It’s January–a month of many feasts in Provence. Truffles, olive oil, mimosa, saints, all are honored with a fête. One of the most popular ones is the Fête de St. Marcel, also known as Les Tripettes, in Barjols, a little town in the Haut Var about an hour’s drive from Aix-en-Provence. This is one of the oldest and most colorful celebrations in the area, going back to 1350 when the relics of Saint Marcel were brought to Barjols. Around the year 580, at age 80, Saint Marcel went to Rome to report to the Pope on the state of his bishopric. On his return, exhausted from the long journey, he stopped off at a monastery in Montmeyan in the Haut Var, where he died and was buried.
Soon, miracles began to occur that were attributed to the holy old man, he was proclaimed a saint, and his tomb became a site of pilgrimage. In 1349, with the abbey in bad disrepair, St. Marcel appeared one night to the guard and asked to have his remains moved to a more dignified spot. The towns of Barjols and Aups, equi-distant from the delapidated abbey, both laid claim to the holy remains (relics were a source of pilgrimage, the tourism of the day), and on the 17th of January 1350 a group of men from Barjols, without further discussion, simply sneaked into the abbey church and removed the remains. On their way back to Barjols they encountered a group of women who were washing the tripes of a bull killed that day to commemorate the bull that years earlier had wandered into Barjols, then under siege, and saved the town from famine. The women dropped their tripes in a basket and followed the men with St. Marcel’s relics to Barjols, where the joyous procession entered the Collegial church chanting “Saint Marcel, Saint Marcel, these tripes are for you”! Everone in the church jumped and chanted and, voilà, the Danse des Tripettes was born. Ever since that day, the town of Barjols celebrates its patron saint St. Marcel on the weekend closest to the 17th of January.
For this weekend, every tree, shrub and potted plant in Barjols is decorated with red and yellow paper roses, the colors of Provence. The festivities start on Saturday morning with an Aubade to the Authorities by the fyfe-and-drum groups and dancers in Provençal costume who perform a Farandole. Among the other participants are the Gardians (cowboys) of the Camargue on their white horses, various groups in period costume (heralds, knights in tights and tunics, ladies in brocaded long dresses and pointed hats, etc.), and the Bravades who later on will spend a lot of time shooting in the air. And of course The Bull, a major player. He has been cleaned, brushed and decorated that morning before walking with his keeper to the main square to be admired by the Authorities and all gathered there, who then march him to the church where he is blessed by the bishop, applauded by the people and finally led to the abattoir for his offering. That mission accomplished, folklore breaks out all over town–the Gardians get to show their skills on horseback, the dancers dance, the fyfers fyfe and a good time is had by all.
Sunday morning, a high mass in the old Collegial church shifts the focus to Saint Marcel, whose bust with relics takes center stage. The church is filled to bursting and the crowd spills outside, where I ended up finding a few square inches next to the portal. Not close enough to see inside but close enough to hear the ceremony through loudspeakers mounted outside. At the end of mass a joyous chant of “Saint Marcel, Saint Marcel…!” erupted from thousands of throats and a loud simultaneous rumble seemed to shake the old walls. This was the Danse des Tripettes which EVERYBODY, including the bishop, performed throughout the nine stanzas of the song. (The Tripettes consists of a jumping up and down in place, Masai-like).
Outside, the crowd joined in, young and old, mothers with babies, old ladies helped by younger ones, even the people in the windows surrounding the square–not a static one among them. En masse they jumped, singing and laughing as if they had all had magic mushrooms for breakfast. Then the church began to empty, the faithful, the folkloristic groups, the costumed nobles, and some menacing-looking men in chain mail and visors with blunderbusses. When the first salvo rang within inches of my ear, spewing a cloud of smoke and bits of burning paper, I thought I saw my eardrums float by. Once I recovered I noticed how these blunderbussers put powder-packed 4-inch-long paper cartridges into their barrel and packed them down with a long rod before shooting in the air. Unable to get away from them, I covered my ears and vowed to bring earplugs next time. As the church continued to empty, the shooters and dancers and musicians formed a circle into which they welcomed, at last, the venerated bust of Saint Marcel which was carried by a dozen beautifully costumed men and followed by the bishop and the parish priests. Once again, “Saint Marcel…!” was sung and the Tripettes danced, not only by the huge crowd but by the good saint and his bearers as well. For a moment I feared for the saint, whose bust is framed by an open gilded cage and topped by a white “plumeau”, like a feather duster. But when I saw the plumeau bobbing rhythmically above the crowd, I knew that all was well. The blunderbusses sounded a deafening finale and then the procession started moving through the narrow streets to the main square, where a huge spit had been erected for the roasting of the bull. After a tour of the square to the chanting of his name and dancing of the Tripettes, Saint Marcel was carried back to his church until next year.
Now the attention shifts to the bull who arrives “en broche” mounted high on a decorated wagon pulled by draught horses who slowly walk around the square, followed by the bands, the dancers and all the costumed parties, and deliver the bull to the giant spit in the center where the designated butcher and a dozen “marmitons”, his pint-sized little kitchen helpers, all clad in long white butcher aprons, are waiting for him. There the bull is lowered from the wagon and suspended over a fire, to slowly roast for the remainder of the day. In the old days the meat was given to the poor, but nowadays it is sold the next day in 1-lb portions. Once the bull starts roasting, the crowd disperses into cafés and restaurants to warm up and fill up, and to prepare for an afternoon of bonfires, music and dancing until dinner and the Grand Bal of the evening.
This historical Fête was briefly endangered in the 1980’s when an animal protection group protested the killing of a bull for these celebrations. Brigitte Bardot got into the fray and offered to buy the bull rather than have him killed. But the argument that the bull was killed in the slaughterhouse in the same manner as thousand of cattle in other slaughterhouses every day won out in the end, and today the Fête de St. Marcel continues to be celebrated as it has been since the 14th century.
Anne-Marie Simons has worked as a translator, teacher, journalist, sportswriter (covering Formula One races) and director of corporate communications. Now happily retired, she lives in the south of France.