The Santons

A Provençal tradition

The Santons of Provence are a must when it comes to Christmas in Marseille. When December arrives in Provence, the tradition is to build the nativity scene. Indeed, these figurines of clay  populate the Christmas nativity scene. Much more than a simple custom, it is not  only a local art but also an integral part of Marseille and its  provençal land.

The history of Santons in Provence

Emblematic of Provence, the terracotta santon, born in Marseille at the end of the 18th century, is one of the rare craft objects still made in the respect of tradition. The real santon of Provence, made of uncooked clay, was created by  Jean-Louis Lagnel (1764-1822), noble descendant of his ancestors of bread, plaster, wax or spun glass, the manufacture of this figurine has been carried out until today, respecting a know-how where creation and workshop secrets have always been associated.

Who are the characters represented by the santons?

There is first the Holy Family (Joseph and Mary joined by Jesus-Christ on December 25), then the ox and the donkey who, as a symbol, in a stable, watch over the divine child who has been born. The three wise men are also represented, bearing gifts on the day of Epiphany. The angel Gabriel, the sheperd and his his sheep are also santons that are inevitably found in a christmas nativity scene. If the ten santons that have just mentioned constitute the base of the Provençal nursery, the Provençal people, in the same way as the people of Marseille do not lack ideas for a whole village to be built around the sacred stable.

As in any village, there is the mayor (Lou Conse in Provençal), proudly wearing the tricolor scarf, he is particularly well dressed, and always carrying his top hat and an umbrella.

Then, there is the blind man and his son, the couple of boumians (Bohemians), the famous valet called “Lou Pistachié” the priest, the monk, the tambourinaire and his farandole. This list is  obviously not exhaustive , since professions from  civilian  life professions are also represented : the baker, the butcher, the pizzaiolo, the footballer and many others…

One indispensable santon deserves special attention: ‘le ravi’ meaning ‘delighted’. “Lou ravi”(his provencal name)  represents the ‘fada’ meaning the ‘the fool” of the village  or rather the surprised one, his astonishment is marked by his arms raised in the air. He rejoices at the birth of the child, but as he is a rather poor man, he has nothing to offer but his joy and his smile. This character is at the origin of the expression ” ravi de la crèche” (delighted in the provencal Christmas  nativity  scene), which refers to a candid person, little marveling.

Who makes the santons?

The person who makes  santons is the  santon-maker. He is a true artist because he uses clay to create a multitude of characters with a lively appearance that take place in the cot. Carefulness and patience are two essential qualities for making beautiful pieces. The santon-maker’s imagination is very important, as the santons can also represent real people. There is, for example, a santon bearing the image of ‘Lino Ventura’ (famous dead french actor). Life scenes  from Marcel Pagnol’s novels are also depicted, such as the famous game of  ‘manila’ punctuated by a bit of cheating. The famous “Fanny” who presents her buttocks to the bowlers is also the subject of a santon.
Some santon-makers create animated nativity cots, like ‘Gilbert Orsini’ in ‘Allauch’. In its 100m2 cot, which is open for two months each year, visitors can admire a scene of life in a Provençal village performed  by 650 santons.
Today, from Marseille to Aix en Provence via Aubagne, there are about 120 santon workshops. Santons of various sizes are either sold already painted or to be painted. Many santon-makers open the doors of their workshops to the public to allow visitors to discover their art form , which is fully part of the local craft industry.
In the town of Aubagne, Marcel Pagnol’s ‘Little World’ presents a beautiful collection of 200 santons, works of santon-makers from the ‘Pays d’Aubagne et de l’Etoile’. The discovery of this vernacular heritage will delight all visitors, young and old alike, with a staging that combines old tradition  and modern technology (sound, lights, etc.).

The Santons Fair in Marseille

Its origins date back to the aftermath of the Revolution and make it the oldest santon fair in Provence.
Indeed, the Marseille tradition of the santons fair was born both from popular fervor for the celebration of the Nativity and from the appearance of this typical Provençal figurine that is the santon.

Bringing together some of the oldest families of santon-makers, it allows the amateur to get  varieties of santons from the rarest to the most original as well as old-fashioned christmas nativity scene made of cardboard, cork or glued paper. The Marseille santon fair begins every year on the last Sunday of November and ends on December 31. It is  inaugurated to the sound of tambourines and in the presence of folk groups after the mass of the santon-makers celebrated in Provençal in the church  ‘Eglise des Réformés’ at the top of ‘Canebiere’ . The santons fair is open from 10am to 7pm and is generally located around the Old Port (Place Général De Gaulle or Quai du Port depending on the year).

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