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IT ALL took place in the greatest secrecy, hammerings and sawings behind closed doors, assemblage by night behind thick screens, so that nobody would know what the new village crèche – Christmas crib – would look like.


IT ALL took place in the greatest secrecy, hammerings and sawings behind closed doors, assemblage by night behind thick screens, so that nobody would know what the new village crèche – Christmas crib – would look like.

The site had been agreed by the village council weeks before. One of the peculiarities of our village is that, built on a steep hill-side as it is, one of the main thoroughfares isn't a street at all but a covered stairway, six fore-and-aft flights of 2-metre-wide stone steps with massively flagged landings at every turn. It's called L'Escalier de la Commanderie, a splendidly medieval name evoking images of the Knights Templar in conclave or the Three Musketeers swashing their buckles at rapier's length by the light of smoking torches.

(The locals have another name for it, l'escalier noir, the black staircase. The stone is dark, it's true, and the lighting is pretty feeble, and maybe it's for this reason that a certain element of the village youth likes to meet there, leaving palpable traces of both its ingestative and egestative habits for the older generations to throw wobblies over. At any rate when the mairie employees have cleaned up after them the place smells like a vet's surgery after opening hours, all carbolic and sulphur fumes.)

At the foot of l'escalier noir is a partly-vaulted courtyard, and it's here that the crèche is installed. The crèche-builder, Pascal, is a small, passionate but stout-hearted man with decided opinions about the way village life ought to go, so he hasn't much time for youths who sling empty beer-cans down the stairs, nor for dog-owners who refuse to discipline their dogs, and you feel that even the village trees incur his displeasure for the feckless way they drop their leaves anyhow instead of into the receptacles he's urged the council to provide.

Anyway, Pascal's crèche is ready for unveiling at the Marché de Noël, a Saturday night street market held around Christmas, and we hear it's to be grandeur nature, a term you might think meant the crèche bore comparison with the Grand Canyon or Mt Everest at sunset, but when we're given a sneak preview we realize it means no more than life-size. A sneak preview? Well, yes, but then we're privileged: an unveiling without music is unthinkable, so my little choir, the 9-strong Les Jeudistes, has been retained to sing the crèche in, a great honour.

So at the appointed time on the Saturday night, between the arrival of le père Noël on his goblin-hauled sleigh and a display of chocolate sculpture and stilt-walking or some such thing, the village loudspeakers invite the public to the unveiling of the crèche. Meanwhile the Jeudistes have gathered, well-wrapped against the cold, at the top of the escalier noir, ready to descend through the miasma of municipal disinfectant. About 60 people have gathered round the crèche, ooh-ing and aah-ing at the life-size Mary and Joseph, shepherds, wise men, angels, oxen and donkeys, but also at the real straw Pascal has strewn about and for all I know at the real tarpaulins, gutters and downpipes he's ingeniously fixed up to keep his crèche dry, because it's due to stay there until well into the new year. We've been assigned a place on the first landing, overlooking the crèche and the public: it's been reserved for us by an ingenious row of grandeur nature sheep. It's a cold night, and we're just thinking we could do with something like woolly sheep to keep our feet warm, but the shapes covering our calves from public view are, like the other figures, merely painted cut-outs from slabs of insulation-thick expanded polystyrene.

We give them Away in a Manger in flowing four-part harmony and there's something curiously nostalgic about singing this out of doors – well, virtually – on a cold winter's night in a southern French village, at a big remove from from its usual comfortable Christmas circumstances of infant school nativity plays, carol concerts, Christingles, watchnight services or other Christmas warm-ups. There's something quite moving, too, about a multi-national group coming together not just to perform, but to sing Christmas in: Les Jeudistes (nothing too extraordinary in the name – we meet to rehearse on jeudis, i.e. Thursdays) are 4 Brits, 2 French, 1 Swiss, 1 German, 1 Dutch – and a partridge in a pear tree, if you like.

However, we didn't include the 12 Days of Christmas in a programme reflecting the enormous and rich diversity of carols from all over Europe and beyond. Down here in the Deep South another language runs a shadowy parallel to standard French: this is Occitan, a blanket term to cover the family of ancient languages stretching over southern France from Provençal in the east to Gascon in the west. It's mainly spoken by the elderly and revivalist groups, and its songs and carols and the tradition they represent cleave to the heart of local people, so we gave them You me souy lebat (I got up one snowy morning) and Per veire la jacent (To see the new-born), I expect torturing the pronunciation horribly.

Half-an-hour of this is long enough to inaugurate any crèche and keep people standing about on damp flagstones, particularly when le père Noël's sleigh can be heard in the distance, so we call it a night and make for the café Laissac.

BUT THE sharp-witted among you will be murmuring h'm, something not quite right here, bit of a flaw somewhere: unless he's made it up all this can't have happened at the time he wrote about it, surely? Good point, and quite true. Time to come clean, clearly: yes, the crèche-warming was last year. But don't worry: Les Jeudistes will be on duty again this Christmas. If you want to be there, you've just about got time to make the arrangements. And if you're a bit late, never mind. You're bound to find us in the café Laissac.

Happy Christmas! Joyeux Noël!