The Provençal crèche

Of Italian origin, the Provençal crèches were born at the end of the 18th century. In an idyllic village setting, they are composed of santons, traditional characters of Provence.

They gave birth to the pastorals, a living crèche played by amateurs. You can experience the magic of Christmas throughout Provence thanks to the many crèches offered by experienced craftsmen.

The origin of Provençal Crèche

Paradoxically, the first Provençal nativity scenes originated in Italy. From the 12th century onwards, the Nativity scene was represented with mobile sculptures, not fixed to the ground. Crossing the Alps, the Provençal crèche became more and more popular during the Christmas holidays. Today, it is the most awaited tradition of the Provençal people. It is present in all the departments of the Southern region, but is more important in the Bouches-du-Rhône. Made up of articulated mannequins dressed in local costumes, the very first known Provençal crèche dates from 1775 in Marseille. This custom developed during the 19th and 20th centuries.

Santons, traditional figure

The Provençal crèche features traditional Provençal characters, known as “santons”, or “little saints”. Made up of lavender fields and olive trees, the crèche is built around different main characters in a bucolic village setting.

Inside the stable setting, you can see Saint Joseph and the Virgin Mary surrounding the Christ Child on Christmas Eve. Beside them are the donkey and the ox, who warm the newborn baby with their breath.

To celebrate the birth of Jesus, a great procession is organised within the village to reach the stable. Various traditional characters converge on the place where the Holy Family is located: the shepherds and their flock, the gypsies, the knife-grinder, the blind man and his son, the old man and the old woman, Lou Ravi, as well as characters representing Provençal trades (baker, fisherman, fishmonger, turnip-maker, calissonnier, etc.). In the background, Melchior, Gaspard and Balthazar – the three wise men – arrive to offer gifts to the infant. Today, there are about a hundred santon workshops between Marseille, Aubagne, Aix-en-Provence and Arles.

The Pastoral, a living crèche

Over the centuries, new representations of the crèche have emerged. Thus, the practice of the pastoral has developed. This is a theatrical performance sung and spoken in Provençal with the theme of the Nativity. It deals with the procession of the shepherds to the stable where the baby Jesus was born. Formerly performed before and during midnight mass, the pastorals are now performed in the weeks following Christmas in the common Provençal language. The most famous pastoral is the one written entirely in Provençal by Antoine Maurel in 1844 and divided into 5 acts. The particularity of the pastorals lies in the fact that they are performed exclusively by amateur actors, which consolidates the heritage and popular dimension.

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Une publication partagée par @la_creche_provencale

Create your own Provencal crèche

Christmas is coming and you don’t know how to make a traditional Provencal crèche? Don’t panic, we give you the essential elements to make a sensation with your loved ones.

First of all, you have to think about placing the emblematic figures of the crèche:

The Blessed Virgin
Joseph, the carpenter
A straw basket (for the Child Jesus)
The ox and the donkey
The three wise men
This layout is the most classic and the most famous in the world. You can then create a village life around the stable by adding santons linked to Provençal trades and activities.

Last but not least, make sure you respect the chronology of the crèche. Thus, the little Jesus will only be added on the morning of December 25th alongside his parents. The wise men – far from the stable at the beginning – will advance little by little until they join the Holy Family on the day of the Epiphany.

Enjoy the magic of Christmas in Provence

Curious to discover the most beautiful Christmas crèches? In the South of France, this tradition has become an integral part of the local heritage. Over the years, the crèches have grown to become religious works of art that can be seen at the time of the end-of-year celebrations. There is a whole range of nativity scenes, each with its own style, sometimes faithful to the initial scenography, sometimes more distant from the traditional decor.

Whether you are a believer or not, take the time to discover this tradition, which is deeply rooted in the hearts of the people of Provence. The most beautiful Christmas Nativity Scenes can be seen during the end-of-year celebrations in Grignan, Baux-de-Provence, Avignon, Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer and Marseille.