Photo by Tom Vogel
Santons are, literally, “little saints.” Part of a typical French Nöel crèche (Christmas Nativity scene), santons come in work clothes to visit the Holy Family. They bring the Christ Child presents they have made or grown, hunted or sold. They perform or offer simple gestures of thoughtfulness.
Santons may have inspired St. Francis to re-create the scene of Jesus’ birth at Greccio in 1223, usually given credit for ushering in the tradition of Christmas crèches. Some think that Lady Pica, Francis’ mother, may have brought an early Nativity set with her from Beaucaire (or Tarascon) in France when she married Lombard merchant Pietro and moved to Assisi.
Provençal santon figures are delightfully anachronistic: They do not portray people of Jesus’ day, but rather typical characters of an 18th- or 19th-century village in France.
The santon tradition began with small figures of wood or wax or clay that were traded around the Mediterranean, possibly originating in Naples (which went on to develop its presepios). Santons existed in the 13th century, in the provinces of the Midi and along the banks of the Rhône River. The French kept developing the figures in a unique way.
In 1803, French craftspeople started a Nativity fair at Marseilles to display and sell their work. The fair’s success spurred artisans to create more figures of ordinary people involved in the Christmas story, figures of local interest, with familiar faces and occupations. The fair has continued, with santon makers setting up stalls along the Canebière 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. When churches were being sacked, looted and closed, and Christmas Midnight Mass and outdoor Nativity scenes were banned, ordinary people began setting up crèches in their own homes, a tradition previously reserved for the rich. These displays became more and more elaborate, as the whole social structure of a Provençal village was recreated.
Typical of all crèches, a Provençal Nativity scene begins with the Holy Family (although the Virgin Mary, St. Joseph, Jesus, the Three Kings and the angels are not technically santons). Vierge Marie (Mary) wears blue and white garments as a symbol of her purity. Sant Jòusè (Joseph) is dressed in a traveling cloak and often carries a staff. Jésus, blond, fair-skinned and pink-cheeked, is wrapped in a simple piece of cloth and lying on straw, an image of innocence but also l’Enfant-roi (Child-King). (The whiteness of the child is not so much to designate his race as to denote his kingliness.)
The Rois Mages (the Three Wise Men) are powerful, wise and learned. Their robes may be decorated with the fleur-de-lis, a lily associated with royalty. The kings may be accompanied by a one-humped camel and a camel driver, the servant of the kings. The story goes that, after being baptized by St. Thomas, they returned to spread the gospel to their own people.
There are angels, of course. The standing angel gives the message of Jesus’ birth; the herald angel guides people to Jesus with his trumpet; cherubim watch over the newborn Jesus. The angels’ message comes not to the shepherds of Bethlehem but to the shepherds of Provence, depicted in various poses.
The pastor of St. Anthony of Padua Parish in Manchester, New Hampshire, Father Charles DesRuisseaux, has a santon collection displayed annually at the diocesan museum. He’s collected the stories that go with the figures. One concerns the shepherd Gabriel whose dog has just died. Gabriel thinks he is too sad to go to see the newborn Jesus, because “it would not be right to go to such a joyous event with tears in my eyes.” But then his dog gets up as if he had only been sleeping. Gabriel decides to give the dog to Jesus as a present, but Mary tells him, “No, thank you. Keep your beautiful dog. You need him more than we do. My Son will someday be a shepherd, too, a shepherd of people, and for that he does not need a dog.”
The shepherds summon all Provençal villagers. They bring their unique gifts to honor the newborn child: the baker (or his son) with typical Provençal breads like la banette and pain Calendal (a round country loaf marked with a cross and baked only at Christmastime), the vegetable merchant, the cheese vendor, the basket maker, the wine grower, the humble woman or man who brings only a bundle of sticks for a fire to keep the baby warm.
A poor old man, who thinks he has nothing to give the Baby, holds his lantern and offers to light the way for others. His gift of thoughtfulness and courtesy earns him a place in the scene.
Santons come from all occupations and show typical French customs: the fisherman with his nets and his wife who sells the fish and weighs them on her scales, a woman with a pot of snails (a traditional French delicacy) or another housewife fattening a goose for foie gras, the farmer and his pig with the long snout searching for truffles, the mayor in his frock coat, the midwife with her cradle, the parish priest (Monsieur le Curé) and the monk in cowled habit. All classes of society, all ages of people, are represented.
The grandmother is knitting socks for l’Enfant Jésus. The flower seller has a bouquet for Jesus. The woman with the chicken is offering it for soup, traditionally made for new mothers to recover their strength. The soap peddlers bring the Marseilles soap made of olive oil and soda ash; after their travels, the Holy Family would have appreciated soap. There is even a santon wet nurse for the Baby so that Mary can have a nap.
There’s a swarthy Gypsy woman who carries a baby and tambourine to provide music for Jesus, and a Gypsy man who brings his bear to perform. The fact that Gypsies, outsiders often despised as chicken thieves, were included in crèche scenes says something about even ordinary people realizing how far the Incarnation and redemption extend.
A legend recounted by Father DesRuisseaux involves the Gypsy Séraphin who hears the Angel Boufarèu (“Big Cheeks”) blow his trumpet to an-nounce that le Bon Dieu (the Good God) “has become a daddy.” For the first time in his life, Séraphin feels guilty for stealing. He tries to give Mary the stolen chicken and eggs, but Mary tells him, “I realize you have a big heart, but my Son would prefer that you give them back to their owner.” That story ends, “From that day, the Gypsy never stole again.”
Typical santon scenes include musicians and dancers who dance the farandole with joined hands.
The stories of some santon figures come from legends and plays. The old man (Roustido) heard the shepherds’ call late and tried to awaken his neighbors, Monsieur Jordan and Margarido (who rides a donkey). Roustido is doffing his nightcap in greeting to the Holy Family. A brave and simple farmhand (Pistachié) falls into a well trying to draw water for Margarido’s donkey.
A typical santon scene includes various animals beyond the traditional ox and the ass: sheepdogs with bells under their necks, as well as sheep; brown, gray and white goats, rabbits lying down or standing up, pigeons on the roof, and other barnyard animals.
Other regions of France, like Brittany, Normandy and Alsace, developed figures unique to them. (Catalonia, Spain, developed figures, too.) French immigrants to Québec, Canada, brought the santon tradition with them; the area around Charlevoix has developed santons of fur traders.
The ravi is an important Provençal santon, according to Betsy Christensen, an avid American santon collector from Ann Arbor, Michigan, who spent time in France when her husband was teaching there. The ravi or ravie is a man or woman in rapture, always portrayed with arms upraised.
There are also men and women on their knees praying. Such stories prompt us to ask, “What is my response to Jesus’ coming?”
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 and so on).
The clay figures come in six sizes (from one inch to six inches tall). The dressed figures range from six inches to 18 inches tall.
Nowadays, santons are never made of plastic, lead or plaster, but always clay. (The insistence on clay seems appropriate since Genesis 2:7 says that the Lord God used clay to form the first human. Was God a santon maker?) The clay for santons comes from quarries near Marseilles and Aubagne.
Molds are created from which between 200 and 1,000 copies can be made. Most contemporary santons are fired in kilns for 48 hours at 1,650° F. The subsequent painting is done in small quantities due to the drying time necessary between colors. A base coat is put on first, then all the greens, the blues and so on.
Santons are a natural way of doing catechesis with children, just as crib scenes are used by some American families. That the figures can be touched, dressed, decorated and loved like dolls is an advantage in teaching children. They are small and fit children’s hands. Having parents repeat year after year the legends about particular santons is a friendly way of teaching and makes the stories a beloved holiday tradition.
In November, Provençal families get the cardboard boxes with the figures out of the cupboard and begin to arrange the buildings, scenes and cast of characters. An expedition to the country to obtain new moss, leaves and bits of wood may be necessary. New figures may be purchased at the santon fairs—new ones are developed yearly. This year’s Christmas scene may need a pigeon roost or a bridge. Lots of imagination goes into arranging the scene.
In Woolwich, Maine, Betsy (who uses only her first name professionally) says that, before becoming the owner of Santons de France USA, her family had a santon tradition: “On Thanksgiving Eve we would gather our five children around a box filled with individually wrapped santon figures. Taking turns, each child would open the wrapping, revealing the figure, and place it around the stable. I highly recommend this enjoyable tradition. Watch their eyes light up when the lucky child opens the Baby Jesus.” This tradition is now in its fourth generation in her family.
During Advent the santon figures may be moved around a bit to convey that this is an ongoing story. Special Advent sets of Mary (astride a donkey) and Joseph with a walking staff can be moved closer to the stable each day. The Baby Jesus can be placed just before Christmas Midnight Mass. The Three Kings can draw nearer daily until they arrive on Epiphany.
This kind of ritual can prepare us for Christmas. “The santons provide the chance for ordinary folk to compose Nativity scenes akin to those previously reserved only for the rich,” according to The Little Dictionary of Santons de Provence, prepared by Marcel Carbonel’s studios.
Carbonel, who died in 2003 at the age of 93, created a hundred or more crib figures over 50 years. His company in Marseilles and that of Paul Fouque’s in Aix-en-Provence are the largest of the 60 santon-making companies in France.
Santons and their stories “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,” predicted Carbonel.
Santons underscore the fact that Jesus came to participate in our everyday life. That our God should worry about snails and garlic is part of the wondrous mystery of the Incarnation. And santons teach us that it is through our occupations and roles in life that we come to him and complete our redemption begun at Christmas.
Composing the Nativity story for ourselves and our families is the heart of the santon theology. We must tell the story of Jesus’ birth and life and death in the way we understand it. And we must put ourselves in the story because Jesus came to earth for us just as much as the first-century Holy Land residents.
According to Father DesRuisseaux, usually the parents in Provence conclude the santon stories told to their children this way: “After the people of Bethlehem had brought their best gifts to the Christ Child, in gratitude to the Good God who had made little miracles to better their lives, they were turned into statues. Now we take them out every year to display in our Nativity scenes to remind us that, on that first Christmas, the Good God gave us the best gift ever—his Son, Jesus Christ.”
Santons idealize a pastoral lifestyle and celebrate a particular slice of life. But by doing so, santons remind us that Jesus is born into every culture and every time. Christmas is our story and we, too, can be “little saints” coming to present our gifts to the Christ Child.
The national organization Friends of the Creche (www.udayton.edu/mary/gallery/creches/crechefriends.html) had presentations about santons at its 2002 meeting by Betsy Christensen and its 2003 convention by Father Charles DesRuisseaux. To join and/or sign up for their newsletter contained in the publication Creche Herald (www.op.net/~bocassoc), write: Editor Rita Bocher, Creche Herald, 117 Crosshill Road, Wynnewood, PA 19096-3511. Santon figures may be purchased through Santons de France, 127 River Road, Woolwich, ME 04579, e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.