Category Archives: Social Customs

Little French saints – the “santons de Provence”

Aren’t these little people wonderful? [Cllick on each picture to view a larger version]

Meet the little French saints “santons” – painted figures made of clay or sculpted in wood – that are found in nativity scenes in many French homes during the Christmas season, though mainly in Provence.

They are called the “santons de Provence” because they originated in Marseilles in the late 18th century.

Although all manger scenes (crèches) have the traditional figures of Mary, Joseph, the infant Jesus and the three kings, the addition of the santons who participate in the birth of the Christ child are essential to the scenario.

There are hundreds of variations and types of santons. Traditionally, they are either 6″ or 10″ in height. Some examples of figures used are the woodcutter, the fisherman, the lavendar seller, the baker, the butcher, the pastry maker and the weaver. But there are hundreds more.

There are a few characters, though, that are considered traditional – as much as Mary, Joseph, and the infant Jesus. Among these are: the blind man and his son, and an unusual figure called the “Ravi”. The ravi is a kind of village fool, someone we might call “touched in the head” in Texas.

When did this tradition of putting “village folk” with the traditional religious figures begin? In France, it started at the time of the French Revolution. The Catholic Church was banned by the new regime in France and the churches were closed. But the people of Marseille resisted the idea of losing their Christmas tradition, and they countered by staging live nativity scenes in various locations in the city.

In 1803, santon-making became a part of Marseille’s craft industry. The idea grew in popularity, and today the santons are a fixture in Provencal homes at Christmas time. Many manger scenes with their uniquely carved figures, have been passed down through families for several generations.

There are two things that interest me about this tradition. First, that the villagers wanted to participate in the nativity scene, itself. They first did this by reenacting the nativity scene with real people. But then they had the idea of putting representations of themselves in the form of these little saints. This was a way for them, I think, to connect more completely to the event of the Nativity.

Secondly, the work that is put into creating these figures is incredible. It is a point of pride with the various craftspeople to individualize each of their creations through their painted expressions – which in the best santons are very realistic – as well as in the costumes they create for them. There is a huge amount of work in these figures.

Well, we’ve already put up our Nativity Scene this year. Our thanks go to Madame Olive, the santon maker where we found our figures, who is located in St. Jean le Centenier, Ardeche. When you walk into her workshop and see the dozens of different santons she has for sale, it makes you want to put them all in your bag and take them home!

Not Mr. Rogers’ neighborhood…Still, it’s a very nice one

Preparation of Ardèche caillettes

Today is Sunday and I went to the outdoor market in our village. I also paid a visit to some of the local shopkeepers. I’d like to introduce you to them, one by one. Hmmm, it seems this may turn out to be the subject for several posts. But do come along with me as I recreate my stroll through the village.

First of all, it’s one thousand steps from the courtyard entry door of our home. We live in what’s called a “hameau” or hamlet, made up of about four homes. Take a peek at the entry door in the photo located on my first post, “You’re not in Texas anymore”.

Anyway, it was a grayish day, no rain, but a little cool. I first stopped by the local charcutier (pork butcher) because I needed to buy a turkey filet (escalope) for our cat. It looked like Christmas outside their shop – two huge Christmas trees on either side of the door with big red, blue and green shiny ornaments in the form of Christmas presents attached to the branches.

Went inside, and chatted with the Monsieur and Madame C. for a couple of minutes. This feels really good, because 1) I am able to carry on a decent conversation in French, even making a few jokes, and 2) It’s nice to be a part of village life. People know you, you know them. That’s so important.

In fact, I told Monsieur that he was the only one in town who had his Christmas decorations out and asked him why the town’s decorations weren’t up yet. He told me he thought they’d be going up soon. Frankly, I’m getting a little anxious over this, as all of the other surrounding small towns are already decorated. As far as I know, the village treasury is still in the black.

Anyway, back to the visit. Actually, you wouldn’t believe how similar this experience is to going into a butcher’s shop in a small town in Texas. Same atmosphere, except that in Texas they’re selling Shiner (or Coors, or whatever) beer in the refrigerated section instead of wine from the local coop here. And you would be hearing Texas drawls instead of southern French drawls. Yep, they drawl here.

But, the important thing is, Monsieur and Madame C. have the best pork products – sausages (one variety is called a “jesus” – I’ll have to inquire sometime why they call it by that name), pork roasts, hams, sausage stuffing, and another local favorite called a “caillette”, pronounced “ki-yet”. These are made with pork and swiss chard, and other seasonings [see photo for authentic Ardèche caillettes]. They are somewhat of an acquired taste, but good.

And in addition to the pork products, they also sell chickens, eggs, all kinds of beef steak, turkey, etc. They have to have a little bit of everything since they’re the only butcher in town. But they’re so good that there’s always a line out the door on Saturday and Sunday mornings.

When I said Au revoir to Monsieur and Madame, I went on down to the baker’s to buy freshly-baked bread…well, that will be for tomorrow’s post. Oh, and I have to be sure and tell you about the “santons”, the southern French Christmas tradition of putting little carved figures into the Christmas nativity scenes.

So to finish up today, I really love it here in France – though I never could have imagined such a life in my wildest dreams. I like the people, and I feel at home here. Yes, even when I’m experiencing the cross-cultural challenges that do come up.

I hope you’ll come back to visit with me soon. Write me a comment. I’d love to hear some of your stories, too.

Why didn’t you get my joke?

Humor. That’s a serious word. Especially when we’re talking about how it translates (or doesn’t) across cultures.

It has to do with so many “culturally wired” conceptions. It’s in our body language when we make the joke, or something as tiny as an inflection of the voice, or a look on your face.

And the subjects we use in our jokes. What makes a joke a joke in a certain culture? I’m still not completely clear after five years of living in France, immersed in the culture.

My husband says that when you make a joke in France, that it’s about something that’s too absurd to be taken seriously. But when I do the same thing, he often doesn’t understand that I’m joking. What’s the deal? Or more precisely, what’s the secret to humor – in any culture?

Sometimes I think people don’t get my jokes simply because they know I’m not French. It seems that there is a kind of instantaneous intellectual analysis on their part, as in “She’s not French. Is she making a joke?” I may be totally off, but I think this sometimes happens and they hesitate because they aren’t sure I intended to make a joke.

Another thing…I recently got into a cultural tangle (mental, not physical!) due to a misinterpretation of a phrase. And it made me as mad as an old, wet hen as my grandmother would say. A Frenchwoman, fairly good acquaintance of ours, made a remark (a joke?) in response to a comment I had just made about entering the French culture by way of French cuisine. Meaning, by learning about the different regions and their different types of cuisine.

Now, in French, “cuisine” can mean either “food” or “kitchen”. She said, “You surely didn’t enter France by the kitchen.” Now, I interpreted that as meaning “You surely didn’t enter France by the back door.” And I was very vexed. To say the least.

Later, my husband told me I had completely misunderstood what she meant, because in France the saying would be “You entered France by the back door” (vous êtes entré par la porte arrière) and NOT “You entered France by the kitchen (door)”. Sigh.

Probably, she was making a play on words which I didn’t catch. A misunderstanding, or a “malentendu” as we say in French. I’m trying to arrive at the place where I can give her the benefit of the doubt.

It’s those kinds of things that make me want to speak in English exclusively for at least 24 hours. But, luckily, tomorrow is another day in the world of my ongoing cultural adventure.

Until then, à bientôt – see you soon.

Home, Home on the Southeast of France kitchen range…

Well, learning to cook in a different language is a huge cultural code encounter in itself!

When I arrived in France, all I could cook were cakes, cookies, pasta and omelettes! I could count on one hand the number of times I had cooked meat – as in pot roast, a whole chicken, or turkey. I had spent my life as a career professional, single mother. My son and I ate frozen food dinners, ordered pizza on Friday nights, and lived for weekend meals at my grandmother’s house – an excellent Texas home “cookerwoman”, as my mother called her when she was a little girl.

In France, where food (better known as “cuisine” here!) is serious business, I was forced to rally to the challenge. In large part due to the expectant look on my French husband’s face, I admit.

Now, here is the deal. In America, I knew what the dish in question was supposed to look like, even if I didn’t know how to make it. But in France, it was a whole ‘nother story. I had a brand-new cookbook, the French sister to our classic Betty Crocker Cookbook called “Je sais cuisiner” (translation: “I know how to cook”). Optimistic title. This was a gift from my optimistic, and hopeful, new husband. But, the book had no photos of the finished dish.

So, I would dutifully follow the instructions and ask my husband if the dish looked and tasted like it “was supposed to”. He would look at me, mildly surprised, and then give me his opinion. Apparently, I had inherited my grandmother’s cooking gene, although it had remained asleep for some fifty-odd years before it was jump started into activity. The results were usually acceptable.

But, now, think about this. You are from another country and you arrive in America, and someone asks you to cook, say, candied yams. Where is your “cultural memory”? You don’t have one for this particular item, right? So you may feel a little insecure, at the least, or even a little panicky if you’ve having guests over. If you’re lucky, you may have met a neighbor or relative in your new country who can act as your guide. Otherwise, you’re on your own, as was my case.

Well, I won’t go on any longer about my personal experiences. Except to say, that after five years, I am very much at home “speaking” the vocabulary of French cooking here in the southeast of France. Not only do I thoroughly enjoy the experience of shopping in the open air markets, those visual feasts available in every small village in France, but I also feel that I’ve cracked another of the cultural codes in my adopted country.

One little footnote: one of my sisters had gifted me with Julia Child’s double volumes of Mastering the Art of French Cooking back in the ’80’s that I had never looked inside. Until the day I wanted to make crab bisque, and was horrified to find out that the crabs I had ordered were live! Julia to the rescue – well, sort of. She wanted me to cut them up while they were still alive after dipping them for 8 seconds in boiling water. No way. Feeling like an assassin, I was barely able to throw them into the boiling water. Believe me, they stayed in that boiling water for five minutes, until I was sure they had given up the ghost. And I haven’t made crab bisque since…