Fairs highlight Provencal season

ARLES, France -- Along with Alsace, Provence is a region of grand Christmas tradition, celebrating Le Noel and stretching the season from Dec. 4 to Feb. 2.

Actually, the season begins in November with the santon fairs. The marketplaces sell santons, clay figurines that are dressed in hand-stitched clothes that depict traditional trades and ways of life. The santons, created through the centuries, place the Nativity in a typical Provencal setting.

The people of Provence buy santons to add to their Christmas crib characters, and some of the finest works are in museums and are sought after by international collectors.

The largest fairs are held in Arles (Nov. 19 to 23); Marseilles, the oldest market -- since 1833 (Nov. 22 to Jan. 1), and Aubagne (all through December in this santon capital of Provence).

Visitors of any faith spending the holidays away from home will enjoy Christmas Eve in Provence, where midnight Mass often includes a processional cart decorated with candles and ribbons and carrying live Nativity characters. Scenes are performed by costumed villagers and their animals. (The most famous of these pageants is held in Les Beaux, an easy drive from Aix-en-Provence or Arles.) After Mass, the Christmas Eve feast is made up of 13 desserts representing Christ and the 12 Apostles.

From Christmas morning until the end of January, evenings in Provence are punctuated by "pastorales," the equivalent of our Nativity plays. The season ends with the celebration of Candlemas, the church festival of the purification of the Virgin Mary. (She is honored with wonderful pomp and circumstance in Marseilles' oldest church, St.-Vitor.)

On the Riviera coast in Nice, the main holiday attraction will be the Christmas village, erected in the center of town complete with wooden chalets, an ice-skating rink and entertainment.

In the Christmas spirit, there will be a creche exhibition in the Parc Phoenix Botanical Gardens all through December.

Events for the holiday season include a full calendar of performing arts. The Nice Opera House will stage Verdi's "Macbeth" (Dec. 15, 17, 20 and 23); Wagner's "Tristan und Isolde" (Dec. 18, 22, 23 and 30), and Humperdinck's "Hansel & Gretel" (Dec. 24, 26 and 29). At the Acropolis theater, Placido Domingo will be in concert on Dec. 16, and the same stage will host a New Year's concert called Strauss & Straus.

For further information, contact the French Government Tourist Office travel agent hot line at (202) 293-6173.

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