In Provençal “santoun” (santon) means « petit saint » (little saint). Santons are figurines representing the nativity, surrounded by a 19th century Provencal scene. These crèches are an evolution of the live crèche of medieval ages and became popular after the French Revolution. Santons are typically small, hand-painted terracotta figurines produced in the Provence region of France (mainly Aubagne and Marseille).
The figurines can be found in three size ranges:
“Puce” (literally “flea” size ) which are 1 to 3cm
Traditional (these are the ones our family collects) which are 5 to 7cm
“Grand Santons habillés” (or large dressed Santons) which are from 18 to 21cm and are my girlfriends favorite. She loves them because of the unique expressions and dress that are possible in these bigger sizes. Large scale scenes of these larger sized santons are less common in homes, it’s usually just a handful at the most (they’re a bit pricey).
For the truly ambitious, you can even find blanks, clay figurines waiting for your artistic touch…
Buildings, bridges, fountains, and trees all add to the realistic feel of a traditional Provencal Crèche.
A crèche is rarely ever finished as new pieces are added over the years. Families have collections that span generations, ours dating back to my parents’ marriage in the 50’s. A traditional Provencal Crèches always includes the top 20 essential characters. Many additions can be made, including a few regional variances and some untraditional additions like the pregnant Mary that hit the newspaper headlines upon its release.
The supporting characters often depict 19th century rural trades such as the miller and basket weaver. In addition, you will find that some characters are drawn from the stories of local authors Marcel Pagnol, Alphone Daudet, and Antoine Maurel (who wrote the play “Pastoral” – a satirical rewriting of the Nativity story). These particular characters keep the names and stories of their origins.
Make sure you know what you are buying. You know you have the real thing when you find “VERITABLE SANTON DE PROVENCE» and the accompanying logo stamped on the bottom of the Santon (large sizes only) or prominently displayed in the shop. Even the tiny sizes have some kind of a makers stamp to identify the provenance. In order to be genuine, the Santon must meet several criteria: be handmade in Provence, sized between 2 and 40 cm, made of fired clay, and be hand painted with no plastic parts used in the decoration.
There are seven separate steps to the fabrication, and it’s possible to see this in action if you visit one of the local atelier (workshops) in Provence :
- A new figurine model is sculpted out of raw clay
- A mold is made out of plaster of Paris
- Raw clay is pressed into the mold and a figurine is released
- A knife scrapes away all traces of the mold
- The figurine is left to dry
- The figurine is baked in a 800 degree oven
- The figurine is hand painted with gouache paint
Starting your own Crèche
If you are interested in starting your own crèche, start with these main characters essential to the Crèche :
- Marie, Joseph, and the infant Jesus (lou pitchoun in Provençal, placed on the 25th dec)
- The Angels – usually hung over the stable, with the main angel Bouffarel holding a trumpet to announce the birth of the savior
- The Farm animals – donkey and cow, their breaths warming the stable
- The lamb – an offering to be found at foot of cradle
- The shepherds and the troops of sheep – they are the first to arrive and observe
- The three kings Melchior, Gaspard et Balthazar and camels with their caretakers –with the purpose of bringing gifts to baby Jesus arriving on January 6th (Epiphany)
- The drummer boy announcing the birth of Jesus
- The blind man who through a miracle recovers his sight accompanied by his son
- The fish monger – important biblical character
Traditional characters that you can choose to add-on include :
- Bartoumieu – the village clown
- Pistachié – The village idiot who throws his arms up in delight
- The bohemian woman with child in her arms
- The local priests and Monks
- The Mayor and his wife
- The old man and woman – called Grasset et Grasseto
- The chickens scattered around the basse-cour
- The pigs around the village center
- The geese near the bridge
- Marius – the town gossip from Marcel Pagnol
- The Fisherman and his wife
- The Farandole dancers (Provençal dance similar to a jig)
- Gypsies and musicians
- Corsican bandits
- The Tramp
- St-François d’Assise (Saint of the santonniers)
- The Farmer and vegetable carriers
- The water carrier – important as water used to be a rarity
- Pimpara – the travelling knife sharpener who loves gossip
- The basket weaver
- The wood seller – carrying his wood on the back of a donkey
- The miller carrying his sack of flour on the back of a donkey
- the farmer’s wife with her basket of fresh eggs
- The wood peddler with faggots on his donkey
- The butcher
- The wash lady
- The chestnut lady
- The schoolmistress and children
- The flower seller
- The hunter
Regional variants and Untraditional options:
- West of Marseille and you will also find the “Arlésiennes” (women from Arles as depicted by Van Gogh) and the salt-flat workers of Camargue
- North of Marseille you will also find lavender growers and sellers
- Pregnant Marie (Santonnier Daniel Coulomb)
Where to find them – Fairs, Foires, and Pastorals
Now that I have you all excited and salivating about Santons and wanting to get your own collection started, here are a few tips on where to see them and where you can actually buy them. My favorite Santonniers, if you are interested, are Carbonel and Escoffier… Last year I decided to purchase one from each stand at the Marseille Foire des Santons (like I said, I’m just a teeny little bit OCD), and those two brands really stand out.
Remember, the Fairs and Christmas Markets are only in December (and mostly in Marseille, Aubagne, and Aix-en-Provence), but you can purchase Santons during the calendar year in the permanent shops and Ateliers throughout Provence and online. December is also when you can see the “Pastorales” – live representations of the nativity.
Although not all-inclusive, here are a few good choices to get you started (in alphabetical order):
- Foire aux santons located at the La Rotonde (bottom end of the Cours Mirabeau).
- Santons Fouque, 65 Cours Gambetta, 13100 Aix. Tel: (+33) 4 42 26 33 38.
- A hilltop village on the edge of Marseille with one of the biggest annual crèches with up to 700 santons.
- Salon International des Santonniers is the largest international event and is located in the Sainte Tréphine Cloister in the center of the old town. Expect to see many untraditional forms of the santons. and the cloister is also well worth the visit. 3€ entrance fee.
Aubagne – (The official birthplace of the Santons thanks to the quality of the local clay)
- The Santon Fair is held bi-annually in even years (the next being 2016), and is located in the center square of the town.
- Le Petit Monde de Pagnol is a charming museum housing a miniature Pagnol scene against with a representation of the Garlaban mountain that looms above Aubagne where several of Pagnol’s movies were filmed. Located on the Esplanade Charles de Gaulle.
- Maryse Di Landro Santonnier has a small museum worth the visit and also offers guided workshop tours through the different phases of production for the larger santons: the molding, drying, firing and decoration. 582 Avenue des Paluds, Zone Industrielle des Paluds, 13400 Aubagne. Tel: (+33) 4 42 70 95 65.
- Live Pastorale procession, complete with real sheep and Provençal music, departing on Saturday evening from Saint-Sauveur Church on top of the hill and winding down the streets of old town to the Cours Foche where real-life “santons”, in their traditional costumes, dance the farandole of the Provençal crèche.
- Escoffier 144 rue du Vallat, Zone Industrielle des Paluds, Aubagne, 04.42.70.14.32.
- Daniel Scaturro 20A ave de Verdun, Aubagne, 04.42.84.33.29.
- Sylvette Amy/Maison Sicard, Les Deux Provençales, 2 blvd Emile Combes, Aubagne, 04.42.01.39.62.
- Not related to Santons but interesting nonetheless, visit Le Moulin à Huile, 1280 RN26 Quartier Napollon, 13400 Aubagne. Tel: (+33) 4 42 03 81 03.
- Christmas Chalets – In the town center at place de l’Horloge you can find several Santons sellers
- Crèche Display by Marcel Carbonel Workshops in Marseilles in Avignon City Hall with more than 500 santons (4 cm to 15 cm).
- Small displays can be found at Church of the Célestins, Saint-Didier church, Saint-Pierre basilica and Saint-Symphorien church
- Palais du Roure – dedicated to Provencal culture. Magnificent display of 19th-century wax santons from the Notre-Dame des Doms basilica. Also see the traditional Christmas dining table with the thirteen desserts, presented by the association L’Estellod’Avignoun. No charge. Information: 04.90.80.80.88.
Baux de Provence –
- Lovely small museum “Les Baux Santons Museum” displays both traditional Provençal nativity figures and some from Naples, Italy. The first room houses a large display set against the hills of Les Baux de Provence. Open all year round. Admission free.
- Santons Lambert Frédéric et Fils, 95 Rue Henri Allibert, 84200 Carpentras, France Téléphone :+33 6 11 53 74 94
- Foire aux Santons – Chapelle du Collège, rue du collège – 25 artisans display 5000 figurines for sale
- La crèche provençale – l’Office de Tourisme – A large crèche display is available for your viewing pleasure at the local tourist office
Fontaine de Vaucluse –
- The Musée du Santon et des Traditions de Provence: over 2,500 santons, and the world’s tiniest crèche made from a nutshell. Place de la Colonne, 84150 Fontaine de Vaucluse. Téléphone 04 90 20 20 83. (Open all year).
- The village of Grignan boasts a giant crèche with over 1,000 santons and sound-and-light effects. It is located at the Chappelle de la Vierge inside the Collégiale Saint Sauveur, located underneath the castle (you reach the display by foot as there are no cars allowed in the old town center – so park at the village entrance).
Luceram – Fortified medieval village (27km north of Nice)
- Circuit des Crèches – throughout the village you will find over 450 crèche displays in the streets, fountains, churches, squares, etc
- Musée de la Crèche – place Adrien Barralis
- Circuit des Créches Lucéram
- The first fair (Foires aux Santons) was held in 1803 and has been held every December since. The early and ongoing interest is illustrated by the sale of 180,000 santons recorded in 1886, and their popularity has only grown since. This is where I go to buy my Santons as they have the largest collection of Santonniers stands https://foire-aux-santons-de-marseille.fr/). Today, it opens every year in late November, to the sound of the tambourin (not a tambourine, but a long drum), and continues until 31 December, when a santonniers’ mass is celebrated in Provençal at the church of Saint-Vincent-de-Paul, at the top of Canebière. there are activities throughout the season, just check their website. You can find the fair in the “Vieux Port” (Old Port). Parking : Marseille – Charles de Gaulle.
- Musée du Santon, 49 rue neuve Sainte Catherine, 13007 Marseille, which is also the workshop for master-santonnier Marcel Carbonel. Tel: (+33) 4 91 13 61 36.
- The Musée du Terroir Marseillais in Château Gombert is dedicated to popular provençal arts and traditions and has an impressive collection of beautiful historic santons. 5 place des Héros, 13013 Marseille. Tel: (+33) 4 91 68 14 38.
- Escoffier, 96 quai du Port, 13002 Marseille. Tel: (+33) 4 91 90 17 69.
Mouans-Sartoux (south of Grasse near Nice) –
- The largest annual Santons display around Nice, it attracts close to 8000 visitors per year. Located near the Aquarium de la Médiathèque La Strada
- The Santons Village, workshop and boutique
75 Avenue de la Vallée des Baux, 13520 LE PARADOU
Tél. 04 90 54 35 75 – Fax : 04 90 54 35 67
Internet : www.lapetiteprovenceduparadou.com
E-mail : email@example.com
Peillon – (in the hills north of Nice)
- Annual Santons festival located in the old oil moulin (windmill). Vieux-Moulin à Huile et à Farine de Peillon (Quartier des Moulins) Au quartier « les Moulins » en bordure de la RD19.
- Le musée des santons (you can see Santons and as a bonus do some wine tasting) -Château de l’Aumérade Cru Classé – 83390 Pierrefeu – Provence d’Azur – Tél. : 04 94 28 20 31
Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer – (in the Camargue has a rich source of santons festivals every winter)
- Art et Santons Boutique Tissus – Céramiques, Place des Remparts, 13460 Les Saintes-Maries de la Mer.
- Arlette Bertello santons display at the “Centre culturel”, Palais des Congrès, facing the Arènes (free visit).
…and to finish, a photo gallery of my favorites from this season’s displays –
-Girl Gone Gallic