The word Santon comes from "santoùon", which means in Provençal "little saint". In Italy they are called "santoni", an abbreviated version of "Santi Belli", the beautiful saints. Using clay figurines to depict the Nativity Scene has a long tradition in Mediterranean countries. But the Provençal santons of the Nöel Crèche (Christmas Nativity scene) have a moving human touch: Rather than portraying the people of the Holy Land during the times Jesus lived, the characters are common folks of the Provence in 18th and 19th century clothes. They visit the Holy Family and bring presents.
The tradition goes back to the 13th century, perhaps earlier. It gained enormous importance in the small villages of the Provence during the French Revolution. It was a way to keep religion alive inside the home. These were the times when churches were pillaged and became stables, ammunition depots or were used for or grain storage. When the days of the week and the months were renamed. When priests were persecuted and any public display of religion had dire consequences. People in the Provence, at those times an impoverished backwater of France, tried to keep their faith and traditions as best as they could. Sunday service was held secretly in private homes and the Nöel Crèche, previously a privilege of rich people, gained special meaning during Christmas times. After The French Revolution times were harsh and seeking refuge in religion was one way to cope. No wonder santons became immensely popular and also more elaborate. This was the time when the Provence developed its own santon style. Whole Provençal village were recreated, including many of its inhabitants. It was good business for local craftsmen and in 1803 the first Nativity Fair was held in Marseille to sell santons. Soon there was another santons fair in Aubagne (12 km to the east of Marseille), and before long there were other santon fairs at a number of villages in the Provence. Competition was fierce and clever craftsmen soon developed custom made figurines, depicting their customer's families and friends honoring the Holy Family. The Marseille santons fair is held to this day, every Advent through Epiphany, on the Canebière in Marseille. And there are many regional santons fairs, some starting as early as November.
A typical santon scene has as its center piece the Holy Family, the Rois Mages (the Three Kings) and angels. Shepherds call Provençal villagers to honor the Holy Family. First the important notables of the village, the mayor and the parish priest. Then the craftsmen, such as the baker, the grocer, the butcher, the fromager (cheese vendor) and musicians. Depending on where the village is located there might be a vigneron (winegrower), a fisherman, a basket weaver and a potter. Then there are the common people of the village, rich and poor. The traditional santon scene includes musicians and dancers who dance the farandole with joined hands. So what's missing? The village animals of course, lots of them. The traditional ox and the ass, a part of any nativity scene, but in the Provençal Nöel Crèche there are also sheepdogs with bells under their necks, sheep, goats, rabbits, pigeons on the roof, and other barnyard animals. Anything else? Yes, let's not forget the ravi (sometimes called ravie). This is a man or woman throwing up the arms in delight, interpreted as being either a simpleton or simply a very happy person.
Nowadays Provençal santons are always made of clay. There are two types: santons d'argile (hand painted figurines) and santons habilles (figurines dressed in cloth, craftsmen carry their miniature implements, such as baskets, fishing nets etc.). Santons d'argile come in 6 sizes, from 1 inch to 6 inches tall. Santons habilles range from 6 inches to 18 inches tall. The figurines are created from molds, from which up to 1,000 copies can be made. They are fired in kilns for roughly 48 hours at 900 C (1,650 F). After the base coat is put on, the figurines are hand painted, color after color is put on with times in between so the color can dry. Hence the price - this is a skilled artisan's work. Go and see for yourself.
So here are a number of workshops with adjacent stores we recommend. On most of these workshops you can visit the atelier and watch the different stages of the creation of santons.
Santons Fouque 65, cours Gambetta, Aix en Provence,Tel: 04 42 26 33 38
Santons Cavasse Villa Mireille, 32, Avenue Jean Moulin, 13100 Aix en Provence,
Tel: 04 42 21 16 62
Santons Richard 955, Chemin Bouenhoure Haut, 13090 Aix en Provence,
Tel : 04 42 20 10 15
Santons Jouve: 2, Allée du Capricorne, 13080 Luynes, Tel : 04 42 24 01 40
Santons Didier 41 rue Léon Bourgeois, 13001 Marseille, Tel: 04 91 64 72 92
Santons Marcel Carbonel 49, Rue Neuve Sainte Catherine, 13007 Marseille,
Tel: 04 91 13 61 36
Santons Escoffier1 44 Rue du Vallat, Les Paluds, 13782 Aubagne Tel: 04 42 70 14 32