love how after the resurrection Jesus cooked breakfast on the beach for his friends. It has been an exceptionally low-key Christmas around here this year. I've so enjoyed all your Advent posts, much to think about. (And I'm glad to see you read Wendell Berry, he's one of my favorites). Now I'm off to cook! A very blessed Christmas to you and yours! Angela x

  10. Oh how lovely, thank you for sharing this! I love the one with his arms raised too!x

  11. I so much like this story ! Already for several months now, I am working on a santons set with crochet figures ( ). Hopefully I get them done before next Christmas :)


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