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Christmas in Provence: The Nativity Scenes in the Village of Luceram
In Provence, Christmas lasts 40 days. Starting on the day of Sainte-Barbe, on the 4th of December, and lasting until Candlemas day on February the 3rd. During this festive period, many local traditions and customs take place. These include planting “Christmas wheat” in three cups on the day of Sainte-Barbe, the Christmas “big supper”, which is a special dinner, with thirteen desserts, eaten before going to midnight mass on Christmas Eve as well as Christmas markets.
One of the most beautiful traditions, in which Provençals have become famous over the years, is nativity scenes and Les Santons (“little saints”), which remain more popular in the villages than in the cities. A few kilometres from Nice, on one of the roads leading to the Turrini Pass, is the small village of Luceram, strategically located on a mountain outcrop and where the tradition of nativity scenes has become a wonderful tradition for its inhabitants. This is our “Ride of the Month” destination for December.
Leaving the Café at the Port in Nice on this first day of winter, Marie and Audrey look up at the uninviting sky. Rain and snow could both make an appearance today, with the snow-capped peaks visible from afar on the Mercantour side. Their route will take in the Saint Roch pass and up through the Paillon valley to reach Bendejun and Coaraze, which is the last village before the Col. From the Port of Nice, this will involve an ascent of almost 1000 metres before descending on the drops to the medieval village of Lucéram, which is very crowded this time of year and for a good reason.
After Bendejun, the “route du soleil” takes cyclists through many varied landscapes. Shortly after leaving the coast, the temperature becomes much cooler and humid as the bikes reach the banks of the river and the rich forest undergrowth in between Contes and Bendejun. The atmosphere then becomes much more Mediterranean in the final 10 kilometres, where the imposing trees have disappeared and are replaced by a rocky landscape with much drier and sparser vegetation.
At a few hundred metres before the pass, it’s always satisfying to glance back and admire the tight switchbacks that have been conquered magnificently. This route is yet another wonder in the cyclist paradise that the remote countryside of Nice offers.
There is what sounds like an ever-increasing commotion as you approach the tiny village of Lucéram. The laughter and children’s games echoing from the narrow streets confirm the rumour: the Lucéram Christmas nativity scenes trail (“Circuit des Crèches”) is teaming with visitors. This is a unique and magical spectacle with no less than 450 Christmas nativity scenes of all different shapes and sizes, made by the locals, in every nook and cranny of the village. The place is unique because the entire population seems to have devoted themselves to individual expressions of creativity.
The tradition of Christmas nativity scenes that first used les santons seems to have been established in the 13th Century by Saint Francis of Assisi, who in 1223, before celebrating Christmas mass, organised a live Nativity scene in a village in Italy. It’s about recreating the birth of Jesus over two thousand millennia ago in a stable in Bethlehem, a small town 10 kilometres from Jerusalem. This biblical story is about Mary and Joseph, the parents of Jesus, who couldn’t find a room to stay in, so took refuge in a stable, at which point Mary gave birth to Jesus in a manger, which the crib represents.
This remarkable historical story features shepherds and three wise men who came to worship the newborn child. But here in Provence, you see a different nativity scene with small, handcrafted figurines (les santons) of the village baker, beekeeper, fisherman and more of the region’s villagers used in nativity scenes to depict Provençal life. As a result, Les Santons have become the Provençal symbol for the Christmas season. These miniature clay figurines are handcrafted by local artists, with fairs and markets entirely devoted to them as the Christmas holidays approach.
In the narrow cobblestone streets and medieval archways of Lucéram, Christmas nativity scenes are everywhere. Audrey and Marie decide to get off their bikes and walk deeper into the village to take a better look. There are nativity scenes in every nook and corner of the village - on windowsills, fountains, porches and sometimes entire cellars, chapels, and even the communal oven.
The smallest could fit inside a hazelnut shell or oyster shell, and the largest are several metres long and can fill an entire room or even the village square. This is an out of the ordinary, magical show of collective celebration, friendly and inventive.
With the smell of mulled wine and stewed gnocchi floating around in the air, it’s time to return to Nice. The generous portions of wine and gnocchi served here are a good omen for this rather unusual descent. But, unfortunately, the bitter cold has started to set in, so Marie and Audrey must ride home fast to Nice.
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