The Christmas Tradition Of Santons de Provence: A Unique Collection

My close friend, Laurie, who I have travelled with to France numerous times, shares her story about her introduction to the Christmas tradition of Santons de Provence. She was bequeathed a large collection by a close friend who died many few years ago. Here is her account.

Laurie’s Introduction To The Christmas Tradition Of Santons de Provence

Book: Little Saints Of Christmas The Santons of Provence

Years ago, a dear friend, named Donna, introduced me to the Provençal Christmas tradition of Santons.  In French, Santon (sounds like sonn-tonn) means “little saint”.  They are handmade representations of southern French villagers from the time after the French Revolution.  Along with the shepherds and wise men, they, too, came to the manger with their modest gifts for the baby Jesus.   

Donna was fascinated with Christmas lore and first read about these intriguing Santon figurines in a library book called Little Saints of Christmas – The Santons of Provence by Daniel J. Foley, Copyright 1959.  In 1991, when I was planning my first trip to France, Donna invited me to tea and shared what she had learned from the book.  Her wish was that I would buy her several specific santons, if I came across them in my travels, and, so, it became my mission to find these little figurines and learn more about this French custom.  

The History Of Santons

Part of Laurie's collection of Santons de Provence

In the 13th century, Francis of Asisisi was attributed to being the first to celebrate midnight mass with live actors and animals portraying a crib (nativity) scene. 

During the French Revolution, churches were closed and the French people were banned from celebrating religious holidays.  As a way of rebelling, families began to display individual nativity scenes or cribs (crèches) in their homes.  These cribs included local people like the odd job man, wine seller, baker, musicians, and the Mayor to name only a few.  All these familiar characters wore the dress of Provençal and Marseille society at the time of the Revolution.

From my research, I learned that in 1797, in Marseille, a man named Jean-Louis Lagnel (1764-1822) started making small figures out of clay and selling them at affordable prices.  

How Are Les Santons de Provence Made?

Showing the relative size of santons

Santons are still made by hand using traditional methods. They are made using clay from Aubagne, Aix, and Marseille.  A model of a specific figurine is crafted completely by hand.  From this model, a mold is made and is used to make subsequent santons.  Once out of the mold, the santons are then hand-painted. 

The techniques used today have not changed from those used at the start of the 19th century by Lagnel.  

These little statuettes vary in size from the tiny puce, or flea market size, to the striking figures dressed in fabrics that measure 15-18 inches tall.  All are remarkable for their detail.

It was interesting to learn that many of the santons, regardless of the creator, have the same characteristics, ‘story’, and costume.  

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Favourite Santon Crib Characters

On one of my trips to France, I was able to purchase the “Petit dictionnaire des santons de Provence” from the Ateliers Marcel Carbonel (one of the most famous santon workshops) and I have paraphrased the descriptions of some of my favourite crib characters from this little dictionary. Merci M Carbonel!

1. Crib Scene With Baby Jesus

Santon crib scene with baby Jesus

ANE (Ass)

In the stable scene, you will often find an “ane”, or ass. He was there to keep the newborn baby warm.

Note:  I learned that many families follow the tradition of setting up their crib scenes before Christmas, but do not place the newborn baby Jesus in the crib until after Christmas Eve mass.  The baby is, then, positioned between the ox and the ass.

2. Four Provençal Santons And Their Stories

Santons: Bartholomew, couple with an umbrella, woman with a stove, and a man with a goose.

(a) BARTOUIMIEU (Bartholomew)

Bartouimieu. or Bartholomew, was the innkeeper who, shall we say, “liked the bottle”. Here he carries dried cod for the Provencal dish, l’aiöli as well as two big baskets of food. He is often the character that brings some humour to the scene. As an example, he dressed in a hurry, not noticing that the buttons on his shirt weren’t done up right.

(b) COUPLE AU PARAPLUIE (Couple with an umbrella)

Here’s our middle-class couple, dressed in their Sunday best. They bring along wine and ‘fougasse’ that she has made with orange blossom essence. The big red umbrella shelters them from the Provencal sun and heat and it is said this is a sign that they are not only prosperous but also well respected.

(c) FEMME AU FOURNEAU (Woman with a stove)

Here is a woman with a stove that she carries on her head. It is filled with hot coals for heating up soup or stew that she hopes to sell to passersby. She also carries a bellow to keep her fire burning.

(d) HOMME A L’OIE (Man with a goose)

This man with a goose in a basket is dressed for the Christmas festivities. He wears a “big, blue peasant smock (la Blodo), a knotted handkerchief around his neck, and a broad-brimmed hat”.

Where Can You Buy Santons?

Santon booklets and showing the imprints on the bottom of the santons

There are many santon de Provence ateliers in France and I have purchased some of mine from Ateliers Marcel Carbonel, Santons Fouque in Aix-en-Provence, and Maison Chave in Aubagne, France. 

Several years ago, I purchased the central crib figurines, crafted by Santons Richard (in Aix, France), from L’Esprit Provence in Niagara-on-the-Lake (Canada).  There is still a store called Serendipity, The Little French Shoppe at this location, but, they no longer carry these little saints.

Every year, there is a santon fair, in Marseille, from the second weekend in November until just after the first of January. 

If you visit the websites of some of the most famous santon makers such as Santons Marcel Carbonel, Santons Fouque, and Santons Richard, you can view the santons that are available to purchase online.  The majority of my santons are 7 cm (just under 3 inches) tall. I was able to find a wide selection of 7 cm and 9 cm figurines on the Santons Richard website with prices starting at 11.50 euros (approx. $16.50 in Canadian dollars).

There are also websites where vintage santons, from the 1980s and 1990s, are being offered for resale.

Final Thoughts

It was 30 years ago when I first learned about this Provençal tradition.  Over the years, Donna and I would meet, before I travelled to France, and she would present me with a list of the santons that she fancied.  She’d tell me the characters’ stories and why she wanted to add them to her ‘crib’.  In 2008, Donna passed away and I inherited her beloved santons.  Our collection now numbers over 50 one-of-a-kind “little saints” and, each year, at Christmas, I look forward to creating my own miniature world in the crib that my dad made.

Santon camel

Many thanks to Laurie not only for her story but also for the camel santon she gave me!

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Christmas tradition of Santons de Provence

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  1. Dear Jan,
    This post is delightful. I loved reading about Santons de Provence.
    Thank you for sharing this beautiful story. Any website addresses
    would be greatly appreciated. Your newsletters bring great me such
    joy. Joyeux Noel!

    1. Many thanks. My friend’s story is beautiful indeed. Certainly one website to check out is marcelcarbonel (dot) com.

  2. What a lovely story.. I never knew the background about these little clay figures that many French families take out and display before Christmas. This post made me want to collect each figure one by one! Thank you always for your very informative and interesting posts. Do you know if these Santon figures are easily available outside Provence in France as well?

    1. Thank you so much. I had also heard that “supposedly” each figurine represents a “real” person. But I’m sure. I don’t know how easily available the Santons are. While you can find them on Amazon, I’m always a bit wary. I did check Marcel Carbonel’s site and they do ship…with a minimum order and a slightly high shipping price—about 30 € or more.

  3. Helen L Talley-McRae says:

    Hi Jan! I always enjoy reading your posts about France. Thank you for sharing your friend’s story about Santons. My mother was born in Paris in 1932 and her family spent summers in Provence before WWII. I have inherited her small 1930’s vintage Santons crib set which also includes the ass, ox, and several sheep, a shepherd and three wise men. We still store them in the original card box that has a bed of excelsior for padding – all very similar to the photo (1) in the post. I am planning my first visit to Provence in September 2022 and will look for an angel Santon to add to my dear mother’s set. Merci et Joueux Noel! Helen, Decatur, Georgia, US

    1. Many thanks for your kind comment. You inherited a collection too! How cool…especially that crib set. What a lovely memory and keepsake. Hopefully you won’t have any problem finding the angel. Joyeux Noel to you too!