Little clay figures that are made in Provence, a labour of love for the many workers that originated from the first nativity scene, it is believed, created in 1223. Amazing. They were made for Christmas crêches and depicted the general life of a rural Provencal life. The word “santon” means little saint and depicted daily life from the miller carrying a bag of flour on his donkey to the farmer’s wife with a basket of eggs to the local minister and the mayor. The school mistress with her band of children, the knife grinder to other local characters.
The crêche had political purposes too , where the religious meanings served to combat the Protestant Reformation in the 17th century and were banned during the French Revolution. The churches were closed down and people began making their own versions, either in paper, bread, cloth or papier mâché. Apparently it was dangerous to do and people feared the dreaded guillotine.
However things moved on and by the time of the 20th century in the small town of Aubagne near Marseille that these little figures would really make their mark. Aubagne was even dubbed “un Glasgow Provençal “ perhaps for the heavy industrialisation?
Now the work is within family businesses, the tiny clay figures, with
hand crafted clothes and where the “santonnier” the maker of these little objects would spend many hours to complete a figure that comes to life and where attention to detail is impeccable. Old customs are paid attention to ,like green rather than white wedding dress of a bride, or a housewife who wears her house keys attached to her dress as they did from their wedding day on.
I know about them here because I have seen them in French houses during Christmas and they speak about finding a new “santon “ and including it in their nativity scene. It is very special in French life.
Two great ladies, one of whom was my mother and who had a clothes boutique in Eaglesham for many years. My tribute this month is to them.
Let’s start with Coco Chanel because we know she was a great couturier and she started the New Look , famous for her mannish , sporty look for women that would revolutionise women’s wear after the war. Born into a very poor background , she began working as a seamstress and also sang in a cabaret where she met wealthy Etienne Balsan who financed her as did another friend Captain Arthur Capel and where she began her de luxe shops in Paris.
She even went to Hollywood and designed for the huge MGM stars.
The great Serge Diaghilev and Les Ballets Russes are attributed to her costumes for Le Train Bleu and her donations of money for the company.
I won’t go into the rumours of her pro naziism here, and prefer to dwell on her beautiful clothes which were so classic and so unique .
My mother had a little shop in Eaglesham, South of Glasgow ,that was in a cottage that she first started with my grandmother in the 70’s called Lotti. You walked in and felt you were in someone’s sitting room, with antique furniture and a restful atmosphere. She took the name from a little hotel in Paris called Totti and she thought it a fine name. I often helped her in choosing the clothes and several times we went to London for the collections. I remember we went to Chanel . We watched an amazing défilé as it is called, down a catwalk with beautiful models I recall that were thin, but never anorexic. Our business was small but the quality of the pieces I can still remember. The craftsmanship was extraordinary.
My mum carried on her shop until the late 80’s building up a personalised business for her faithful clientèle. She used to say she would love to live in France when she retired, and in particular the Dordogne. How strange I am doing exactly that?
At the weekend I went to several events in the village especially for Christmas. I am part of an association here for keep fit classes and they held a tombola ending up with a festive meal to mark the end of the term. It was very jolly and I have met a lot of new people from it. We all
had to bring some food and or drink which was laid out as a huge buffet for us all to share. There was a good turnout, with nearly 60 people . The tombola was drawn but of course I never win anything! To finish off the evening we went along to the second part with a “bal dansant” under the big tent in the square. Two events in one day is unusual but the atmosphere was very Xmassy and in good humour . The local shopkeepers had decided this year to put on something for the village in selling tombola tickets with great prizes but again I wasn’t successful. We kept warm with mulled wine and having a little dance too. There was a great band and people were all up dancing to a French dance they call “Le Madison “ It is a bit like a version of line dancing or The Slosh , in Scottish terms ,and it is fun to do! I have just learnt it and I make mistakes but no one minds.
The village is looking very pretty, the little trees with blue lights shining through the branches, and as I walked home I am hoping that we all have a very happy Christmas and a peaceful New Year. Bonne Fêtes de Salignac .
Fifi’s story from rural France December 2016. www.salignacfoundation.com Dance and film courses SW France.