You may know the traditional Biblical Christmas story, but in Provence there’s a bit more to it. The Provençal version is told in a Nativity play called a pastorale which incorporates the main details of the traditional Nativity but sets it in a nineteenth-century Provençal village.
The word pastorale basically means “shepherd’s song” and is a reference to the Biblical Christmas story where the shepherds are the first to hear the good news. Early pastorales told only the Biblical narrative of the birth of Jesus, but in the mid 1800s, Antoine Maurel, a Provençal poet, added some local flavor. His pastorale was one of the first to incorporate the Provence villagers and to add a bit of Provençal humor.
These Christmas plays go hand in hand with the Provence santons (little saints) which populate the Provençal crèche. Every miniature figure has its own story which is told in one of the Christmas pastorales.
Several pastorales exist, but Maurel’s is still one of the most popular. Below is a simplified version of Maurel’s pastorale which was first performed in 1844. (Note – it’s not a politically correct play.)
It’s night and shepherds are in the hills tending their sheep. Suddenly a bright light appears above them. It’s an angel who announces that Jesus has been born in Bethlehem (which, conveniently, happens to be a Provençal village). The shepherds decide to go welcome the Holy Infant.
As they travel, they stop at every home along the way to wake the inhabitants and tell them the good news. A tambourine player and a drummer join in, reducing the chance that anyone will sleep through this event. One by one, house by house, people hear the news, grab a gift (something associated with their profession), and join the parade.
They come across the aveugle (blind man). He’s blind because his oldest son was kidnapped by the Gypsies and he cried so much he lost his sight. His youngest son leads him along in the procession.
As they make their way to Bethlehem, Provence, others join this motley crew. The meunier (miller) fills a sack of flour for the Holy Child and then he and his donkey join them. Pimpara, the rémouleur (knife and scissor sharpener) who likes to drink a bit too much follows along as well. Then they come across two friends who are not the brightest lights on the Christmas tree: Jiget, the bégue (stutterer) and Pistachié, the peureux (fearful). These two have been hoodwinked by the Gypsies into paying a sack full of silver to buy their own shadows.
When the shepherds and their followers arrive in the Provençal Bethlehem, they stop at the house of Roustido, an older man. When he hears the news, he goes to tell his friend, Jourdan. The two old men make such a ruckus that they wake Margarido, Jourdan’s cantankerous wife, who is sleeping upstairs. She joins the two men, and the three of them leave for the stable, arguing and spreading the news all along the way.
Everyone stops outside Benvengu’s house. He is Jourdan’s son-in-law and the owner of a large farm. He’s known for always welcoming company with a few glasses of wine and the thirsty travelers are sure the Baby Jesus won’t mind if they stop for just a few minutes to refresh themselves. After everyone has rested and put back a few drinks, they continue their journey.
When they arrive at the stable where the Holy Infant was born, they all present him with their gifts and many miracles occur: Margarido and Jourdan start to get along, and they even hold hands and kiss. Jiget the stutterer loses his stutter. The Gypsies feel ashamed of themselves and give the blind man’s son back to him. Miraculously, his eyesight is restored and everyone goes on their way rejoicing.
There are several pastorale plays with different characters, but the idea is pretty much the same. They tell the stories of the townspeople making their way to see the newborn baby in Bethlehem (which is, of course, in Provence). And since different pastorales feature different characters, everyone in the town is represented.
Nativity scenes filled with santons representing the people in the pastorale plays (and everyone else in town) are very popular in Provence. Many people add to their collection every year and end up with huge displays. To aid everyone with their acquisitions, santons are on sale in every Christmas market and there are even fairs dedicated solely to the “little saints.”
- Read more in my book, Curious Histories of Provence, Tales from the South of France.
- To read my other article about santons, click here: Little Saints of Provence
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Image Sources: Images of individual santons, Images of santons in Nativity scenes are by me.