December 29, 2014
Since November we have been highlighting the Kingdom of God in our midst. In many ways, God is at work all around us! Through Sioux Falls Psychological Services, we have the privilege of offering people a journey founded on God’s hope. We meet them in the joys and struggles of life and are reminded of the ways in which God works in and through our lives.
One Christmas, during the four years I spent working in residential settings with persons with severe, persistent mental illness, I came across the French Christmas tradition of “santons fèves” (little bean saints). I learned that one of the little santons, the “village idiot” (or now, more politely, “the simple one”) is always a part of each set of santons fèves, and for good reason. But to understand why, it is important to know the history of the Christmas crèche, or nativity set.
The tradition of the Christmas crèche began in the year 1223 C.E. in Italy. At that time, Francis of Assisi, now known as St. Francis, was visiting the town of Grecio, a small mountain village tucked into the forest overlooking a beautiful valley where the people had cultivated vineyards for generations. Francis had come to the village to help lead the Christmas celebration. But, when he arrived, Francis realized that the village church would be far too small to hold the crowd that was expected for Midnight Mass.
As he considered where he could create a place for worship that would be solemn, beautiful, and joyous, Francis realized that the celebration would have to be held outside. Then he had an idea. He had just returned from the Holy Land, where he had visited the traditional site of Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem. He decided to recreate that experience for the villagers. So he searched the area until he found a cave-like niche in the mountainside near the town square. There, he set up an altar. He found a manger, and brought it to the site. And then he brought hay, and an ox and a donkey. He found villagers to play the parts of Mary, Jesus, Joseph, the shepherds and the magi.
The people were called to worship. As they came running, Bonaventure tells us, “the forest resounded with their voices, and that venerable night was made glorious by many and brilliant lights and sonorous psalms of praise.” Francis shared the Gospel and then he preached a Christmas sermon. The crèche was so popular that, within 100 years, parishioners throughout Italy expected their churches to have nativities for Christmas.
The tradition quickly spread throughout Europe. Eventually, statues replaced the human participants. Over the years, the robes and stable and landscape became more and more ornate. Polish nativities even included the Gothic spires, Renaissance facades, and Baroque domes of Krakow. Kings and queens in many countries collected these Christmas scenes.
When churches were outlawed and closed during the French Revolution because the religious hierarchy was closely linked to the monarchy, the large nativity scenes were forbidden throughout France. So, in order to tell the Christmas story, the tradition of tiny, bean-sized, clay nativity characters, called “santons fèves” (little bean saints), developed in Provence. Each year, families baked one of these little figures into the Epiphany “kings’ cake.” The person whose piece of cake had the little santon fève was able to keep the figurine for their own nativity scene, and they became “king” or “queen” for the day.
Over the years, the santon-makers replaced the traditional nativity figures with people from their own villages: the scissors grinder, the fishwife, the chestnut seller, the milkmaid, the blind man, and more. Now, the traditional set of French “santons” includes 55 different characters!
The placement of the figures varies, except for Mary, Jesus, Joseph, and one other: the “simple one.” Every year, in traditional French nativities, the “simple one” is always placed first in the manger scene, and closest to the Baby Jesus. Even before Mary and Joseph. Even closer than Mary and Joseph. Why? Because, through their vulnerability, the “simple ones” bring us closest to Christ all year long.
The traditional French nativity reminds us that people whose emotional upsets and behaviors seem different and frightening are the very ones who remind us of our human fragility, and our ultimate reliance on God. And we, when we are afraid of our emotions and behaviors, are also called to allow those moments to invite us, too, closer to Christ.