Christmas in Provence

Christmas in Provence
The BP editors have requested a piece on Christmas in Provence. Something quaint and charming I’m sure is expected. Immediately complications arise. I’m a foreigner. I’m here alone without any family. And I’m Jewish.   Yes, I have a tree, a beautiful Nordman spruce decorated with little toys and dolls, miniature red apples and golden pears, sparkly stars and balls, pine cones and baby’s breath–"quaint and charming." In New York I never had a tree, but here in Provence I do. I suppose one could say, I’ve become one of THOSE Jews. Tant pis! So far, all four indoor cats have left the ornaments alone, though Pip and Alice, the little French foundlings, are having great fun with a piece of green string I’d neglected to cut from the trunk when I unwrapped the lower branches.   Until recently, people here say they did not have trees in the house at Christmas; neither did they put Santa-type decorations outside. The focal point has always been the crèche, with its santons and often elaborate handcrafted Nativity scene. No true Provençal home is without one. (If you want to read about the official traditional Christmas in Provence, there are already five superb articles on the BP website and two excellent articles about santons.)   Each Provençal village has an outdoor crèche; the churches have them inside as well. Often on Christmas Eve there are live Nativity pageants with farm animals and a costumed procession. My first year in Nyons there was a lovely one close to midnight in the Old Town. The Nyons outdoor crèche has always been under the large overhanging rock in the Vieille Ville across from the Pont Roman that spans the River Eygues (pronounced “egg”). The figures are painted wooden cutouts of Mary, Joseph, a donkey, a cow and attending figures in traditional Provençal dress. Baby Jesus has always been a soft-plastic baby doll dressed in a diaper, lying on top of a bed of straw.   This year, for reasons unknown to those few who consider themselves possessed with sense, aesthetic, common and otherwise, the crèche was moved to a construction site in the 14th-Century Place des Arcades and placed behind a locked pea-green iron cage during the first week of December. Instead of being naked in the cold, save for His diaper (whatever happened to swaddling clothes?), this year the poor Child was buried up to His chin in hay. The parish powers-that-be objected, not to the location or manner of placement but to the rubber doll’s being born three weeks prematurely.   Suddenly this year, His appearance in the crèche before His birth at exactly midnight Christmas Eve was seriously politically incorrect. Much ink was shed in the newspapers over this affront, but unfortunately I was undergoing dental surgery outside Baden-Baden, so I cannot provide a firsthand account. A reliable source has reported to me that during week two of the controversy, she was on her way to the boucherie of Monsieur Ghys (pronounced “geese”) in the Place des Arcades to purchase some tasty lamb chops at the exact moment that a member of the Service technique Nyonsais unlocked the green metal bars and took the Baby away from His manger. According to this same source, the gentleman from les services techniques (town maintenance) wedged the holy doll under his arm just above his elbow, hopped into an official white truck and drove off. The newspapers later reported Baby Jesus was being kept in a safe location (an incubator inside the mairie?) until His birth.   Meanwhile, les Services techniques and shopkeepers were busy decorating the town. Small live Christmas trees started to appear, generally tied halfway up drainpipes and bedecked with enormous shiny-foil red, gold and silver bows. Garlands of twinkly white lights were strung overhead, more shiny bows were placed around town and tunes such as “Silent Night” and the “Macarena” were piped from loudspeakers onto the streets. Two-storey high inflatable snowmen and Santas lined lined the Rue de la Resistance with its many shops until a scirocco from North Africa came to town.   The main Nyons Christmas tableau is always constructed around the olive tree in the Rond Point in the Place de la Libération, the central square in town. Last year’s was what I call a mixture of metaphors. A very elaborate roof with a chimney was constructed under the tree and a Santa who looked as if he’d just hit all the bars and cafés in the Place was crouched on the roof next to a fountain of spurting water that seemed to originate to the left of the chimney. A prestigious award was given by the Mairie to the creators of this novel and noble spectacle for Noël. This year it was going to be hard to outdo last year’s prize-winning display, but fortunately we were not disappointed. Enormous feathery white bird wings were put where the roof was last year and an even better Santa was placed on a chair in the middle of the wings. This Santa was jollier than last year’s, no doubt because he’d had eleven months to patronize local drinking establishments, hence perhaps his need for the…
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