Christmas Traditions the Santons of Provence
Christmas Traditions in Provence
This year, all I wanted for Christmas was santons – those little clay Provençal figurines that pop up every Christmas in the south of France. They’re part of the local Nativity scenes, and every person in the village is represented.
I began collecting santons when I lived in France. I would pick one up from time to time, but I didn’t want to get carried away and end up with an unwieldy collection. This year, however, I was suffering from Provence withdrawal. I hadn’t been there in more than a year, and it didn’t seem likely that I would be going back anytime soon. I needed a bit of the south of France, and santons seemed like the perfect solution.
The Pastorale Holiday Story
You may know the traditional Biblical Christmas story, but there is a bit more to it in Provence. The Provence Christmas story is told in a Nativity play called a pastorale. It incorporates the main details of the traditional Nativity but sets it in a nineteenth-century Provençal village.
The word pastorale basically means “shepherd’s song” and refers to the Biblical Christmas story where the shepherds are the first to hear the good news. Early pastorales told only the Biblical narrative of the birth of Jesus, but in the mid-1800s, Antoine Maurel, a Provençal poet, added some local flavour. His pastorale was one of the first to incorporate the Provence villagers and add a bit of Provençal humour.
Continue reading here to learn about the importance of the shepherd’s song in Provençal Christmas traditions. Margo explains the characters in a typical creche scene, and these tiny clay figures called santons (little saints).
The Creche and the Santons
Many santon fairs are organized throughout Provence from mid-November to prepare the family creche. The santons are small colourful clay figurines. The real Provencal santon “Santoun” (little saint) is created by hand and with love. Some santons in the Christmas crib represent the Nativity scene: Jesus, the Virgin Mary, Joseph. Others represent the village’s inhabitants going to the crèche: pétanque players, fish merchants, doctors, bakers, shepherds and others. Each santon brings a gift for the baby Jesus. The authentic crib is a representation of the Provençal village and its small world.
In some villages and churches during the holidays, these nativity scenes begin to look like real small towns with figures that include bakers, millers, shepherds and many more. This tradition is present in every department of Provence but strongest in the Bouches du Rhône. There is a museum of santons in les Baux de Provence.
In 1797, Jean-Louis Lagnel created the first figure from a clay mould opening the door to large-scale production. The word santon was established in 1826, several years after his death. Thérèse Louis Neveu, a woman from the village of Aubagne near Marseille, improved upon the clay figurine by introducing kiln firing as a step in the process. This process significantly improved the lifecycle of the santons.
Today, although modern techniques reduce the production time for the santons, it remains an artisanal trade, and it is possible to visit artists’ (santonnièrs) studios. During the holidays in Provence, you will see these nativity scenes when you visit churches or private homes. Since 1803, the annual Foire des Santonniers is held in Marseille during the Christmas period with many artisan santonnièrs. Any time of the year, head to Aubagne to see the artisans at work in their ateliers.
Where to find Santons
Musée du Santon et des Traditions de Provence
A collection of over 2200 figurines with some that are made from walnut shells.
Place de la colonne,
84800 Fontaine de Vaucluse
Musée des Santons
“The museum houses several different collections – Neapolitan figurines from the 17th and 18th centuries, 19th-century “santons” for churches and figures by famous makers such as Carbonnel, Fouque, Jouve, Peyton Campagna, Toussaint, Thérèse Neveu, Louise Berger, Simone Jouglas etc.”
Place Louis Jou
13520 Les Baux-de-Provence
Le Village des Santons
With 3000+ santons and 19 village scenes
16 avenue Antide Boyer
Le Village Provençal Miniature
The display has over 1000 figures and 70 Provençal scenes.
La Petite Tuilière,
Select and order your santons online from Remember Provence.
They work with a traditional santon maker with a workshop near Aix-en-Provence. His figurines are shaped and painted by hand, as tradition dictates. The most important nativity play characters in the Provencal version are available in sets of three. Several sizes are available via Remember Provence to help you prepare a wonderful Christmas creche.