Christmas comes to life in the south of France

MIDNIGHT mass in the picturesque French hilltop town of St Paul de Vence is a true community affair.

Outside the defensive ramparts, just through the original stone gateway that leads to the narrow cobbled main street, a group of locals are dressed in appropriate garb as part of a living nativity scene.

Christmas lights twinkle in deserted alleys across the historic village now that dusk has fallen, hiding the spectacular views out towards the French Riviera.

There’s an eager buzz of anticipation in the centuries-old village church with its ornate side chapels and Rococo frescoes, the youngsters eyeing up the feast of tasty treats prepared for after communion, older villagers catching up with friends, some quite exuberant at the tail end of an evening of celebration.

Outside, a village cat sits demurely observing the comings and goings. The church has filled up and the surrounding streets are almost deserted.

The priest heads down to lead the nativity procession back up to the church, Mary and the shepherds lighting flaming torches for the short journey. There’s even a disgruntled-looking black labrador in tow, dressed in a sheep’s fleece and clearly unconvinced about the necessity to look the part.

Most of the tourists have gone home, so this feels like one of those rare moments when the locals – total population around 3,450 – have the village to themselves.

That’s something of a special experience to share, because the medieval beauty, rich heritage and artistic legacy of St Paul has made it a magnet for visitors across the centuries, nowadays numbered in their millions.

Back in the 1920s, as now, it was the extraordinary light of the south of France that lured artists here, setting up their easels to capture the richness of the colours and intensity of the contrasts between sun and shade.

The first arrived a hundred years ago and others followed in the footsteps, including Matisse and Picasso, many enjoying the company of Paul Roux, a painter, art collector and restaurateur whose modest inn would become a village institution, its dining room and courtyard adorned with the artworks of those early guests.

Today, little has changed. Earlier in the evening, well-heeled diners were still soaking up the timeless atmosphere of the Colombe d’Or, with its attentive waistcoated waiters and colourful handwritten menus.

Still owned by the Roux familiar, the walls still adorned with the artworks of those early guests, the establishment continues to unite the Provençal way of life with an amazing private modern art collection, leaving diners replete with memories of previous conversations that have echoed around these walls among the writers, poets, film-makers and artists who flocked here in the 50s and 60s, from Jacques Prévert and Yves Montand to Braque and Chagall.

Earlier in the day, visitors wandered through the narrow alleys and tiny squares, gazing through gallery windows or staring out from the ramparts over the olive trees and vines that stud the hillsides from here to the azure of the Mediterranean.

Now, back in church communion is at an end, but the nativity tableau is still involved in some enthusiastic carol singing – even if our labrador friend has determinedly shrugged off his woolly fleece.

A firm favourite is the traditional French carol celebrating Christ’s birth:

Il est né le divin enfant,
Jouez hautbois, résonnez musettes!
Il est né le divin enfant,
Chantons tous son avènement!

It’s time to slip away through the peaceful streets of the hilltop village and leave the locals to their songs and festive delicacies.

The “divin enfant” is safely ensconced in his stable bed and for now, all’s right with the world…