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 remains a popular attraction in the early winter, both for visitors and locals. Click here for details of santons markets and fairs over the Christmas season all over Provence. Some of the best permanent santons displays and shops in Provence are listed below.
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. Then 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 in keeping alive religion and tradition (as well as a resistance to France's excesses of post-revolutionary fervour).
The extraordinary thing about these cribs 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 typical provençal landscape, featuring olive trees, 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.
There's room in the provençal crib for characters like gypsies or Corsican bandits who might normally be seen as outcasts or outsiders. Here they rub shoulders with bakers, fishermen, musicians and dancers and pétanque 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 ), a man or woman, either a mystic or the village simpleton (very likely both at once), throwing up arms in a transport of delight.
When preparing their crib for Christmas, some families collect stones, moss, rocks and branches from the local countryside each year to embellish the setting.
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.
The baby Jesus isn't added until midnight on Christmas Eve. Note the empty pillow at the centre of this magical crib, which we photographed in Aix en Provence in the early evening of 24 December.
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. Ambitious crib designers deploy santons of several sizes in order to create the illusion of perspective.
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. 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 ordinary people. Rather than being reserved for the church or the rich and privileged, a crib became within the reach of everyone.
Instead of modelling each santon individually, Lagnel manufactured plaster moulds which enabled him to mass produce them. However, the santons were - and still are - hand-painted, which accounts for their relatively high cost. His techniques continue to influence santonniers.
Very early santons might have been made of wood or wax. Today they are made from the clay to be found in the areas around Marseille and Aubagne.
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).
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.
She carries a tiny wicker basket and is wearing a traditional cloth bonnet, a floral shawl, a brown bodice with lace cuffs, a striped apron over a patterned skirt and even a lace-trimmed petticoat. On the base is the signature of the santonnier: Marcel Carbonel, one of the oldest-established santon-makers in Marseille.
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 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 two thousand 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.