Aren’t these little people wonderful? [Cllick on each picture to view a larger version]
Meet the little French saints “santons” – painted figures made of clay or sculpted in wood – that are found in nativity scenes in many French homes during the Christmas season, though mainly in Provence.
They are called the “santons de Provence” because they originated in Marseilles in the late 18th century.
Although all manger scenes (crèches) have the traditional figures of Mary, Joseph, the infant Jesus and the three kings, the addition of the santons who participate in the birth of the Christ child are essential to the scenario.
There are hundreds of variations and types of santons. Traditionally, they are either 6″ or 10″ in height. Some examples of figures used are the woodcutter, the fisherman, the lavendar seller, the baker, the butcher, the pastry maker and the weaver. But there are hundreds more.
There are a few characters, though, that are considered traditional – as much as Mary, Joseph, and the infant Jesus. Among these are: the blind man and his son, and an unusual figure called the “Ravi”. The ravi is a kind of village fool, someone we might call “touched in the head” in Texas.
When did this tradition of putting “village folk” with the traditional religious figures begin? In France, it started at the time of the French Revolution. The Catholic Church was banned by the new regime in France and the churches were closed. But the people of Marseille resisted the idea of losing their Christmas tradition, and they countered by staging live nativity scenes in various locations in the city.
In 1803, santon-making became a part of Marseille’s craft industry. The idea grew in popularity, and today the santons are a fixture in Provencal homes at Christmas time. Many manger scenes with their uniquely carved figures, have been passed down through families for several generations.
There are two things that interest me about this tradition. First, that the villagers wanted to participate in the nativity scene, itself. They first did this by reenacting the nativity scene with real people. But then they had the idea of putting representations of themselves in the form of these little saints. This was a way for them, I think, to connect more completely to the event of the Nativity.
Secondly, the work that is put into creating these figures is incredible. It is a point of pride with the various craftspeople to individualize each of their creations through their painted expressions – which in the best santons are very realistic – as well as in the costumes they create for them. There is a huge amount of work in these figures.
Well, we’ve already put up our Nativity Scene this year. Our thanks go to Madame Olive, the santon maker where we found our figures, who is located in St. Jean le Centenier, Ardeche. When you walk into her workshop and see the dozens of different santons she has for sale, it makes you want to put them all in your bag and take them home!