In our small corner of the temperate zone of our planet, change is all around us most of the year. For me, Fall is the perfect example. In one month, or slightly more, those who are aware of their natural surroundings can easily see the hardwood trees change from full summer green to glorious shades of yellow, orange and red. Within a week or two, depending on the weather, that wonderful display can disappear, changing to gold, rusty brown and grey. This process is dramatic and the speed is quite remarkable if we think about it.
Spring is quite a different matter, tantalizingly slow, small steps at a time, almost dragging life and color out of the cold earth. Raucous geese, less than subtle, migrating overhead in both seasons, remind us that we are not the only ones noticing change.
Natural change is something we are all familiar with at least here in rural Vermont and mostly our coping skills are good, but today we live in turbulent times. An erratic president, a divided population, mass migrations of people, immigration pressure, and an addiction problem, costly in money and lives, are all taking a toll on our feelings of security and relationships with others. Avoidance, of confrontation or even thinking about disturbing change, is one way out but very difficult to achieve. I have another way, indulgent perhaps but calming, at least for a while.
As I sit at our kitchen counter I can see Aunt Marian’s painting of Rockport Harbor (Motif #1) and below it, on top of a small bureau, a collection of seashells and two Santons.
Santons are figurines typical of Provence in southern France. Originally they were used in crèche scenes common in many Catholic churches in France at Christmas. The first crèche (depiction of the Nativity) originated in Italy in 1223, probably on the instigation of St. Francis, to discourage pilgrims from attempting the dangerous pilgrimage to Bethlehem. It was a live crèche including live farm animals and people dressed as shepherds and magi, the likes of which we still see in some places here in Vermont. True to form not to be outdone by Italian creativity, in 1224 a church in Marseille, France, followed the idea. Live crèche scenes are messy and difficult to manage so that very quickly the live crèche was replaced by a more durable grouping of figures of wood and clay. Marseille became a center for making the figures which varied from the originally almost life-size to much smaller figures, 7-11 inches tall, easier to handle and store. Today Marseille is still the center of Santonniers in France with a large Foire des Santonniers each December. All this may seem a little “off-topic” but in fact, these small figures say a lot about humanity in all its aspects.
Originally Santons were used to depict the Holy Family at the birth of Christ with accompanying angels, shepherds, wise-men, but the question soon went out among the locals, "What about me?" Over time Santons were created to represent villagers, men, women and children, tradespeople, farmers, millers, bakers, shepherds and fishermen and the domestic animals typical of the region. Many gifted artisans became involved in sculpting the clay faces, hands and lower legs and feet of the people, painting them and making the clothes out of local fabrics. The rest of the body, being wire or wood and padding of various materials, is hidden under the clothing. Small items such as baskets of vegetables, bread or fish, musical instruments portray the life occupations. Some of the signed, artistic work is highly prized by museums and collectors.
For me, the Santons I have collected over several years are a soothing glimpse into a simpler time where interpersonal relationships were not as fraught with politics as today. Where the most important human activities were about work, family and the seasons. Not that poverty and hard work are soothing, and some of the Santons I have seen show the darker side of earlier times, but in the painted faces, even in miniature, one can see the typical emotions of real people: concern for neighbors, empathy, joy, humor, skill, and bravado in a rural setting that, save for the climate, could have been that of rural New England 100+ year ago.
Times have changed and life goes on but the turmoil in our government is fraying the fabric of our society and destabilizing normal relationships here and with our allies. A reminder now and again that common human values matter more than anything in cementing the bonds of any society is important. My Santons remind me that we must hold fast to that belief long enough to help restore and move forward beyond ignorance, scandal, cruelty, and graft to make this country “Care Again!”