It is at Christmas that the traditions of Provence come into their own and many events take place to celebrate the Nativity.
Traditional pipe and tabor players and shepherds fresh from the hills all go in procession to the church for midnight mass and the presentation of a lamb in the ceremony known as the "pastrage". Although the best-known places to see these "living cribs" are the hill-top villages of Les Baux and Allauch near Marseille, traditional ceremonies are held all over Provence.
The heart of Christmas in Provence is the crib with its santons (literally "little saints", traditional clay crib figures). The traditional crib is still rebuilt by hand each year in many families and people go to the santon fair to buy any figures missing from their collection.The crib must include:
The Holy Family, the three kings (who only appear in the crib on Twelfth Night), the ox and ass, the angel hanging from the roof of the stable as well as shepherds and shepherdesses shown adoring the child or bringing gifts. Lastly comes the simpleton who raises his arms heavenwards, and his wife, but there are also:
The Characters of the Pastoral Play. This traditional play was created in 1842 by Antoine Maurel. It is acted in the Provençal language and mixes secular and sacred characters.
Among the characters in the play are the blind man and his son, the mayor, the miller and the comic farm-hand Pistachié as well as representatives of various walks of life and trades: the angler, the huntsman, the fishwife, the lavender-seller, the baker, the knife-grinder, the spinner, the pipe and tabor player and the gypsy.Making the Santons
Lagnel, le premier santonnier, eut l'idée dès le XVIIIème siècle de reproduire en argile les personnages de la Nativité.
The first santons were made in the 18th Century by one Lagnel who first had the idea of making clay Nativity figures.
The santons are made from the fine clay found in Aubagne and Marseille. They are first cast in plaster moulds and, after removal from the moulds, hand-finished and meticulously hand-painted. The faces of hand-dressed santons are very carefully modelled and their traditional costumes made out of fabrics printed with the famous Provençal designs.
Some churches in the Bouches-du-Rhône Département contain santons that are over a hundred years old.The Cribs
To discover the Christmas cribs, various round tours are possible, particularly starting out from Aubagne - the capital of pottery. Tourist Offices have detailed information on these round tours and guided tours.
Various Local History Museums in the Bouches-du-Rhône area have very old cribs on display.