The Little Saints of Provence

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Santons in a Provençal Christmas crèche

In many parts of the world, Nativity scenes make up a part of the Christmas decoration but in Provence, they are taken to the extreme.  The traditional Biblical figures are only a small part of these sprawling displays.  Here, the whole town turns out for the Nativity.  You will see the butcher, the baker, the candlestick maker and every other profession that is practiced in a southern French village. Some of these displays contain hundreds of figures which are called “santons” (little saints).

pigs

Even truffle-hunting pigs make it into the Nativity scene

The beginnings

The history of the Nativity scene can be traced back to St. Francis of Assisi, who wasn’t French but did have a French connection – his mother was from Provence.  He was born in Assisi (Italy) while his father was away on business in France.  His mother named him Giovanni, but when his father returned, he started calling him Francesco (meaning Frenchman, which is Francis in English).

Baby St Francis of Assisi

It seems that Francis was the first to make a representation of the Nativity scene.  In 1223, he used a little manger (feeding trough) filled with straw and a live donkey and ox.  After this, “crèches” became popular in the churches and spread throughout Christendom.  But during the French Revolution, masses and crèches in churches were outlawed.  This is when the first small family Nativity scenes started to appear in France.

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Three Niçois santons offered by a shop in Old Town, Nice. La Couqueto, 8 rue François de Paule

A crèche in every home

Little painted figures made of clay started being produced and each household could have their own Nativity scene.  These private holiday displays grew to include all of the craftspeople and tradespeople in the village.  Each santon is shown with something which identifies his or her trade. These figures are passed down from generation to generation and added to each year.

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Santons: Wine makers From the crèche in the window at Maison Auer in Nice, France

Santon fairs

If you are looking to enlarge your crèche, there is no better place to go than to a “foire des santons”(santon fair).  The first santon fair was held in 1803 in Marseilles.  Now, you will see them all over the south of France.  At these fairs you can find santons in all sizes and shapes.  The smallest clay figures start at about two centimetres (less than one inch) and the larger clothed ones are about 30 centimetres (12 inches).  Normally they are dressed in 18th century fashion.  The traditional styles are still the most popular but there are some modern versions as well.  Each “santonnier” (santon maker) has his or her speciality and style.

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Architecture for the crèche. Top: Amazing buildings built from local stone.  Each little stone is laid one at a time. By Créations de Maisons de Village by Françoise Massa. Bottom: Traditional windmill and borie (small dry stone structures used by shepherds) By Santons & Creations par Daniel Coulomb

Accessories

Of course you need to put all of these little saints in the proper setting.  At the santon fairs you will also find buildings, olive trees, animals, streams, bridges, lavender fields everything that would be found in a real village.

If you have a collection of santons, this is the time to add to it.  If you don’t have one yet, maybe this is the year to start.

Where to see Nativity scenes in and around Nice:

  • A living nativity scene is presented in Place Rossetti in the Old Town. It usually appears a few days before Christmas. It’s made up of about 20 “live santons” including shepherds with their sheep and other animals.
  • The “Balade des Santons”  is a trail through the Old Town of Nice leading past several businesses and churches where Nativity scenes will be displayed.
  • Not too far from Nice, you can visit the “Circuit des Crèches” in Luceram. You can see 450 Nativity scenes scattered throughout this village as well as a museum of the crèche.
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Some unusual santons. Left: Naive round santons by Karine Chaix Creations. Right: Santons painted on rocks by La Vie en Douce.

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Santonniers mentioned:

  • Santons & Creations par Daniel Coulomb  http://santons-coulomb.com/index.php.  Created a santon of a pregnant Mary to be used in the creche up until the 24th when Jesus is placed in the manger.  He also has a Nicoise santon.
  • Créations de Maisons de Village by Françoise Massa.  She makes lovely buildings from local stone and each little stone is laid by hand.  Email:  massag@wanadoo.fr
  • Karine Chaix Creations -Naive round figures.  Email:  karine.chaix@neuf.fr
  • La Vie en Douce – Nativity scenes made up of figures painted on rocks.  http://la-vieendouce.com/fr/
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8 thoughts on “The Little Saints of Provence

  1. Margo This gives me another reason to plan a winter trip to France. Christmas in the Southern Hemisphere never seems quite right!.

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  2. Well, one good reason is enough, don’t you think? 🙂 And the weather in Nice is usually nice around Christmas. It is cold enough to feel like Christmas, but not freezing. So buy your ticket now!

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  3. What an interesting story, Margo! I’m glad to know the background of these unusual creches… it puts my Wolverhampton Caribbean Christmas lobster, the only nativity pageant I had seen with its starfish and lobster, into perfect perspective! Creativity is alive and well! Thanks for explaining it all so beautifully!

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  4. Wow, that sounds like a really unusual Nativity! It is so interesting to see life from other points of view. What I really like about the South of France crèche is that everyone is included. It is not just for kings and wise men.

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