Not simply tourist trinkets, these Christmas crib figures are an authentic folk tradition, and many provençal homes still maintain elaborate Nativity cribs today.
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And the Santons Fair in Marseille is one of the city's most popular attractions, both for visitors and locals in the early winter. Some of the best permanent santons displays and shops in Provence are listed below. Click here for details of specific santons markets and fairs over the Christmas season.
The crèche provençale, or provençal crib, has been around for centuries, of course. But the significance of the santon (the word comes from santoùn, which means in provençal "little saint") began immediately after the French Revolution of 1789, when churches were forcibly closed and sacked, or converted for other purposes such as storehouses.
Large nativity scenes were prohibited too, and so these intimate, domestic cribs in private homes assumed a key role, especially in Marseille, in keeping alive religion and tradition (as well as resistance to the excesses of post-revolutionary fervour).
The extraordinary thing about them was that they did not only include the Holy Family, shepherds and Three Kings; the ordinary peasants of Provence were just as important. Some are seen paying tribute to Jesus; others carry on their everyday activities around the crib in a typically provençal landscape, featuring a mill, a school, a bar and so on.
You may find the odd topical, bizarre or irreverent figure in there too: click here to read about surprising santons and the related Christmas tradition of the pastorale, or Passion Play.
Characters like gypsies or Corsican bandits, that might normally be seen as outcasts or outsiders, rub shoulders with bakers, fishermen, musicians and dancers and boules and card players, as well as village dignitaries such as the mayor and the priest. It's a joyfully inclusive celebration and everyone is invited.
There will be regional variants too: go west of Marseille and you will find Arlésiennes, salt-flat workers and Camargue bulls; go north to see lavender sellers and truffle pigs. A regular feature is a ravi, or ravie (pictured above right), a man or woman, either a mystic or the village simpleton (very likely both at once), throwing up arms in a transport of delight.
They will move the figures around during Advent and Epiphany to illustrate the progress of the story, inching the Holy Family and the Three Kings towards the stable, and not adding the baby Jesus until midnight on Christmas Eve.
Note the empty pillow at the centre of this magical crib, left, photographed in Aix en Provence in the early evening of 24 December 2010.
New figures might be added year by year: a true provençal crib is never bought "ready made" but is constructed little by little. Thousands of permutations exist and no crib will look quite like any other.
Escoffier, a santonnier, or santon-maker, with a shop on Marseille's Old Port, sells some 250 different figures there and manufactures over a thousand types at the workshop in Aubagne; most santonniers develop new models on a regular basis.
HOW SANTONS ARE MADE
The patron saint of santonniers is Saint Francis of Assisi, who first began staging live nativity scenes in Italy in 1223 and, soon afterwards, Christmas cribs with model figures began appearing in churches.
But the man who shaped the santon as we know it now was Jean-Louis Lagnel (1764-1822) of Marseille, who previously had made figurines for the church cribs.
After the revolution, he decided to produce them for the general population. Rather than being reserved for the rich and privileged, a crib became within the reach of everyone.
They can range in size from 2cm to 15cm and come in two types: santons d'argile (figures made entirely of clay) and the slightly less common santons habillés (figures wearing cloth costumes, with hand-made accessories: baskets, fishing rods, etc). Ambitious crib designers deploy santons of several sizes in order to create the illusion of perspective.
WHERE TO BUY AND SEE SANTONS
The Insider has a vintage santon, dating from the 1980s, for sale! This sweet old provençal lady on her way to market is a santon habillé: in other words, all her clothes and accessories are hand-made in fabric and other materials rather than modelled in clay.
If you are in Provence, here are some of the museums and shops to visit; many are open all year round. Click here for details of specific santons markets and fairs over the Christmas season.
Aix-en-Provence: Santons Fouque, 65 Cours Gambetta, 13100 Aix. Tel: (+33) 4 42 26 33 38.
Arles: The Salon International des Santonniers, the largest event of its kind in France, is held here every December. Website for the Salon International des Santonniers.
Aubagne: Thanks to the quality of the local clay, Aubagne is a centre of ceramicists and santonniers. Year-round shops include Di Landro (which also has a small museum), 582 Avenue des Paluds, Z.I des Paluds, 13400 Aubagne. Tel: (+33) 4 42 70 95 65. On the outskirts of town is Le Moulin à Huile, 1280 RN26 Quartier Napollon, 13400 Aubagne. Tel: (+33) 4 42 03 81 03.
Avignon: Provençal cribs can readily be found in churches and public buildings again now and most cities will be fielding some splendid, elaborate and very large examples such as this one, a small section of which is pictured. It's designed by Marcel Carbonel Workshops for the Avignon Town Hall and on display over the Christmas and New Year period.
Les Baux de Provence: The Les Baux Santons Museum displays both traditional provençal crib figures and examples hailing from Naples, Italy. Certain santons are very large and the first room is dominated by a huge crib set against the looming cliffs of Les Baux de Provence.
The explanations are in English as well as French and some of the showcases are set low at children's-eye-level.Open all year round. Admission free.
Fontaine de Vaucluse: This small town east of Avignon has a Musée du Santon with over 2000 exhibits. Place de la Colonne, 84150 Fontaine de Vaucluse. Tel : (+33) 4 90 20 20 83.
Marseille: The city's first santons fair was held in 1803. Today, it opens every year in late November, to the sound of the tambourin (not a tambourine, but a long drum), and continues until 31 December, when a santonniers' mass is celebrated in provençal at the church of Saint-Vincent-de-Paul, at the top of the Canebière.
Out of season, you can visit the Musée du Santon, 49 rue neuve Sainte Catherine, 13007 Marseille, which is also the base and shop of the master-santonnier Marcel Carbonel. Tel: (+33) 4 91 13 61 36.
The Musée du Terroir marseillais in Château Gombert is dedicated to popular provençal arts and traditions and has an impressive collection of beautiful historic santons. 5 place des Héros, 13013 Marseille. Tel: (+33) 4 91 68 14 38. Other shops include Escoffier, 96 quai du Port, 13002 Marseille. Tel: (+33) 4 91 90 17 69.
Find further reading on Amazon: Santons de Provence by C Galtier and E Cattin.