Santons: Our Role in Christ's Birth
CINCINNATIFor generations the usual American Christmas
Nativity scene has exhibited the Christ Child, the Virgin Mary, St. Joseph, the
three travel-weary wise men, shepherds and their sheep, an angel, an ox, an ass
and maybe a camel. But French Nöel crèches present a somewhat different, but
equally sacred, scene: The first family is still present, but gathered nearby
are not people of Jesus' day, but typical villagers of 18th- or 19th-century
France. These santons (literally "little saints,") are laborers, nobility,
religious and laypersonsall coming to pay their respects, bring gifts of their
labors and marvel at the Christmas miracle.
The rich history and the
tradition of santons are featured in the December cover story of St. Anthony
Messenger entitled "Santons and Their Christmas Lessons." Managing Editor
Barbara Beckwith delves into this charming French custom, which reminds us that
even 21st- century Christians can play a role in the Incarnation. After
November 22, the article can be found at: AmericanCatholic.org.
Existing as far back as the 13th
century, the santon tradition began with small figures of wood, wax or clay
that were traded around the Mediterranean. In 1803, French craftspeople started
a nativity fair at Marseilles to display and sell their work. The fair's
success inspired artisans to create more figures of everyday people included in
the Christmas story. Today, the fair has continued, with santon-artists setting
up booths every Advent through Epiphany. But santons are not merely a
merchandising success; they were a way of bringing religion home and keeping it alive in the wake of
the French Revolution of 1789, which banned midnight Christmas Masses and
outdoor Nativity scenes.
There are two types of Provençal santons: santons d'argile (hand-painted clay figures) and santons
habilles (figures dressed in real cloth and carrying actual baskets,
lavender, fishing nets, etc.).
The collection of
townspeoplesymbolizing our own active participationis but one of the many
appealing elements of this holiday tradition. The baker and the knitting
grandmother, the vegetable vendor and the Gypsy chicken thief can teach
Christians that language and culture may separate us, but a common need to
share in the miracle of Christ's birth binds us. "Santons idealize a pastoral
lifestyle and celebrate a particular slice of life," Beckwith writes. "But by
doing so, santons remind us that Jesus is born into every culture and every
time. Christmas is our story."
For many, the fact that real
people surround Jesus and his family reminds them that we are all threads in
the fabric of Christ's birth story. Such a modern touch is one reason why
santons have a place in the homes of millions.
Marcel Carbonel, who died in
2003, created hundreds of santons in his career and predicted that santons will
continue "as long as there remains a desire to put on stage those timeless,
mythical characters, symbols of dreams and mystery yet representing the
realities of everyday life."
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