Provincial Nativity Characters: Les Santons!

Posted on 19. Dec, 2014 by in Culture, History

Image courtesy of Chansons de Noël

Image courtesy of Chansons de Noël

La crèche (the nativity scene) is pretty common this time of year, but in the southeastern part of France in Provence, they go a little further. Le bébé Jésus, Marie, Joseph, les Rois mages, les ânes, et les anges sont tous là (Baby Jesus, Mary, Joseph, the Three Wise Men, the donkeys, and the angels are all there), but you can also find les boulangers, les bergers, les jardinières, et les porteurs d’eau (bakers, shepherds, gardeners, and water carriers) all ready to welcome the newborn king. These little figurines are called les santons (from the provençal dialect word for little saint). In the traditional crèche provençale, there are 55 personnages (characters).

It is believed that the santon tradition started around the Mediterranean (with Naples as a possible starting point) in the 13th century when small figurines were sold and traded. This practice continued in France, and in 1803, les artisans (the craftsmen) introduced a Nativity Fair in Marseille. It was such a success that the fair continues to this day. These craftsmen devote a lot of time and attention to their work, and you can see pride in every little piece. More than just un artisan, there is even a word for a person who makes santons: un santonnier.



It’s worth noting that santons were also a way of preserving religion. After the French Revolution, (connaissez-vous l’année de la Révolution Française?) many churches closed and outdoor nativity scenes were banned, so some families began recreating the scenes in their own private homes.

Before, the figurines were made of bois (wood), cire (wax) et même mie de pain (and even the soft part of bread), but today, les santons sont faits de terre cuite (the figurines are made of clay) and are available in 2 distinct styles. There is the santon d’argile (clay figurine) which is modeled and hand painted and are between 1″ and 6″ tall. The second less common (et plus cher [and more expensive]) type is le santon habillé (dressed figurine). These are wearing cloth costumes and sometimes come with small accessories. These are generally bigger than the santon d’argile and measure between 6″ and 18″. Check out the two pictures below to compare.

Images courtesy of Santons Provence and Santons Dilandro.

Images courtesy of Santons Provence and Santons Dilandro.

All throughout Provence in December, you can find fantastic displays of santon villages. In Avignon,  the main foyer in the hôtel de ville (city hall) is filled with a huge fictitious city with over 500 santons. I was able to see this 2 years in a row, and it really is pretty fantastic. There’s so much detail, and wanting to see it all takes a lot of time, mais ça vaut la peine (but it’s worth it)! You can also find a santon museum in Marseille, and there’s also the world’s biggest santon display at la Crèche de Grignan. If you’re ever in the south of France in December and are looking for a local Christmas gift for some friends at home, stop by any Marché de Noël and pick yourself up some santons!


Listening Comprehension

For a bit more of a personal touch, I asked a few questions about les santons to my friend Maud. Below, you will see the questions, and you can listen to her answers. Read More…

Bernard Adamus: Y Fait Chaud

Posted on 17. Dec, 2014 by in Culture, Music

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When learning a new language it’s always good to have some music to listen to in that language. It not only motivates you, but it gives you a fun way to pratiquer the language that goes beyond the textbooks and conjugaison charts that are often so dull they vous font dormir (put you to sleep).

Most of the time when people think of music in French, they think of the classics like Edith Piaf and Jaques Brel. French music goes far beyond that though! I spend a lot of time looking for de la musique en français, not just to pratiquer, but to find new and interesting musique as well.

Le Blues are not often thought of as being very French, but I’ve managed to find le blues en français! Hailing from Québec, Bernard Adamus plays the blues and sings en français creating a unique sound that isn’t often heard by learners of French.

The only thing that might be tough for some people is the fact that Bernard Adamus sings in a very heavy accent québécois. So, his pronunciation may be a bit hard to understand for some people. De plus (what’s more) he will use des expressions québécoises (quebecois expressions) that are probably never taught in your normal French class. But it’s still French! De plus, c’est le blues en français!


Y fait chaud j’dors pas
On est tellement ben dans tes bras
Pendu à tes lèvres pourvu qu’le jour s’lève pas

Y fait chaud j’dors pas
Tes cheveux dans ma face m’dérangent pas
J’voudrais ben r’commencer encore m’étamper sur ton corps

Y fait chaud j’dors pas
Chus tellement ben ici bas
Mais comme tu resteras pas faut ben que j’parte de d’là


It’s so hot I can’t sleep
It feels so good in your arms
Hung up on your lips as long as the day doesn’t begin

It’s so hot I can’t sleep
Your hair in my face doesn’t bother me
I’d really love to start over again, thrash myself on your body

It’s so hot I can’t sleep
I feel so good down here
But as you’re not staying I really have to get away from that


4 Surprising Sights in Paris That Most Tourists Don’t Know About

Posted on 15. Dec, 2014 by in Geography


Les Egouts de Paris — Mamasuco at

Even after living there several years and returning every summer, Paris continues to surprise me.

Just this past summer, we took my son – obsessed with les animaux – to the Bois de Vincennes, where there is a small working farm that uses organic techniques (les techniques biologiques), as well as an educational petting zoo for the kids (une ferme pedagogique). It’s a pretty amazing place, situated in the richest suburbs (les banlieues) of Paris, where parents bring their young children and where anyone has the opportunity, every weekend, to work on the farm.

Surprises like this abound in Paris. It might not be a surprise to someone who grew up in Paris, but the Ville-Lumière has so much to offer that even Parisians cannot know everything about their home city.

When I lived in Paris, I would go for solitary walks and discover my favorite locations that were not found in any typical guidebooks. These sights were places of serenity – like the Parc Montsouris, surprising discoveries – like the working beehives (les ruches) and small vineyard found in the small park, named after French singer Georges Brassens, around the block from where we lived, and, of course, historical sites of tragic past events – like the site of the razed Vélodrome d’hiver (a vélodrome is an indoor track and stadium, used for bicycle racing among other things). Although this building has since been destroyed, 13,152 Jews were held there in deplorable conditions in 1942 before being transferred to concentration camps. In such an old and populated city, it is inevitable to stumble upon these secrets, whether they are serene scenes of nature or memories of a tragic past.

So, while many of you have visited the magnificent landmarks of Paris, including la tour Eiffel, le Louvre, and la basilique du Sacré-Coeur – here are some other, more secret and intimate areas that you may have missed out on. Of course, if you have a favorite off-the-beaten-path sight of Paris, please feel free to share – as long as you don’t mind sharing your secret with an audience.

I’m going to start off with a not so secret location, but still a landmark that is overlooked in favor of other and, in my opinion, less impressive structures. La Sainte-Chapelle is a hidden royal medieval chapel, commissioned by King Louis IX, and nestled behind the Conciergerie on the ile de la Cité. This little chapel is without a doubt one of the most incredible churches I have seen and I recommend it to all friends who have plans to visit Paris. While lines can be long during holiday seasons, many tourists miss this because it is not visible from the street. Don’t miss out on it. It’s worth its reputation as the crown jewel of Capetian architecture.

Would you believe me if I told you that you can hike under a large waterfall in Paris? Well, you can. Located in the enormous Bois de Boulogne, on Paris’ southwestern border, is the grande cascade. The Bois de Boulogne is a public park, consisting of over 2000 acres, and created during the reign of Emperor Louis Napoleon. Make sure you spend enough time to wander around Boulogne’s two lakes, eight ponds, and three streams (all man-made yet still breathtakingly beautiful).

Paris is known for its ubiquitous cinémas. Movie going in Paris is such a part of life that you can buy unlimited movie membership cards for surprisingly low monthly fees. And don’t ever feel ashamed to see a movie tout seul – the French take their movie watching seriously; it’s not just a social affair, but an integral part of living well. While there are plenty of cinémas in Montparnasse, check out the under-the-radar La Pagode in the 7th arrondissement instead. It’s an incredible theatre located in an antique Japanese pagoda. Come early and enjoy green tea in the oriental garden.

And I’ve saved the best for last: It might not sound too appetizing, but you can visit les égouts de Paris. What are les égouts? Sewers, of course! The Paris sewer system covers 1300 miles underneath the city and parts of it date back to 1300. There’s even a museum down there, where you can discover the fascinating history of Paris’ underground tunnels. I’ve never been, but I’ve heard from other tourists not to be afraid of the smell – it’s not much worse than the smell of a crowded wagon de métro.

Do you have any favorite areas of Paris that are not main tourist attractions? Tell us what they are and why they are so special.