Santon de Provence is a traditional crèche nativity figurine from Provence France. The word Santon comes from the Provençal dialect "santain" or little saint.
The traditions of Provence are included in the French Christmas traditions throughout France. Many French families have a Santon nativity scene as part of their holiday decorations as far away as Brittany. In fact I saw my first Santon figurine at my cousin's house in Brittany.
The Santons of Provence depict not only the traditional crèche nativity scene but all all the people of a typical Provençal village of the 19th century.
Characters included the fishwife, miller, farmers wife, scissor grinder, etc. The only monarchs represented are the visiting magi.
Nativity scenes are thought to have originated in Italy as early as the 1200s as scenes with live people representing the Holy family in the manger in Bethlehem. Later, wooden statues started being made and the scenes were set up inside churches at Christmastime.
By 1794 as a result of the French Revolution the Catholic churches were closed (the majority of the population were Catholic). The people wanted to celebrate Christmas and since they couldn't get inside their church they started making crèche scenes at home. They used household materials such as bits of extra cloth, paper-mache (papier-mâché) and bits of bread.
A santonnier is an artist who makes Santons. Jean-Louis Langnel is thought to be the first santonnier. In 1797 he began making the crèche figurines out of clay and selling them to the local people.
In the 20th century the santon process evolved to include kiln fired which made them stronger and longer lasting. This is the process used today.
Santons are very much a part of Provençal French culture today. They are made in Provence by famous french artists and sold throughout Provence. Santon making is a very successful cottage industry in Provence. Santons have become highly prized collector items.
Many Santon artists inherited the craft from their family. Their
workshops "ateliers" are usually open to the public with a boutique
attached where you can buy their work.
Famous santonniers (makers of Santons) include:
- Lise Berger, *Meilleur Ouvrier de France
- Maryse Di Landro
- Daniel Scaturro, *Meilleur Ouvrier de France
* "Meilleur Ouvrier de France" is an international distinction of excellence awarded by the French government.
When you're vacationing in Provence you might want to visit one of the santon museums listed below:
- Aubagne (10 miles east of Marseille)
Aubagne is the capital of santon making, this city is the home base of many of the famous santonniers listed above. They have ateliers, museums of their work as well as a boutique where you can buy their santons.
- Village Provençal Minature
in Grignan, Route de Valreas
features the largest creche scene in the world. Over 1000 figures and scenery all hand made by santonniers. Open all year it features sound, lighting and movement effects.
- Musée de Santon de des Traditionals de Provence
in Fontaine de Vaucluse a beautiful village in the Provence hills.
open all year
- Musée de Santon in Marseilles
a small museum exhibiting 18th to 19th century santons
open all year. Boutiques of santonniers adjoin the building.
open all year except holidays.
During the month before Christmas these fairs feature Santons exclusively:
Esplanade Charles de Gaulle
In addition to the fair, on view is a panoramic nativity scene made by local santonniers.
- Aix en Provence on Avenue Victor Hugo
- Arles on Palais des Congrès
Place de Charles de Gaulle (Vieux port)
Since 1803 this fair features over 30 santonniers selling their work.
Christmas Markets in Provence sell santons as well as other traditional provencal Christmas fare:
Avignon, Place de l'Horloge
A List of other Christmas markets in Provence that include Santons for sale.
More articles on French Christmas Traditions: