What’s so beguiling about santons? The small figurines are pleasing to hold, even in children’s hands. Hand-painted with exquisite details, santons breathe personality into a wide range of forms. Often they are passed from generation to generation and associated with holiday memories.
Santon is derived from santoùn, a Provençal word meaning “little saint.” The craft began during the French Revolution when churches were closed and public nativity displays were forbidden. An artist from Marseille, Jean-Louis Lagnel, came up with an ingenious solution: create miniature figurines—Mary, Joseph, the infant Jesus, animals in a manger—so that it’s possible to make a crèche inside the home.
The craft took off in popularity. Over the years, santons expanded beyond religious figures. They also portray ordinary tradespeople of Provence (lavender harvesters, bread bakers, fishermen, etc.) and other depictions that evoke village life in Provence such as truffle-sniffing pigs, olive trees, Camargue bulls, and so forth.
They range in size from 2-15 centimeters and are traditionally made of terra cotta (santons d’argile), although I’ve seen some carved from wood and adorned with cloth costumes (santons habillés).
Several cultures have notable traditions with figurines, but santons are specific to Provence. I learned about them when I visited a santon maker’s (santonnier’s) studio in Aix-en-Provence. At the Girault studio, and others like it, one can watch the santonnier give form to the figurines with meticulous care.
The shop is filled with armies of them frozen in mid-gesture as if waiting for the artist to snap his fingers or for a spark of imagination to catch and they’ll come to life. The molds and know-how for this craft are typically passed down within families. Artists who dedicate themselves to the painstaking labor are held in high regard.
Santons are one of my favorite souvenirs from Provence. They’re typical of the region and easy to transport. Plus there are thousands of variations. In my book Markets of Provence, I include santon fairs which coincide with les marchés de Noël, or Christmas markets, that take place throughout Provence in the weeks leading up to Christmas.
Marseille hosts one of the oldest (since 1803) and largest annual fairs for santons, La foire aux Santons de Marseille. There are also santon festivities in Aubagne (known for its clay), Arles, Aix-en-Provence, Avignon, and villages in the countryside. It’s possible to find santons at flea markets or by visiting a santonnier workshop at other times of year.
Friends from Provence who now live in the United States have brought the tradition with them. Their children eagerly await the moment when boxes filled with santons get pulled out of storage. They build the crèche and rearrange the display each day, advancing the Three Kings toward the stable to illustrate the progression of the nativity story.
When the family returns to Marseille during the holidays, a highpoint is going to the santon fair and picking out a new figurine to add to their collection. Last year they acquired Alphonse Daudet, a French novelist who was born in Nîmes and derived inspiration from the Provençal countryside.
My own santons stay perched on my window sill next to my writing desk. A buxom fisherman’s wife carries a basket filled with silvery sardines. A pétanque player concentrates on his next move in a game of boules. Paul Cézanne wears a white frock and stares at an imaginary canvas while gripping a paintbrush whose tip is already dabbed with blue. A woman in a bonnet and flowery scarf carries fresh produce to market. A village idiot raises his arms in unfettered delight. They’re my talismans. I rearrange them when I’m ready to write a new story.
Santon markets and festivities occur in November and December. Here are several places where you can find them:
In Marseille, La Foire aux Santons de Marseille
In Aubagne, the Biennale de l’Art Santonnier
In Aix-en-Provence, the Santons Fair
In Arles, the Salon des Santonniers
In Avignon, the crèche and santon-makers’ village at the Christmas Market
Here’s a listing of 2016 santon events in Provence, including Fontvieille, Carpentras, Ménerbes.
For more background on santon and Christmas markets, see blog posts from Marvellous Provence and Délices de Provence. There are museum exhibits of santons year-round in Marseille, Fontaine de Vaucluse, and Les Baux-de-Provence.