A "caganer" santon of Queen ElizabethChristmas crib figures are not just about the Holy Family and picturesque peasants (click here to read about traditional santons). Some santon-makers are keen to give them a cheeky or surprising spin.

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Young santonniers and santonnières - many of them self-taught - are experimenting with Christmas crib figurines that retain a distinctive provençal flavour but have a quirky modern twist.

Christine Darcq santons"I feel people are a little bored with the traditional santons we've known for years and years," says Christine Darcq, whose little minimalist santons, pictured, have no facial features, leaving you to project your own emotions into the scene.

"I try to put a lot of humour into my santons because I sense that people like having something that's sweet and funny," adds Darcq, who regards her art as both spiritual and playful. Her studio, L'Atelier Autour de la Terre, is at 4 le Cours, 13570 La Barbentine. Tel (+33) 6 24 05 15 87.

Equally stylised, Véronique Dornier's santons are always dressed in blue, while Marinette Frapolli chooses natural clay and earth colours for her crib figures. Click here for the website of Véronique Dornier and here for the website of Marinette Frapolli.

By contrast, the santons of Jean-Etienne Gaumé wear elaborate and exquisite costumes recreated in wafer-thin sheets of clay from traditional provençal designs. Jean-Etienne Gaumé can be contacted at tel: (+33) 4 66 34 15 21.

The subjects chosen by these santonniers are unexpected too. As well as the classic bearded shepherds and old ladies selling lavender, Darcq has a saxophonist and a scarecrow, while Frapolli's pilgrims to the holy crib might come from Africa or Asia.

If you fancy becoming a santon in your own crib, Patrick Haddou is your man. He'll create a terracotta figurine of yourself to order in the guise of a hunter, a peasant, a priest, a Wise Man or whatever takes your fantasy.

Patrick Haddou's santons

His santons are exquisitely detailled and can take up to a month to craft, and so they're not cheap: count 800€ - 1000€. Pictured: Patrick and his wife, Sylvia, as comical santons. Santons Patrick Haddou, Quartier Gergouven, 84580 Oppède. Tel: (+33) 4 90 72 25 45. By appointment only.

The scatological "caganer" or "crapper" is a peasant applying low-cost manure to his own land: he is invariably portrayed with bare buttocks and a tell-tale turd behind him.

A traditional figure in Franco-Spanish Catalan cribs dating back to the 18th century, he has been enjoying a resurgence in popularity way beyond his south-western origins and, in various guises, has been selling like hot cakes at santon fairs in Spain and Southern France, and on the internet.

When the Barcelona City Council briefly ejected the caganer from its crib in 2005 on the grounds that he was breaking local sanitation laws, it created a public outcry and he was swiftly reinserted.

According to one historian, the caganer is both a symbol of fertility and an irreverent joke that reminds us all that men and women, however elevated, or however humble, are equal when it comes to their bodily functions. Among recent luminaries to get a caganer makeover are Queen Elizabeth (pictured top left), Nicolas Sarkozy and President Obama.

It's not irreverent to pop a caganer into a traditional crib scene, its enthusiasts claim, just as long as he or she remains tucked away discreetly at the back behind a shed or under a tree.

On 3 December 1940, Marshal Pétain visited Marseille and the Santons Fair, which gave two santonniers the idea of making a commemorative santon celebrating the new Head of State of Vichy France. As Pétain's popularity steeply declined, malicious tongues suggested that the santons might double as voodoo dolls.....

Frederic Mistral santonThese were formerly exhibited at the Musée du Terroir marseillais in Château Gombert, on the edge of Marseille. They are not currently on display but the museum has an impressive collection of unusual and beautiful historic santons from both Provence and Italy.

To mark the centenary in 2014 of the death of the provençal writer Frédéric Mistral, a new santon, pictured, was created in the likeness of the dapper, bearded poet.

The American travel and food writer MFK Fisher, who lived in Marseille at different times over a period of some 50 years, vividly evokes the bizarre bargain-basement sale at the santon market after the holidays in her book Two Towns in Provence. Find it here on Amazonimage!.

Two Towns in Provence"Many of the stands have closed and moved away for another year. A few old women in layers of wool and thick felt boots stand hopefully behind their little counters. At first they seem to have almost nothing to sell. Then they begin to pull out broken shoeboxes and grimy paper sacks filled with flawed tiny images. Some of them are pitiful or plainly prankish (...) and gradually the old women brought them out, looking casual but with a sharp eye on my reactions.

"Most of the dolls were unpainted. There were wee dogs with five legs and some shepherds with only one. A sow a few inches long lay on a pancake of clay suckling ten piglets that were really kittens. I bought a rooster with his head on backward. With a little patience it would be easy to assemble a small-scale Nativity worthy of Hieronymus Bosch, or perhaps Salvador Dali."

 

 

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