The Santons of Provence

After Christmas in Provence, we would like to speak to you today about the santons of Provence.

Santons of Provence

Santons are little clay figurines that are placed in crèches for the Christmas celebrations. They are sculpted representations of the Nativity scene. A small crèche is composed of Mary, Joseph, baby Jésus (who is placed between his parents on December 24, at midnight), the donkey, and the bull who are warming Jesus with the breath, then, at the epiphany, the 3 wise men.

But many characters can be added, to the joy of collectionneurs. These characters represent provençal villagers and embody the customs and traditional crafts of our region.

The origins of the santons of Provence can be traced back to the French Revolution, on July 14 1789. With the Revolution, churches became “property of the French state” and, in 1793, the national assembly decided to close them all.

But the people, who were profoundly religious, were used to going to church to see the Christmas crèche. No longer able to do this because the churches were closed, they started making the crèche at home, in hiding because it was forbidden. This first happened in Provence. People made very small figurines that they could easily hide.

A small business started making all the crèche characters.

In 1798, Louis Lagnel (who lived in Marseille from 1764 to 1822), designed the first plaster moulds to make his santons. This new technology made mass production and wide distribution possible. These “penny santons” finally allowed everyone to own their own crèche.

The tradition of santons truly took off in the XIX century, with the appearance of Provence’s master santonniers. The clay figures they created were borrowed from everyday life and work.

There exists today more than a hundred character because each santonnier is free to make the characters he wants. Here are a few made by one of the most loved santonniers, Marcel Carbonel.

  • The olive picker
  • The gypsy
  • The notary
  • The baker

Santons are an original gift idea with you want to bring souvenirs from your time among us back home.

If you visit Port Grimaud and the French Riviera during the winter, we suggest that you visit the santons fairs organized between November and January in Marseille, Aix-en-Provence, or Aubagne. You will find smaller but no less charming fairs everywhere in Provence.

A museum dedicated to santons and traditions of Provence will also welcome you in Fontaine-de-Vaucluse.