Sir Francis of Assisi established the tradition of nativity scenes in 1223 with live enactments by people and animals during the midnight mass on Christmas eve in his church of Greccio, Italy. The tradition halted after the French Revolution, when many churches were closed. In 1803 the Santons of Provence were first created; small figurines called « santouns » or « little saints », which allowed Nativity scenes in the privacy of peoples’ homes and at schools.
Inspired by the Catholic Nativity scene, these displays start with the baby Jesus, Virgin Mary, Joseph, 3 Wise Men and shepherds, as well as a donkey and cattle whose breath warmed the child. Every day life in Provence is also represented with people, a river with a bridge, mills, olive trees and a hill; all pointing towards the barn lit by l’Étoile du Berger » (Star). Important characters include: fisherman, drummer, « lou ravi » (village idiot), fishmonger, water carrier, woodcutter, gardener, washerwoman, miller (with a bag of flour), baker, tinker, weaver, grinder and a farmer’s wife with fresh produce.
Provençal clay figurines are prized possessions that get handed down from generation to generation. Hand-made by artisans, the process includes creating a model, which stands on a pedestal, from raw clay that is larger than the desired size (as they shrink during the drying process). Moulds are made « en coquille » (in two halves), which get powdered with chalk and then lined with clay. The two halves are pressed together. The little santon gets carefully removed and dried. Santons are baked in an 800ºC furnace, cooled and then painted by hand.
Other styles of « Crêche de Noël » (Nativity crib scenes)
- Neapolitan: richly-decorated, colourful characters (often life sized) appeared in cathedrals in the 14th century in Southern Italy for devout followers. Then in the 18th century the Baroque style gained popularity in Naples, also because of the incredible realism in the characters.
- Baroque: created in the 17th century when cribs/nativity scenes were used to decorate aristocratic homes in the baroque style.
- Comtoise: popular at the end of the 18th century; like the Provençal crib, this is based on the Holy family as well as characters of the Comté society of the time.
- Living Nativity: enacted as a public display containing real characters.
The cultural history behind santons enhances your appreciation of them when you discover these little characters at artisanal markets, or during the festive season at at supermarkets like L’Eclerc! Aix-en-Provence has a fabulous Santons shop owned by the Girault family, where you can watch them hand-painting clay figurines. Provençal villages host competitions for the best displays and there are competitions among the artisans like « Concours de création du meilleur santon 2015« .
Churches display their « Crêches des Noël » in December, and you’ll find many families enjoying their private displays around a Christmas tree, whilst sipping on a « chocolat chaud » or « vin chaud ».
[Source: La crèche provençale de COMPS]