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November 15, 2004     512 Words

Santons: Our Role in Christ's Birth

CINCINNATI—For 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 laypersons—all 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:

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 townspeople—symbolizing our own active participation—is 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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