La crèche (the nativity scene) is pretty common this time of year, but in the southeastern part of France in Provence, they go a little further. Le bébé Jésus, Marie, Joseph, les Rois mages, les ânes, et les anges sont tous là (Baby Jesus, Mary, Joseph, the Three Wise Men, the donkeys, and the angels are all there), but you can also find les boulangers, les bergers, les jardinières, et les porteurs d’eau (bakers, shepherds, gardeners, and water carriers) all ready to welcome the newborn king. These little figurines are called les santons (from the provençal dialect word for little saint). In the traditional crèche provençale, there are 55 personnages (characters).
It is believed that the santon tradition started around the Mediterranean (with Naples as a possible starting point) in the 13th century when small figurines were sold and traded. This practice continued in France, and in 1803, les artisans (the craftsmen) introduced a Nativity Fair in Marseille. It was such a success that the fair continues to this day. These craftsmen devote a lot of time and attention to their work, and you can see pride in every little piece. More than just un artisan, there is even a word for a person who makes santons: un santonnier.
It’s worth noting that santons were also a way of preserving religion. After the French Revolution, (connaissez-vous l’année de la Révolution Française?) many churches closed and outdoor nativity scenes were banned, so some families began recreating the scenes in their own private homes.
Before, the figurines were made of bois (wood), cire (wax) et même mie de pain (and even the soft part of bread), but today, les santons sont faits de terre cuite (the figurines are made of clay) and are available in 2 distinct styles. There is the santon d’argile (clay figurine) which is modeled and hand painted and are between 1″ and 6″ tall. The second less common (et plus cher [and more expensive]) type is le santon habillé (dressed figurine). These are wearing cloth costumes and sometimes come with small accessories. These are generally bigger than the santon d’argile and measure between 6″ and 18″. Check out the two pictures below to compare.
All throughout Provence in December, you can find fantastic displays of santon villages. In Avignon, the main foyer in the hôtel de ville (city hall) is filled with a huge fictitious city with over 500 santons. I was able to see this 2 years in a row, and it really is pretty fantastic. There’s so much detail, and wanting to see it all takes a lot of time, mais ça vaut la peine (but it’s worth it)! You can also find a santon museum in Marseille, and there’s also the world’s biggest santon display at la Crèche de Grignan. If you’re ever in the south of France in December and are looking for a local Christmas gift for some friends at home, stop by any Marché de Noël and pick yourself up some santons!
For a bit more of a personal touch, I asked a few questions about les santons to my friend Maud. Below, you will see the questions, and you can listen to her answers. Read More…