La Fête de Saint Nicholas on December 6th officially starts the holiday season in Aix. You can tell things are about to start in the week leading up to St. Nicholas' day because, well, besides the buzz in the air, the extra bustle on the streets and in the shops, there's a mise-en-place of metal traffic barricades and little wooden huts on the Cours Mirabeau.
The Cours Mirabeau goes right through the center of town dividing the Vielle Ville to the north from the Quartier Mazarin to the south. (Incidentally, many of the hôtel particulier in the newer Quartier Mazarin were built in the mid 1700s, which shows how relative "new" can be.) The Cours, which didn't get its current name until the 19th century, was first opened in 1651 as a carriage road where the old, crumbled ramparts of Aix had been. Today it's a famous thoroughfare that I've read is called the Champs Elysées of the south. That could be wishful marketing on the part of the Office de Tourisme, but it is indeed a very attractive street lined with sycamore trees, nice shops and cafés. And it's punctuated by some nice fountains, which seem to run all year long because it's significantly warmer here than in Chicago. It's also the center of town, so it's the perfect place for a Christmas market.
The wooden huts eventually turn into stalls selling wares ranging from weird fluffy pink things...
to mulled wine, pretzels and doughnuts...
Actually, food is over-represented in the stalls: chocolate, cookies, truffles (the tuber variety), jams, honeys, churros (yes, churros, and they're really popular) and barbe à papa ("grandpa's beard") or cotton candy, with a choice of flavors. That last one, especially, is a surprise to me. It doesn't really say winter or Christmas to me, but I've never seen more people (adults included) partaking of cotton candy. Not anywhere.
On the weekends, everyone is out strolling through the Christmas market (the wooden huts are the illuminated stalls over James' left shoulder). There are two amazing things about this photo. The first is that James is not wearing a coat -- it was cold enough that I was wearing a coat, but with a few layers, the sweater was enough. The second amazing thing is that no one in this photo is eating any cotton candy.
There's a separate area of the market for santons, which are Provençal nativity figurines.
The tradition apparently dates back to after the French revolution when live, public nativity scenes were no longer allowed. People started setting up their own scenes at home with santoun, or little saints (in Provençal). Nowadays, santons are made from fired clay (the red, terra-cotta kind) and then hand-painted by a santonnier, or santon artist; however, they went through a phase of being made of unfired clay, which was already an improvement over the original santons which were supposedly molded from the soft (non-crust) part of bread. In the photo on the left you can see the work of one santonnier in Aix whose figurines, which are also considerably larger than most (barbie doll size), are dressed in clothing rather than being painted.
What's different about these crêche is that there are lots of figurines that play a role in the scene. You should click on the above photo and see it in a separate window to see all of them. Basically, all the people in the village are there: the butcher, the baker, the fisherman, the fishmonger, the washerwoman, the basket maker, the miller, the olive seller, the knife sharpener and there are others that aren't professions, but which are still traditionally part of the nativity scene, like the village idiot and the old man and the old woman.
For our Christmas, we're going over to the home of one of James' colleagues in the lab for a big Christmas Eve dinner. And since they live in Marseille, we'll be spending the night and going for a nice walk in the hills on Christmas morning.
Merry Christmase Eve!