Rather than decorating a Christmas tree, most French homes display a nativity scene filled with clay figures called santons or “little saints”.
Santons became popular in the small villages of Provence during the French Revolution. This is because many churches were closed and larger nativity scenes were outlawed. It was a way to keep religion alive as any public display of religion had dire consequences.
After the French Revolution, times were harsh and seeking refuge in religion was one way to cope. This is perhaps why santons became so popular and more elaborate. During these times, Provence developed its own santon style. Whole Provençal villages were recreated. Competition was fierce and clever craftsmen soon developed custom made figurines of their client’s families and friends honouring the Holy Family.
A Typical Santons Scene
The Holy Family is always the centre piece with the Rois Mages (Three Kings) and angels. Shepherds invite the villagers to honour the Holy Family. After this are important villagers including the mayor and the parish priest. Next, the craftsmen, such as the baker, grocer, butcher, fromager and musicians. Depending on the village, there might be a vigneron (wine grower), fisherman, basket weaver and a potter.
Also, the common people of the village, rich and poor. The traditional santons scene includes musicians and dancers who dance the farandole with joined hands. But it doesn’t stop there.
Finally, the village animals are added .. and lots of them. The traditional ox and the ass are a part of any nativity scene, but in the Provençal Nöel Crèche there are also dogs, sheep, goats, rabbits, pigeons and other barnyard animals.
And then there’s the ravi (or ravie) – a man or woman throwing up their arms in delight. This could either be a simpleton or perhaps a very happy person.
In 1803, the first Nativity Fair was held in Marseille to sell santons. Before long, more santons fairs took place at other villages in Provence. The Marseille santons fair is held to this day, every Advent through Epiphany. As well, there are many regional santons fairs, some starting as early as November.
Artisans at Work
The craftsmanship needed to create the gaily coloured santons is astounding as they’re often working on figurines no bigger than 2cm. The moulds have been passed down from generation to generation since the 17th century.
Santons are fashioned in two halves, pressed together and fused. Hats, baskets and accessories are applied with glue. When the figure is dry, it’s given a gelatin bath to harden the figure and provide a surface to paint.
Faces are painted first, then hair, clothing and accessories. Until the end of the 19th century, santons were air-dried. As a consequence, these figures were fragile and easily broken. Modern santons are generally fired in a kiln so they are more robust.
If you’re visiting Provence in the festive season, be sure to look for these little masterpieces. Perhaps take some home to add some French tradition to your Christmas.