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).
It all Began With St. Francis of Assisi
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
- 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.
You can read more about Provence traditions in my books, Curious Histories of Provence and French Holidays & Traditions
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Mary Jane and I were looking at Nativity scenes just last week. I almost purchased another although I have three already. The santons are unique and captivating.
Well, maybe you need a French one to add to your collection… Your other ones probably don’t have laundresses, wine makers, pig farmers, etc…
This is very interesting, I wondered about these tiny figures.
Thanks Rose. These little saints make some pretty interesting Nativity scenes – certainly different from the ones I was used to seeing.
Margo This gives me another reason to plan a winter trip to France. Christmas in the Southern Hemisphere never seems quite right!.
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!
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!
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.
I just listened to an interview of Martine Gaussen of La Vie en Douce, describing what santons had meant to her as a child and how in later life she decided to become a full-time painter making santons from stones. I was delighted to see some of her work included in your article on santons. Thanks. Now if only I can remember where I heard the interview. 🙂
How interesting. If you come across that interview again, let me know. I’d love to hear it. Her painted rock santons are certainly different and very sweet. They look like the stones on the beach in Nice. Thank you and have a happy new year!