Sunday, November 30, 2014, Aix en Provence
Today Aix celebrates the Santonniers, those local artisans who craft the multitude of terracotta creche figures, Santons (little saints) so beloved by Provençales.
Unlike the simple nativity scenes seen in the States, here in Provence the whole town turns out…the butcher, the baker, the candlestick maker and more. The colorful scene spreads far and wide, with tiny stone windmills, fields of lavender, sheep traversing the village as in the transhumance. They’re fascinating and joyful scenes, growing each year as each family adds to their collection, passed down from generation to generation – there are hundreds available!Although Aix’s Foire aux Santons (Santon Fair) has been open for a few weeks already, today the Mass of the Santonniers takes place, and the official blessing of the booths.
Expecting a big crowd, we arrive at St. John the Baptist church a half hour before the 9:30 Santonniers Mass…and we’re the only ones there besides a few charmingly garbed singers and drummers! We eagerly look each time the door opens to appreciate the cozily layered outfits – warm winter capes over quilted skirts for the women, spiffy vests adding a layer for the men.We’ve got plenty of time to investigate this colorful yet simple church,
and learn more about the beautiful Provençale outfits. Each white cap, of lace or linen, is different and denotes family rank and village.The mass begins with provençale songs, accompanied by the tambour/flute band to the left.From head to toe, the chorus is quite in character – I love the details!Many in the congregation are in Provençale dress too – I want an outfit! Most are typical of the countryside and village, but this couple (on the far end) and young man are dressed to the nines in velvet, fur and lace – more city style. After a thoughtful sermon, when we’re reminded that we are the clay in the hands of the Master Potter, God, the priest invites the children to bring their santons for a blessing,then it’s time to file out and parade through the oldest part of town
and down Cours Mirabeau.Now we can really see all of the elaborate dress of some of the participants,as they follow the drummers and pipers.Here’s that classy duo, looking as if they belong right on Cours Mirabeau.The musicians pause at the Santon exhibit,then continue down to the booths of the Santonniers, and the drums play on as the priest makes his rounds, sprinkling the booths with holy water and pronouncing a blessing on each. We’ve had singing and music, now it’s time for dancing!Several of the choreographed dances tell a story – meeting, fighting, making up.
The detailed dances are passed on from old to young – the pride of tradition is obvious!What a treat it’s been to be in town for this wonderful celebration!