Santons of Provence: All I Wanted for Christmas

My Provençal santons

In this year of pandemic, we decorated for Christmas early, as did many others. It made a nice diversion from the things going on in the world. So, the fact that my Christmas gifts didn’t arrive until the last day of December might have been a good thing, as it extended the anticipation another week…

This santon of a lady with a goat represents the goat cheese of Provence that I love. And the woman with a pumpkin is a reminder that all types of gourds grow well in the Provence soil. The city of Nice even has a gourd festival.

This year, all I wanted for Christmas was santons – those little clay Provençal figurines that pop up every Christmas in the south of France. They’re part of the local Nativity scenes and every person in the village is represented. If you don’t know about them, you can read about santons here.

A gardian (Provence cowboy) holding his trident, a white horse, and a flamingo represent the Camargue region in the southwest of Provence.

I began collecting santons when I lived in France. I would pick one up from time to time, but I didn’t want to get carried away and end up with an unwieldy collection. This year, however, I was suffering from Provence withdrawal. I hadn’t been there in more than a year and it didn’t seem likely that I would be going back anytime soon. I needed a bit of the south of France, and santons seemed like the perfect solution.

One of the things I love most about Provence is the lavender fields.

First, Jeff found a small collection of santons on eBay and was going to surprise me, but he was never very good at keeping a secret. So we both watched excitedly as the end of the auction drew near. The tension was running high as we sat on our sofa and stared at the computer screen, but we were sure no one would beat our high bid. Then at the last minute, someone swooped in and outbid us.

A woman and man in traditional Niçois costumes and a fisherman with his net represent Nice, France where I lived for 11 years.

It was disappointing, but no problem, I just went online directly to Escoffier, one of the French santonniers (santon makers), and ordered some. There was still plenty of time for them to arrive before Christmas. However, the next day, the authorities closed the borders between the UK and France because of the new strain of covid. Delivery trucks were stuck for days, and I knew my santons would not reach me before Christmas.

These two santons represent the powerful Mistral wind that blows through Provence.

Even though I had already placed my order, I peeked at eBay again, and I found another set of santons up for bid in the UK. This time, I won them. Now I had two deliveries of santons on their way to me. Every day I checked my postal tracking numbers, but they weren’t being updated because of the border closing and the Christmas rush. Every time the doorbell rang, I jumped up and ran to answer because I was sure it was my santons.

The tarasque monster, his “chevalier” (handler) and Tartarin (a literary character) represent the town of Tarascon and its annual tarasaque festival.

Finally, on the last day of 2020, my packages arrived. I may have gotten a bit carried away, as my santon collection has grown substantially. But I love them all, and they remind me of the places I’ve been and the things I’ve experienced in Provence.

This is the poultry section of my santon collection. I’m afraid these geese might be headed for foie gras.

I’ve already made a list of santons that I want to get next year, and I’m thinking I might also need to concentrate on their décor. Now that I have so many lovely santons, they need more houses… and stone walls… and animals… So much for not getting carried away!

I love this priest because of his umbrella with a duck head that reminds me of Mary Poppins. The woman beside him is Arlesienne (from Arles) and possibly his wife.

The santons I had before were from various makers. The ones I ordered this year were from Escoffier and their workmanship and quality seem superior to some of the others I have. The detail is good and the colors are nice and bright. I think they may be my new favorite santonnier.

I hope you were as excited about your Christmas gifts as I was about mine (even if they were a bit late). Wishing you all a wonderful, happy, and healthy new year filled with things that bring you joy.


If you would like to read more about santons or the things represented by mine in the above photos, have a look at these links:

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8 comments

  1. Very nice! But you’ve made me curious (no pun intended)! Did Santa bring you the 2 cm or the 9 cm figurines? And, of course, being curious, I looked up “santon” in the dictionary and found the word also means ” a saint in Muslim countries : a dervish regarded by the people as a saint.” Seeing no dervishes and unless every one of your figurines is a saint, I’ll figure you went with definitiion 2: “a small clay image from southern France that is used in a Christmas crèche.” Thanks again for the gift of your fascinating, illuminating story. Happy New Year!!

    1. Hi Bill,
      My santons are 7 and 9 cm. Different santonniers make different sizes but most people collect the 7cm. The 2 cm are more like the kind found in the gallette des rois (king cake) in January. I think the clay kind like mine can go up to 12 cm. Above that they are usually the kind with fabric clothing.
      The word santon means “little saint” and all the people in the Provence village are little saints (but not dervishes). This use is from the Provencal word “santoun”. I guess they are considered little saints because they are going to the creche to see the newborn baby Jesus. Hope that satisfies your curiosity a bit. 🙂
      Happy New Year!

  2. Happy New Year, Margo. And let’s hope it is the year of vaccinations and the end of COVID. I love your Santons. Please photograph your setting – or is it settings? The one in your article look beautiful. Best wishes, Paula

    1. Hi Paula. Happy New Year to you too. May it be a better one!
      I don’t have much in the way of a setting for my santons, I just have one little house, a fountain, and two rock walls. I think next year it will be my mission to try and get some more. 🙂
      All the best -Margo

  3. I collect santons too Mine are the tall 10″-12″ ones that are dressed in fabric clothes each representing either a region or a trade or task. I love them and they are displayed all year in a curio cabinet in my dining room. I love the idea you have of the santon representing a certain aspect of life in Nice or in Provence that you relate to. Thanks for sharing and I’m glad to hear there’s another person with my same hobby.

    1. Yay! Another santon sister! 🙂
      You know, I’ve just been thinking that it would be nice to have my santons where I could see them all the time. I think your idea of displaying them in a curio cabinet is a great one. Although I’ll probably go ahead and pack mine away this year, I’ll keep my eye out for a permanent place for them in the future.
      Happy New Year and All the Best, -Margo

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