Provençal Christmas traditions are rooted in both charming local customs and historical religious rituals. During this festive season, called Calendale, villages throughout Provence host Christmas Markets, Santons Fairs, Lighting Festivals and Tours of Nativity Scenes, leading up to Le Gros Souper on Christmas Eve and Les Treize desserts following Midnight Mass. The season officially kicks off on December 4, Saint Barbara’s, or St. Barbe’s, Day.
The Christmas crib, or crèche, is an important part of the nativity scene in Provence, dating back to the 17th century. Santons, derived from the Provençal word santoun meaning little saints, are small, handmade figurines sculpted from wood and clay. The santons are painted and decorated to represent various traditional professions, such as a baker, fishmonger or butcher, farm animals, and biblical characters to populate the nativity scene. Santons Fairs and Christmas Markets are a wonderful opportunity to add to one’s ever expanding santons collection.
The history of santons
The history of santons dates from the French Revolution in 1789 when churches were closed, and Midnight Mass and church crèches were banned. These small unassuming ornaments were first made as a way of defying the government. In a bid to keep traditions and religion alive, people started creating their own crèches in private homes and a small industry producing figures grew up around this, particularly in Marseille. Santon makers, Santonniers, originally created traditional Nativity characters but soon started to draw inspiration from life around them and began including figures from ordinary village life. You can find everyone from fishermen, tinkers, basket makers and water carriers to tramps, bakers, chimney sweeps and washer women alongside the baby Jesus, Virgin Mary, Joseph and the three Wise Men.
When these figures were first made in the 18th century, the clay wasn’t fired and they weren’t called santons until 1826, as records show, but a tradition that started with just three market stall sellers in Marseille now includes hundreds of traditional craftsmen who make santons for many Provençal homes.
They are popular during religious festivals
During the French Revolution, the government closed down churches and banned nativity scenes. Instead, people started making their own nativity scenes out of whatever they had to hand. In 1797 in Marseille, a man called Jean-Louis Lagnel started making small figures out of clay and selling them for an affordable price. People began to display their own nativity-type scenes at home. The santon became a form of political revolution.
Santons represent traditional Provençal life
You will find all of Provençal life depicted in the santons in people’s homes – everyone from the tinker, the tailor and the candlestick maker. Every kind of local, native animal are usually included, too. At Christmas, many towns such as Aix-en-Provence lay out huge santon nativity scenes in an enclosed log cabin for the whole of December for people to come and look at and spend hours looking to spot key tradespeople and villagers.