What are Santons of Provence?
Santons of Provence are small hand-painted terracotta nativity scene figurines from the Provence region in southeast France that are essential in creating the French Provencal style nativity scenes.
Nativity Scene Tradition Dates back over 800 years.
Nativity scenes, creches de Noel in French, have been a popular Advent and Christmas decoration for homes, churches, and sometimes public places for centuries.
And it all started 800 years ago.
In 1223, an Italian friar named St. Francis of Assisi was thought to have staged the first living nativity scene. According to The Life of St. Francis of Assisi, the living nativity scene consisted of a manger, hay, a live ox and a live donkey in a cave in the Italian village of Grecio.
St. Francis of Assis then invited people from local villages to admire the scene while he preached about baby Jesus.
From there, the living nativity scene tradition took off, and within a couple of centuries, spread from Italy to churches throughout Europe and beyond.
Eventually, statues replaced human and animal participants. Later small figurines led to the in-home nativity scenes that are part of the Christmas tradition today.
Now, different countries have different nativity scene traditions, styles and figurines made from different materials: paper, wood, wax, ivory and terracotta.
In southern Germany, Austria and Switzerland, nativity scene figurines are often wooden and hand-cut. In Poland, szopka uses the colourful historical buildings of Kraków as a backdrop for the Nativity of Jesus.
And in France, the French provencal nativity scenes are often a mix of religion and everyday life, presenting the birth of Christ and the Provençal village, its inhabitants, and traditional trades and jobs in the 18th century.
Traditionally you won’t or shouldn’t find soccer players, software engineers, or stadiums in a provençal nativity scene because those things didn’t exist at that time. But some people do include them because they think it’s fun.
The first Santons of Provence
During the French Revolution, midnight mass was prohibited, and many priests were forced to close their churches. Devout Christians were deprived of seeing the time-honoured nativity scenes at church.
At the time, figurines were very ornate and made of fine materials, so they were too expensive for the average family to recreate at home.
In 1797, Jean-Louis Lagnel, a French artist in Marseille who made statues for churches, started making small figurines out of unbaked clay. Suddenly, families could afford to recreate their own nativity scene “les creches” at home while thumbing their noses at the government.
These figurines eventually became known as les Santons de Provence.
SANTON: from “santoun” is a Franco Provençal word meaning “little saint”.
By the 19th century, more and more santon makers in Provence (Santonniers de Provence) started popping up in other southern regions of France: Marseille, Aubagne, Aix-en-Provence, Arles, Bouches-du-Rhône, Vaucluse, Var, the Alpes-de-Haute-Provence and the Alpes-Maritimes.
Gradually, these santon makers introduced more and more characters: cheesemaker, lavender picker, milk lady and entire miniature villages. There are now hundreds of different Santons that are part of the traditional Provençal crèche. And every year, more are added by independent Santon makers.
How To Make Your Own French Provencal Nativity Scene
When to put up your Creche provencal?
Every December, family members gather around the table to unwrap their precious santon collection.
They then begin the fun part of staging their nativity scene with their Santons de Provence figurines on bookshelves, near the fireplace or the corner of the living room.
Some have just a few pieces; others who have been collecting for years may have hundreds of pieces passed down from generation to generation. The more pieces, the more elaborate a scene they create.
Traditionally, the nativity scene would be put out on December 4th for la Sainte-Barbe. Then by February 2nd, La Chandeleur, the whole Nativity is disassembled, and everything is carefully re-wrapped and put away in boxes until next Christmas.
Times change and people adhere less and less to these dates.
Some people pull out their nativity scene at the beginning of Advent (the Sunday four weeks before Christmas Day). Others on the first of December or whenever they have time.
Some General Guidelines
Each family will make their nativity scene different and have different figurines, but there are some traditions to follow.
Santons come in many sizes, but the most popular are 7cm to 9 cm. If you’re using different sizes, smaller pieces are put towards the back of the nativity scene to give a more realistic perspective.
- All the small santons villagers should be advancing towards the baby Jesus to bring him a gift, and no one should have their back turned to him.
- The Nativity scene is placed to the right or left of the composition to leave a large part of the landscape open and follow the progress of the small figurines walking towards the stable.
- In the manger, the donkey is usually placed next to Mary and the Ox next to Joseph (not strict rule, many people do the inverse.)
- Baby Jesus is not placed in the nativity scene until December 24th.
Must-Have: The basic nativity scene biblical characters
If you’re just starting out, the most crucial figurine and pieces you’ll need are the nativity manger and the star biblical characters.
- Baby Jesus (Only added to the nativity scene on December 24th)
- The Virgin Mary
- Donkey (Placed next to Virgin Mary side)
- Ox (Placed next to Josephs side)
- The three kings
- Manger stable
The Santon Village Characters Who bring offerings to baby Jesus
Once you have your manger and biblical characters, most families begin adding santon villagers and tradesmen to their collection little by little. Remember, the goal is to recreate an 1800s provencal village.
Here are some examples of santons for a French provençal nativity scene.
Villagers by Trade
trufflepicker: Le Rabassier
- The fish monger: le poissonnier
- Harness Maker: Bourrelier
- Baker: Boulanger
- Baker’s helper: Mitron
- Young Hunter: Chasseur
- Local policeman: Garde Champêtre
- The poacher: Le Braconnier
- Spinner: Fileuse
- Miner: Mineur
- Monk: Moine
- Soap Merchant: Marchand de savons
- Milk lady: Laitière
- Fisherman: pêcheur
- Gardner: Jardinier
- Chimney sweeper: Ramoneur
- Knitter: Tricoteuse
- Carpenter: menuisier
- Sailor: Marin
- Olive picker: Oléiculteur
- Grape picker: Vigneron
- Drummer: tambourineur
- Priest: Curé
- Mayor: Le Maire
- The farmer: le fermier
- Launderer: Bugadières (Old provençal trade)
- Shepard: Berger
- Knife grinder/sharpenter: Le rémouleur
- Thief/ Robber: Brigand
- Lumberack: Bûcheron
- Lavander pickers: Ramasseuses de lavande
Villagers & Characters
- Marseille character: Marius
- The Shepard and his sheep: Le Bergers et ses moutons
- Man praying: le prieur
- Man with goose: Homme a L’oie
- Man with wine jug: Home au vin vuit
- Man with sticks: Homme au fagot
- Man with sheep: Homme au Mouton
- A farmhand named “Pistachié.”
- The old couple named “Grasset et Grassette.”
- The old woman with a bundle of twigs: la Vieille au fagot
- The delighted: “Le Ravi” is the idiot of the village
- The Bohemians aka the Gypsies: Le boumian et la boumiane
- Woman from Arles: Arlésienne
Don’t forget the animals.
- Rooster: coq
- Goat: Chèvre
- Pig: Cochon
- Camel: Chameau
- Sheep: Mouton
- A brook
- Small streams
- Village buildings, ateliers, bridges, etc.
- Natural vegetation: hay, pebbles, olive trees etc.
Where can you see or buy santons of Provence?
During the Christmas season, santon makers gather at Christmas markets and fairs, mainly in the South of France, to display and sell their handmade Santons. A select few santon makers have shops that are open all year round and take personalized orders using your personal photographs.
There are also a few cultural museums in France where you can see Santons de Provence all year round.
Maison Fouque santons are renowned in France, abroad and even at the Vatican. In 1952, Maison Fouque created the famous “Le coup de Mistral,” an exclusive Santon of an elderly man walking against the notoriously strong southerly wind in France called the mistral. You can purchase it in several sizes, from 2cm to 50 cm. A certificate of authenticity accompanies “le coup de Mistral” Santon.
Master Santon maker in Aubagne
If you’re not located in France, you can purchase Santons made by Marcel Carbonel from this distributor www.santons.net.
The Mouans-Sartoux Santons Fair
The Santon fair in Mouans Sartoux is the oldest and most important fair in the Provence region. Each year, over 20 santonniers (Santon makers) from Provence gather to show off their Santons de Provence to over 8000 eager customers looking to add additional figurines to their collection.
Santon museum: Musée du Santon et des Traditions de Provence
The Eco-museum of Provence Santons and Traditions is home to the largest collections of santons. According to the Guinness Book of World records, the museum is also home to the world’s smallest creche de noel (nativity scene) of 39 santons in a tiny nutshell.
Musée Provençal de Château-Gombert
Formerly Musée du Terroir Marseillaisis a museum. This museum of popular arts and traditions is located in the 13th arrondissement of Marseille. It houses a complete collection of works by Provencal santon makers and nativity artisans since the 18th century.
Buying Authentic Santons de Provence
If you’re looking for a unique, original gift for your family, friends or co-workers, authentic santons from Provence will put a smile on their face. There are hundreds to choose from in various styles that can be used in different Christmas settings. They look great as ornaments on a Christmas tree, included in a French nativity scene or even just placed on a shelf to give your office a little French flair.
A real Santon must meet specific criteria:
- Handmade in Provence
- Size must measure between 2cm to 40 cm.
- Must be made of fired clay; no plastic or metal parts.
- Must be hand-painted: usually with oil paint.
- Larger Santons will be stamped at the bottom, and smaller ones will often have some marking also.