'Santons fair and santon-makers'

In Marseille

If you’re from Marseille, the ‘santon’ fair (Provencal nativity figures) is the not-to-be-missed outing of the festive season ! But if you don’t know it yet, let us explain to you what  this Provençal tradition is all about, which is passed down from generation to generation and brings hapiness to young and old alike every end of year!

Published on 30 November 2020

A piece of history

First santons in Marseille date back from the 12th century. These small sculpted figurines representing the Nativity used to stand in churches. A famous provençal expression says “stop standing still like a santon”. 

In 1223 appeared the first live cot in Italy with human characters on the will of St Francis of Assisi, thus introducing the tradition. Soon, the usage spred throughout the country and was later  introduced by Franciscan monks in Provence.

During the French Revolution, Nativity plays were forbidden in churches and the people of Provence recreated the scenes at home in privacy.

That is how the santon industry developped in 1789 with the creation of specific moulds. The mass production enabled each family to have their  own nativity scene for Christmas.

In the 19th century, the first santon-makers master appeared and enlarged the characters taking  inspiration from the everyday life. Marseille became, then, the capital of santons.

The city decided in 1803 to hold the first “santon” fair on « Cours St Louis », the largest and most  central alley of the time. Since then, they have been held in various squares downtown.

The “santon” fair today

Nowadays,  over 26 santon-makers participate in the fair, all of them respecting the traditional manufactoring process and  using Provençal clay.

The fair starts every year during the 2nd weekend of November and ends just after the 1st of January. A traditional mass is taken place in “St Vincent-de-Paul” church, followed by a costumed parade marching on with  Provencal folklore dancers  and a tamburine band.

Throughout the fair, numerous artistic activities and workshops are offered to the children.

This year more than ever, don't forget our santon makers and continue the tradition!

Did you know?

Originally the characters represented the nativity, then later characters from everyday life (the priest, the ravished, the fishmonger, the shepherd, …) appeared. Today new santons have appeared, we find Lino Ventura, Marcel Pagnol, Fernandel and this year a brand new one … Professor Raoult !

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