Santons, derived from the Provençal word santoun meaning little saint, are small painted clay figurines that are used to decorate Christmas Nativity crèches (cribs) in Provence in South-East France. If you’ve spent any time in this area during the festive season you may well have seen them either for sale in Christmas markets or placed on a decorative crèche somewhere. They are very popular collectables, with websites selling them to overseas markets, particularly USA, but they are much more than just tourist trinkets.
The history of santons dates from the French Revolution in 1789 when churches were closed, and Midnight Mass and church crèches were banned. In a bid to keep traditions and religion alive people started creating their own crèches in private homes and a small industry producing figures grew up around this, particularly in Marseille. Santon makers, Santonniers, originally created traditional Nativity characters but soon started to draw inspiration from life around them and began including figures from ordinary village life. You can find everyone from fishermen, tinkers, basket makers and water carriers to tramps, bakers, chimney sweeps and washer women alongside the baby Jesus, Virgin Mary, Joseph and the three Wise Men.
There are several well-known characters who grace every crèche such as the village idiot lou Ravi who is traditionally placed first to bring good luck. Boufareu an angel, guides people to the stable and is usually placed in a prominent position. Other notable characters include the blind man guided by his son, the Mayor, the priest, the monk and lou viel and la vièio (the old man and the old woman) positioned together either on a bench or arm in arm. There are plenty of other characters, all either taken from traditional Provencal Pastoral plays or contemporary culture. One notable comic personage is the Caganer, literally the “crapper”, represented as a peasant spreading manure, usually with bare bottom and a poo behind him! This character was traditionally found in Catalan crèches dating back to the 18th century and is seeing a rise in popularity again. It is not considered disrespectful to put a caganer in a traditional crèche as long as it is placed at the back behind something such as a shed. It is thought to be both a symbol of fertility and an irreverent joke reminding us that no matter who we are, we all have the same bodily functions!
The santons are placed in a village setting with the crèche in the middle surrounded by typical buildings like the church, a windmill, stables, cottages, a bridge and vegetation such as olive trees. To bring the scene to life moss is often used to represent grass and branches of rosemary and thyme make trees. Water is often fashioned out of aluminium foil.
Households tend to collect pieces, building up their collection by adding new figures every year, and even very occasionally commissioning figures to represent particular family members. The vast majority of santon makers are in the area around Marseille/Aubagne and since 1803 Marseille has held an enormous and very well-known fair, le Foire aux Santons, from mid November to the end of December every year. Locally in the Alpes-Maritimes, where there are 6 santonniers, the biggest selection is to be found at the annual fair in Mouans-Sartoux. It takes place from mid November to the 24th of December. Both these foires are great places to view the enormous variety of santons avaialble and all those displayed here are guaranteed “made in Provence”. These fairs sort of unofficially mark the beginning of the Christmas season, a couple of weeks before city illuminations are switched on and regular Christmas markets open. Santons are also often sold at regular Christmas markets in the region and in specialist shops, especially in Marseille. If you want to see/buy santons out of season it’s possible at the Musée du Santon Marseille, the shop/museum of master-santonnier Marcel Carbonel.
Santonniers each have their own style and some produce items that are so popular they are trade-marked. This was the case with the “Coup de Mistral”, a shepherd in the wind created by Paul Fouque in 1952. It was the first time a santon showed mouvement, you could practically feel the wind blowing his cape and hat. Thanks to this particular figure Fouque became known the world over (in the santon-knowing world!) Other santonniers have paid homage to well known artists, poets and singers by creating santons in their image as seen here in this model of the folk singer Georges Brassens.
The best place to admire santons in situ on the Côte d’Azur is in the gorgeous hilltop perched village of Lucéram, behind Nice. Every year throughout December this medieval village is decorated with over 400 crèches, containing hundreds and hundreds of santons. For more on this unique and very special Christmas tradition, read here.
Have you heard of santons? Do you have any festive traditions like this where you’re from? Do tell.
Merry Christmas, don’t mention New Year
Lucéram, the Christmas Village
Lyon’s Fête des Lumières, France’s biggest winter festival
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Hello Phoebe. I was very interested to come across your blog. My daughter lives in Marseille and she started me off collecting Santon figures with the stable, Mary, Joseph and baby Jesus about 13 years ago. However, I knew nothing about the history behind the Santons. I now do! Thank you.
I have a collection of 46 figures including the latest addition this year of a chapel, a windmill and a grain store. I am not able to get to Marseille at the appropriate time for the Santon markets each year, therefore I have to rely on my daughter to buy some figures, buildings etc for me. I wonder if there is an online sales site?
Thanks for commenting Rhonda, I just had a look at your website and found it very interesting…I’ll be back to get some SEO tips and more when I have a mo! Great to have you here.
Oh, these are more interesting than the usual vintage renaissance chalkware my nan has!
Totally wishing I could travel to France to see the great things you’re enjoying.
Thanks Linda 🙂
Never heard of Santons before but I love your insights into French traditions!
Lucéram is truly wonderful to see in December, it’s so pretty and so totally different from the commercial Christmas decorations you see in the big cities.
Mary, I see from FB you were in Madrid yesterday and Florence today…that’s not so far from here! Add Nice to your itinerary and come and see the santons!
I love it that these figurines aren’t just Christian crèche regulars; it makes it possible for non believers and non-Christians alike to collect them and create fun scenes.
I’ve never heard of Santons before. Aren’t they amazing? Such intricate detailing. I love the photos of all the different settings. It definitely exudes a wonderful festive spirit. I bet kids love going to the villages and seeing them all! I can’t even image what a great sight it is to see over 400 creches.
Now, I really want to go visit your part of the world during the holidays. What a great tradition. I love these santons. They’re fascinating, beautiful and such works of art. It would be wonderful to see such an elaborate display with so many of them. I didn’t know anything about them but they look so fun to collect. Thanks for this, Phoebe!
Hi Phoebe, this is fascinating. I have not heard of santons before. They look adorable and so are the little villages. I think collecting them is a wonderful family tradition. I also like the households commissioning to have the santons be made their images. Growing up in the Philippines, I remember the tradition of almost every household putting up a manger with baby Jesus, Mary and Joseph and the Magi plus all the animals. They were just traditional looking figurines.
Next time you’re down this way in December, have a look in the Christmas markets, I’m sure you’ll see some.
I didn’t know about the shop in Aix, thanks for letting me know.
The last 2 photos are taken in the most amazing village, Lucéram, totally decked out in santons throughout December. Thanks for hosing Victoria!
How interesting! I’ve never heard of Santons before but we go to South east France a lot at Christmas so will look out for them. The scenes that can be made up with then are amazing. #pocolo
Wonderful photographs. Yes, I’ve seen a few santons, collected by friends and relations, but never in great set pieces like the ones you’ve shown us. There’s a shop-cum-museum belonging to another master-santonnier in Aix, which always has a good collection in the window.
I had never heard of Santons. These are so beautiful and I really love the last two photos on this post. Thank you for sharing some of their history and thank you for linking to #PoCoLo 🙂 x
How wonderful Catherine, both that you have some santons and the tradition of the advent windows.
It certaibly would be a fun thing to get done, a model of the family but it’s not common nor cheap!
It’s rare but possible…for a price. Thanks for commenting Erica.
Oh you would love them if you’re into miniatures Corinne! Put Provence on your travel list for 2015 and come and see them in the flesh as it were. And me, in the flesh!!
Hi Betty thanks for stopping by my blog. I love your comment, you’re so kind. I was in Aveyron a couple of weeks ago, in Millau. It was just an overnight stop but it’s on the agenda for further exploration in 2015.
Phoebe, These bring me back to my obsession with doll houses and miniatures…what characters! I love it!
How lovely! They look fantastic and I love the idea of having new ones for the family.
Just discovered this lovely blog — I have been out of the blogging scene for a while! Your photos of “santons” are so lively (for still objects!) and colorful. They are sold around her in Aveyron, just a bit, but are not really traditional, as I’m sure you know.
I have heard of santons, in fact I have one or two. Where I live inthe south of England, we have advent windows. Twenty four houses go in for the scheme. A window is unveiled every afternoon at 4 o’clock until Christmas Eve when a nativity scene is revealed in the court hall window. Money is raised for a different charity every year and we all enjoy going round finding the windows.
What a lovely tradition! I love the idea of having new ones made that represent family members, how nice! #PoCoLo