The name Santons comes from the Provençal word “Santoun” which in turn comes from the Italian word “Santibelli”; meaning "little saints". And so it is to Italy that we must first go as it is here that Santons, and all the little Santons that followed, originated.
ccording to Santon history their origins go back to the first representation of the Nativity by St. Francis of Assisi when he recreated the first “live” nativity using real people and figurines. In 1223 in a cave in Greccio (south central Italy) he brought together several local villagers, an ass and an ox. There is conflicting data as to which wooden figurines represented the Holy Family, as accounts mention Baby Jesus as a real baby rather than a carved figure. After St. Francis’s death in 1226, the custom of having the crib at Christmas spread widely through Europe.
But in many ways it seems that it is the French Revolution that was the turning point in the creation of Santons. Prior to the Revolution parishioners re-enacted the nativity in the form of a play. The Church further encouraged them during the Council of Trent in the 16th century, to help combat Protestantism. But when the Revolution banned midnight mass and nativity plays in 1789 and churches were closed in 1794 private cribs took their place and were displayed inside homes instead.
In 1797, a Marseillais called Jean-Louis Lagnel (1764-1822) also known under the name of Agnel, conceived the idea of creating a number of Provençal Santons to add to the crèche. One of his moulds is still preserved in the Musée de Vieux Marseille along with a number of clay figurines. As time passed so more clay figurines were added to the crèche: representatives of the “Pastoral” – a small play performed in Provence at Christmas time. Thus were added a shepherd, the sleepy miller wearing his nightcap, the mayor, the woodcutter, the blind man and his son, the kindly bourgeois Roustido and his red umbrella, and the Bartomiou with his long cotton bonnet. The most famous play is still the “Pastoral Maurel” written for Christmas 1844 by Antoine Maurel.
The Making of Clay Santons
The moulds are made up using a model fashioned by means of chisel from clay. Once it has dried, this prototype gives birth to the master mould using a formwork process. The master mould is usually made from plaster, used to manufacture the pieces, and will make it possible to produce mass-production moulds. The clay employed is usually the fine quality red clay found around Aubagne and Salernes. Originally, the Santonnier would buy his clay in its natural state which was quite coarse. He would then have to sieve it, thin it down, put it out to dry and then turn it into a pliable paste and keep it supple and cool, wrapped up in damp cloths. Later, the clay was fired to make it stronger.
“Simple” Santons are the most widespread. Placed inside a two-piece plaster cast for a first manual pressing. the two halves are then brought together and usually tightened by a clamp. A system of keys ensures they marry exactly. When the clay starts to detach from the sides of the mould, the figurines are removed from the mould after an initial drying phase.
They are placed in the oven over two to three weeks later, and baked for approximately 10 hours at a temperature gradually increasing from zero to roughly 960 degrees. After cooling for approximately 6 hours, the Santonnier can then start colouring his little figurines. They are decorated in large groups following a clearly defined sequence: from top to bottom, starting with the lightest parts first and finishing with the darkest parts last.
Certain Santons carry accessories and these are moulded separately and attached to the body later with a liquid form of clay called “barbotine”. Although nowadays many santons are painted in bright colours and come in a variety of characters, those from Marseilles still represent traditional agricultural and fishing trades, dressed in winter garments and painted with natural pigments.
Santons come in a number of sizes; from the teeny-weeny ones called “Puces” (1 to 3 cm); to slightly bigger ones called “Cigales” (7 to 10 cm) and finally “Grand Santons” up to and over 20 cm in height. The different sizes were designed to help create an impression of depth: little Santons at the back of the nativity crèche, larger ones in front.
Foires aux Santons
Christmas celebrations or “Fêtes de Noël” are called “Calendales” in Provence and occur between 4 December (Sainte-Barbe) and 6 January (Epiphany). The first “Foire aux Santons” opened in Marseilles on 1 December 1803 along Cours Saint Louis with only three Santons makers setting out their figurines. It was a good many years later before Aix-en-Provence (1937) and Aubagne (1967) opened theirs.
Nowadays there are numerous Santons fairs all around the Côte d’Azur and Provence at Christmas time. Many say that the most beautiful Santons fair is in Aix-en-Provence, on Avenue Victor-Hugo. Aix is also home to renowned Master Santonnièrs : Jean-Baptiste, Paul and Mireille Fouque. Between them they have brought into being more than 2000 different models, constituting one of the most important collections in the world.
Then there is the Marseille fair, held along the Cannebière, and considered to be perhaps the best. It is also in Marseilles where you’ll find another renowned Master Santonnièr, Marcel Carbonel. Another apparently lovely fair, “Provence Prestige”, is in Arles at the Palais de Congrès and hosts the “Salon International des Santonniers d’Arles”. Held in the cloisters of Saint-Trophime you’ll discover Master Santonnièrs and a unique display of their art.
If you’re going to be here for just a little while during Christmas and can’t make it down to Provence, don’t worry. All the towns and villages along the Côte d’Azur have their own special fair which are fun to attend and where you’ll find a splendid selection of santons.
Originating in Italy too, these can be traced back to the 18th century. However, it is only in the middle of the 20th century that dressed Santons were made available to a wider audience and at affordable prices. Like clay santons, dressed Santons must represent the function of Provençal trades people from the 17th century and not the image of someone. Next, the Santon (and any accessories) must only be made out of clay, not plaster or epoxy, and moulded using a two-piece plaster cast.
A quality santon is made in one piece (except the arms) and not held together by any wires. The hands should be nicely shaped with well marked fingers and be the same colour as the face. The size of the Santon must be fives times the dimension of its head. Clothes must comply with provençal customs, hand stitched and not glued or pinned. There are many wonderful Santons creators but we personally feel that Lise Berger is the most remarkable and has created some truly exceptional ones. She lives and works in Roquevaire, in the region of Aix and was nominated “best worker in France” in 1979. She has created over 200 models and knows all the secrets of the art of modelling and distinguishes herself by her expertise in the making of costumes out of fabric.
Typical accessories are:
Taiole : a red, blue or grey ribbon wrapped three times around the waste.
Scarf : folded in a triangle, with three ends, the ends cross over in the front and are hidden by the apron; the third point of the scarf must not show beyond the waist.
Ladies Pantaloons : fitted above the calf and ending in a flounce.
Whatever your taste in Santons may be, you’re sure to find one that you’ll love. Owning a Santon is like having a little bit of French folklore and Provence in your home and something a little magical too.