For the Christmas Creche in Provence Santons are a Must
As a family, we always had a creche at Christmastime. Saying it was handmade makes it sound like a professional job. However, it was anything but rather the result of a haphazard artistic collaboration between my brother and me. Somehow that creche has stood the test of time, and my parents still pull it out every holiday season.
In Provence, the traditional creche includes santons (little saints). These clay figurines represent biblical figures and any number of village characters, including but not limited to the butcher, baker and candlestick maker. We asked Marie-Helene, the co-founder of Remember Provence, to share why santons feature in her family’s creche at Christmas.
The crib or creche is a very ancient tradition of representing the nativity scene with living characters. It began in the 13th-century churches, thanks to Saint Francis of Assisi, which earned him the patronage of animals and santonniers.
This custom gradually evolved into family cribs. During the French Revolution, when public religious symbols were banned, households made nativity figurines of various materials and kept them from external view. Families used these small figures to continue the holiday tradition at home. Christmas cribs were no longer public but only in homes and linked to Christmas history.
In the 19th century, the Provencal crib became what it is today: a set of earthen characters representing the most common trades in a village.
The religious theme remained since they are called santons, from the Provençal “santoun” or “little saint,” although the only nativity scene figurines are Joseph, Mary, and the child Jesus. The three wise men are added to the scene on Epiphany, January 6th.
These characters from the Christmas crib were made of porcelain, papier mache, breadcrumbs and plaster.
In Marseille, in the nineteenth century, the competition of Neapolitan merchants who sold santibelli plaster generated resistance from the Provencal santons makers. They imposed the cooked clay and proposed their creations on santons markets. These are still very popular today in the France Christmas markets. Read the full article here.