Provence to see the seasons round. “But, Carolyn, you’ll be lonely!” “You with your two years of college French!” “The French will never invite you into their homes.” And so forth.
I paid no attention, as I wasn’t going to the south of France to be invited into homes. All my life I had wanted to be a resident in what has always felt my real country. The country was my goal. And, as it turned out, the nay sayers were wrong.
Take Christmas Eve. The year is 1987. As I walk across the crest of Observatoire Hill, high above Cannes, the night is bright, colder than I expected. The dark sky is nearly blinding, Vincent’s “Starry, Starry Night” seemed all around me, coming to more and more intense life.
I had been invited to my neighbors’ for that special time. They were a young and merry family in all seasons, from my first fall days on the hill, we had taken full and casual delight in one another’s company.
This night, I would not only share their Christmas Eve meal, we also would open presents together, beside their Christmas tree (or “sapin de Noel,”) quietly resplendent with its handmade ornaments. The boy and girl were fully a part of every aspect of those rituals.
The purpose of my presence was not only to share the sacredness of these home rituals. At a certain moment, we bundled ourselves warmly, and the father drove us all to Le Suquet, the old part of the Cannes the world connects mostly with movies. It’s a high and stony hill, from which watchmen peered over many centuries, especially during 800 years of Saracen invasions. Steep and rocky enough to be defended, high enough to light warning fires that could reach sentinels on the Iles de Lerin off-shore, without Le Suquet all those years, there might not be a Cannes.
A no-nonsense stone church crowns the rocky enclave of old Cannes. We walked from the velvet, nearly absolute darkness of these ancient towns into a nave of nearly blinding light. Votive candles flickered along both sides, leading our eyes to a wall-length “creche,” a Nativity scene created with terra cotta “santons” for which this region is famous.
These figures used to be created in the churches, until the Revolution. I don’t know why that ordeal meant no more santons and creches. But the clever French decided to create their own figures to honor Christmas in their homes. The irst post-Revolution santons were made of cookie dough.It had something to do with danger in people’s gathering in public places in those fiery times. This night, this church was one profoundly connected gathering.
There was a real wood stable, about as big as a breadbox. Mary and Joseph knelt by an empty manger. The requisite donkey and cow and other farm animals of baked clay were artfully placed to create a sense of waiting. Awaiting the birth of the child, outside the creche stable were the bread-maker, the garlic-braider, the aioli-maker, the lavender lady, the herdsman, the basket-weaver and so forth. Each more delightful than the last.
Along the creche hills moved a procession: tawny long-legged camels, their handlers, and, of course, the three kings and assorted servants. The proprietors of nearby Les Baux claim to be descended from the Balthazar of this pilgrimage. We know that stars directed the journey of the kings. They may well have been en route as Mary and Joseph found their way to Bethlehem. In the Cannes church, the reverent Kings were visible, lit and steadily nearing on some sort of motorized walkway. But, even though it was Christmas Eve, there wasn’t what my daughters called “the baby Jesus.”
That church was cavernous and deeply cold. My neighbors had warned me to dress as though for one of my daily hikes, with many layers. The pews were filled with people of all types, dressed in everything from full-length sable to the bleu of the laborer. Perfume mingled with incense. An eager though hushed restlessness stirred from front to back as the hour turned. I was reminded of suddenly riveted attention, as a bridal procession is about to begin.
Altar boys proudly swung censers, so that frankincense purled through the air. More clergy than I’d seen since the Vatican moved toward the altar. Music surrounded us, our seatmates singing carols in French, in Latin and Provencal.
The priests arrayed themselves, backs to the altar, facing the aisle. Suddenly, old Provence came to life before my very eyes. Villagers, garbed like the hand-made santons I’d owned since the early 1970s, walked where the clergy had been. The women’s thick quilted skirts belled out just like mine on the shelves at home. Each woman carried — like scepters, like jewels — objects identifying her role in the town. One held a bowl and a whisk; one a cluster of baguettes. One was adorned with a lei of braided fat white succulent garlic.
The women were followed by men. The shepherds wore long tobacco-brown cloaks, with an extra flap along the shoulders. And that night I learned why. The men carried live lambs over their shoulders, resting on those capes. The baker toted a handmade basket, full of his multi-shaped breads. Others held guns, so that the hunt might be blessed. Twosomes bore demijohns of wine, otherspaniers of grapes. Each and every living santon went to the clergy, knelt for the blessing, then took his or her very real offering off to the side, for “the baby Jesus.”
But even that was not the culmination. A cluster of townswomen moved as solemnly as brides, each carrying items of a baby’s layette — handmade, hand-decorated, proudly borne. Behind them walked a young man, carefully cradling the elbow of his even younger wife. In her arms was a baby. A real baby. “Le nouveau-ne” — the newborn — the most recent child of the town.
They, too, knelt at the front, between all the harvest offerings, flanked by the delicate layette. Mass was said and sung in the three languages. When the gospel came to “dans le temps de Cesar Auguste,” chills suffused me.
The mass concluded with exquisite timing. The incense boys turned and recessed toward the back of the church, followed by all those priests. Only the young parents and their amazingly silent infant walked carefully behind them. They all went over to the wall-sized creche. The priest who had said mass blessed the real infant in its mother’s arms. Then Father took something from the head altar boy — the Infant Jesus, “le nouveau-ne,” this one made of clay — as are all humans, come to think of it. Tower bells pealed, exactly as the terra cotta child was settled into its manger, lined with real straw provided by real shepherds.
Interestingly, the carol we sang then was “Un Flambeau, Jeanette, Isabella,” — “Bring a Torch, Jeanette, Isabella.” We were each metaphorically carrying the torch of wonder to that cradle. My dear neighbor turned to me with a very special grin, her name being Jeanette.