The Santons of Provence

It’s Christmas time In the south of France and the time when our homes welcome a miniature family: the Crèche (crib)! Master santon-makers bring clay to life in their workshops to make the treasures of the local heritage, santons de Provence. Are you ready? We’re going to tell you their story.

But where do santons come from?

Could santons have originated in Italy? The legend started at the beginning of the 13th century when Francis of Assisi was travelling to Naples over the Christmas period. On the celebration of Jesus’ birth, the faithful enacted the Nativity scene on the forecourt of the church: this performance is still carried out to this day and is known as the living nativity. After one of these shows, Francis of Assisi got the idea of making the three nativity figurines with flour, water, and salt. The three Santi Belli were born. Nowadays, you may hear the elderly in Provence saying “regardez-le ce santi belli!” which in Marseille dialect refers to someone who is just standing there stock-still, like a santon. But to give credit where credit is due, the Provençaux largely contributed to the expansion of the crèches. Towards the end of the 17th century, the way santons were made stood out from how the Neapolitan ones were made in the typically Provencal craftsmanship which came from Franciscan monks. Behind the is: Jean-Louis Lagnel, the first potter to make the little figurines out of raw clay in his workshop in Marseille was behind the true santon de Provence.

All sorts of santons!

A real symbol of Provence, the santon is first and foremost a hand-made craft and a unique savoir-faire. The little figurines fascinate all ages, and rightly so, because they trace scenes from everyday life which remind us of Christmas memories (and others!). Some crèches are inhabited by dozens of little characters scattered around the setting of a Provencal village, but nothing is really stationary. Let’s take the example of Docteur Raoult who became a santon and joined our favourite Provencal people because, yes, according to what was going on at the time, public characters were inserted among the traditional figurines. And what about the heroes of Marcel Pagnol‘s books that you can put in your Crèche Provencale?: Fanny, Marius and even César are part of the local landscape. And which are your favourite santons? The shepherd, the baker, the drummer or the mayor? One thing is sure, in your collection of santons, the most important are the holy family made up if Jesus, Mary, Joseph, and the donkey and the ox!

And what about the crib itself? For a proper crèche, allow time for a walk in the forest to collect some moss for the ground and a few olive twigs. And next, it’s time for the decoration: you’ll need Christmas lights and some candles. And when it’s all been set up, both children and parents are delighted to see the little figurines almost to come to life. Long live christmas!

The master santon-makers of yesteryear and nowadays

Over time, the characters that used to be found in the cribs have changed: there are big ones and little ones, some dressed and other painted. As the saying goes: “you have to adapt to the times!”, so the master santon-makers have followed the trend and renewed their art. Because being a santonnier is an art and a passion,. They transmit an emotion but most of all a savoir-faire that you  can find in the craftsmanship of these little clay figurines which all have stories to tell. They are traditionally used to illustrate the Nativity scene at Christmas but not only that. The tradition of Santons, is also the transmission of a typically Provencal lifetyle that can be seen in these key figures: li pescadou (the fisherman) and his nets, li pastre, the village shepherd, lou ravi, the simpleton who brings good luck and many others who are part and parcel of the local landscape. Professions of the past or crib characters, these famous figurines take you off on a trip back in time.

But how are they made? The Santons de Provence are made in 6 stages: sculpting, making the mould, moulding, trimming, firing and decoration. And to satisfy both those who love big cribs and those who prefer mini-santons, there are three sizes: the santon puce which is 1 to 3 centimetres high, the santon traditionnel which is about 10 centimetres high and the grand santon which can be up to 20 centimetres high. The largest size is usually clothed because the santon-maker has everything he needs to dress the figurine, down to the minutest details. Just choose your favourite!

But where can I find them?

The Foires aux Santons and other events around Christmas crafts start at the end of the autumn. What better place than the Foire de Marseille which has been setting up in little chalets on the Vieux-Port for more than 200 years. Nowadays, there are many of these sharing events where savoir-faire and craftsmanship have a pride of place. In Provence, in the Alps or on the Côte d’Azur, here are a few towns that have foires aux santons: Fontvieille, Aix-en-Provence, Arles, Caderousse, Carpentras, Forcalquier, Antibes, Carqueiranne, Théoule-sur-Mer, Ollioules to mention just a few. But, just between us, it’s in the Bouches-du-Rhône that you’ll really get an eyeful. To all fans of the little clay figurines, head for Aubagne, and the Village des santons de Provence. Open all year round, there are 19 villages in a continuous decor which stages over 3000 santons: set off on a trip to discover the landscapes and traditions of Provence. In a miniature version, discover card games and pétanque matches, village scenes, goats on the hillsides … Our tip, Allauch is the place to see Gilbert Orsini’s crèche which brings a huge village of the Provence of Yesteryear to life every year!