Santons fair and santon-makers

In Marseille

If you’re from Marseilles, the santons fair 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 which makes every end of the year the happiness of young and old alike !



Published on 30 November 2020

A piece of history

First santons in Marseille date back from the 12th c. These small sculpted figurines representing 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 his own nativity scene for Christmas.

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

The city decided in 1803 to held the first santon fair on « Cours St Louis », largest and central alley in those times. Since then, many places were chosen downtown.

The  Santons   fair today

Nowadays over 26 santon makers participate. All of them respecting the traditional manufactoring process using Provençal clay.

The fair starts every year during the 2nd weekend of November and ends just after the 1st of January. Its opening in St Vincent-de-Paul church, with a mass, is 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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