Crèches are a Christmas tradition here in Nice, and everyone seems to have a family collection of santons, the little painted clay figures you put around the scene of Christ in the manger. Until a couple of years ago, even Denise felt she should bring out her little stable, baby Jesus, Mary, Joseph and a couple of farm animals. Traditionally there are santons for everyone in a village, including figures of bakers and shoemakers and so on, as well as the Magi and their camels. Lots of shops have their own little crèches in the window, but the biggest and most complete is the one at Auer, a very old business in Vieux Nice that makes chocolate and candied fruit. Their display takes up the entire window, with scores of village characters. Their fishermen are fishing in a lake made of melted chocolate, fed by a chocolate waterfall. It smells sweet and incredible, though I’ve noticed that people are so taken with the detail of the window scene that they often don’t even see the chocolate waterfall.
One of the professions must be the local woman of ill-repute. I didn’t see her in the Auer window, but I found her among the santons for sale in the Christmas Market in Place Massena, the centre of Nice, lifting her skirts for a gentleman who seemed only mildly interested.
Most of the window crèches are very traditional and, let’s face it, a bit tacky if you’re not used to them, but one in the window of a motorcycle equipment shop called Moto Express really made me laugh. You could say it’s disrespectful to have the Christ Child posed on the seat of a Harley Davidson, and Joseph looking like a Hell’s Angel, but it must have taken so much time to put together, let alone to collect the pieces over the years, that you can’t help but love it. I particularly like the Three Kings’ sets of motorcyle tracks in the snow.
Nice has some very beautiful baroque churches, and each of them has its own crèche. They do it in the traditional way, arranging the figures around an empty space, where baby Jesus will be placed during the Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve. Most of the churches seem to have their crèches in place now, but when I went to look at the one in Nice’s cathedral, Ste Reparate, there were two people and a dog busily putting one up. The woman seemed a bit mortified that I wanted to take pictures, and I don’t blame her, really. Seeing Joseph as a bald, half-naked store mannequin with a scruffy fake beard, lying on his side on the floor, detracts from the wonder.
In the St Francois de Paule church, however, things were a bit different. The figures are very lifelike, yet still and peaceful. They do seem to inspire reflection. It was quite dark, and I looked at them for some time. After I had been virtually snickering at the tackiness or silliness of other crèches, this one was more serious. The way that they were all focused on the empty space where the manger will be on Christmas Eve was very touching – an empty space filled with hope, it seemed to me. Christ the Saviour is born. I’m not a believer, despite (or because of) a Catholic childhood, but sometimes the right place at the right time can take you by surprise. It didn’t stop me from taking a picture, of course. Look, that’s my shadow there, with my camera. I guiltily dropped some change into the offerings box and lit a candle. The power of redemption.