Sunday, 3 January 2016

Village of a 100 Nativity Scenes

Hundreds of miniature African Nativty scenes
And you thought Christmas was over? Well you’re wrong, until 12th night nativity scenes are still de rigueur. So much so that one town in Saône-et-Loire has more than 100 of them on display. Every year they call themselves the town of the nativity scene and every year we say we will go, this year we actually went.

Before going to something of this type in rural France you have to be prepared for amateurism. But to be honest, nativity scenes, just like nativity plays, owe a lot of their charm to the way you can tell that everyone has done their utmost to produce something spot on but which still has that home-made look about it. I love it.

Arty picture - I got the settings wrong!
With that in mind we drove the one and a half hours to Melay to see this year’s exhibition. We arrived to see a strange vision of an African village outside the lavoir and a similar one outside the town hall, not very nativity scene like - this was going to be more weird than I was expecting. On entering the lavoir building we handed over our 3 Euros entrance fee and we were asked if this was the first time we had been to see the nativity scenes or if we were “habitués” – habitual visitors! As newbies we were told how it all worked. But after an immensely complicated explanation, I had no more idea what was going on than before, except that the exhibition in the lavoir had been borrowed from a nativity scene museum in the Lorraine somewhere and the exhibition in the town hall had been borrowed from the artisans of Arles.

I was quite stunned. There were literally hundreds of small beautifully crafted nativity scenes (carved in wood, ivory or made from pottery) mostly from African origins. But my question was, where were the amateur bits and pieces? the ones that showed that someone in town cared enough to build something each year? What about the shepherds with tea towels on their heads and the wonky mangers?

The original Nativity scene that started off the village's quest for more
To say I was disappointed was an understatement. Somewhat irritated at not finding what I had expected, my camera then decided to change all its settings so that none of my photos worked. I then spent the best part of 20 minutes trying to figure out what I had done to upset it so much, however, I did manage one rather arty photo with these weird settings.

We looked for a while, then left for the town hall, at least we would see something French there. In Provence the figures used in nativity scenes are called Santons, originally made out of old bread rolled through your fingers then painted, nowadays they are made by, amongst others, the artisans of Arles.

We opened the door of the town hall to be greeted by more of the same, more and more and more, small, delicately made African nativity scenes. I asked where the santons were, only to be told that these African scenes had been borrowed from the santon makers of Arles from their museum, the santons had been left in Arles.

Even the Dutch got a look in
So what can I say, I am sure it was an absolutely terrific exhibition, but if I had known that I would be driving for a three hour round trip in the fog to see miniature nativity scenes made in Africa, I wouldn’t have gone. On the other hand Cees was really pleased to see such delicate work, so you win some you lose some.

Our decorations are coming down now and so Christmas is finally over. The local nativity scenes are being packed up until next year. Snow White and her 5 dwarfs (two were stolen this year) are being put back into storage, maybe she won’t reappear next year, just like Mary and Jospeh who have stopped coming to Cormatin because Jesus and the sheep were stolen two or three years ago. Maybe we will just be left with the Smurfs.

All that said, I suppose I shouldn’t complain as there will be more than one hundred beautifully crafted real nativity scenes in Melay next year. I just won’t be there to see them.

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