Scale models of the Nativity scene, with figurines of the Holy Family, the three Wise Men and assorted shepherds, angels and animals, are a common enough sight at Christmas. But only in Provence, do the crèches give the impression that Baby Jesus had a rollicking good time in his manger, with dozens of visitors bringing him presents.
The reason for this is that the santons, the hand-crafted “little saints” made of clay which have been a regional Christmas tradition since the end of the 18th century, have become such a popular collector’s item that they long ago burst the ranks of religious symbolism. Instead of just representing Baby Jesus and his usual entourage in the stable, santons now come from all walks of Provençal life. They include traditional tradespeople such as olive pickers, flower sellers, basket weavers and fishmongers - a host of colourful characters, dressed in authentic costumes. The gifts they bring the Christchild are not the gold, frankincense and myrrh of the three Magi, but homespun, home-grown products and produce, ranging from strings of garlic, olives and ham, to wool socks and flowers.
Santons first became part of family Christmas celebrations in Provence in 1789, at the time of the French Revolution, when midnight mass was forbidden. Deprived of the crèche at church, families starting making their own rustic versions at home, with crude santons made of wood, wax or even dough.
The first santon maker to regularly use clay for his creations was Jean-Louis Lagnel of Marseille. He also started the practice of using moulds and producing non-religious figures. Many of them were modelled on the village characters of the Pastorale, a popular Provençal Nativity play.
New santon models are still being created every year and the best santonniers still make them entirely by hand. First, any new model is hand-sculpted in clay, and a plaster mould or moulds is then made from this prototype (finely detailed santons are moulded in several sections). Santons are assembled with watered-down clay, or barbotine, and are finished off by hand, before being dried in the open air and fired in a kiln.
After that, comes the final step: the hand-painting with watercolours or oil paint. In spite of their diminutive stature, which varies from one inch to just over six, with the most popular model 2 ¾ inches tall, no details of a santon’s costume is omitted, right down to the buttons and braiding on the men’s waistcoats and the flowered prints of the women’s shawls.
Santon fairs are held all over Provence, but Marseille has the biggest one; forty different santon makers sell their little clay people there, each with a style of their own - a certain sculpting technique or way with colours that real aficionados can instantly recognise. Most French families tend to find one santonnier they like and build up a collection of his creations for their crèche, which they hand down from one generation to the next.
It is a heart-warming tradition, which means that the Baby Jesus is surrounded by a bigger crowd of well-wishers each Christmas, and it makes it easy to get the impression that He was really born in Provence.