One thing that always warms my heart during the holidays in Provence is the culture’s commitment to quality and tradition. We always see pictures of the endless lavender fields and crystal azure skies, but I feel as though Christmas time is when the real Provence shines brightest. Free from the bustle of the tourist season, locals put on fantastic holiday festivities. My favorite of these wintery traditions is the creation of les santons.
Crafted by local artists, the history of these small clay figurines dates back all the way to the 13th century. The first nativity scene, or crèche, that used les santons is said to have been created in 1233 by St. Francis in Greccio. Their popularity grew and Nativity crèches became a staple in local churches with painted figurines carved from wood. Because of the intense labor required in making santons, they quickly became a status marker of the elite and were frequently decorated with Venetian glass and polished porcelain. The gaudiness of these figurines perhaps reached its peak when Louis XIV commissioned seven scale models of himself– which were flattering to say the least!
Interestingly enough, these little sculptures caused quite an upset during the French Revolution when revolutionary groups saw the religious icons as a threat to the cause. After churches were shut down by revolutionary forces, people resorted to making the sculptures in secret out of household items– bread, paper, fabric, you name it! Finally, in 1797, Jean-Louis Lagnel molded the first santon out of clay and made the religious trinket available to the masses. Now nativity crèches are everywhere during the holidays, depicting pastoral provençal life with shepherds, farm animals, and, of course, a virgin mother and child.
While les santons started with humble beginnings—carved from wood or molded out of clay—today they have become a booming business for santonnières. Each year in Provence, many craftsmen work tirelessly shaping cheerful smiles, painting dainty eyelashes, and stitching minuscule costumes. Then, in late November, they display their creations to the public in local Christmas markets across the countryside.
If you’re looking for a way to get your hands on some of these handcrafted marvels I suggest going to Marseille and visiting the Foire aux Santons which is celebrating its 215th anniversary. Dubbed the capitale du santon, this area has a rich history intertwined with the little clay figures. I personally love walking through these little markets, talking to local artists, and seeing all the creativity put into this holiday tradition. Additionally, if you want to see a real spectacle of santons, the village of Grignan boasts one of the largest crèches in the country with over 1,000 santons in one awe-inspiring nativity scene. Or, if you want to see santonnières at work, you could visit the village of Arles where the 57th International Fair of Santon-Makers takes place.
Whether you’re looking to buy your own nativity crèches or you’re just in the mood for some Christmas spirit, these santons are sure to do the trick.