Santons are hand-painted clay figurines, traditional to Provence. These small unassuming ornaments were first made during the time of the French Revolution and were a way of defying the government.
Santons (meaning ‘little saints’) are small figurines made of local Provençal clay from Marseille and Aubagne. When these figures were first made in the 18th century, the clay wasn’t fired and they weren’t called santons until 1826, as records show, but a tradition that started with just three market stall sellers in Marseille now includes hundreds of traditional craftsmen who make santons for many Provençal homes.
During the French Revolution, the government closed down churches and banned nativity scenes. Instead, people started making their own nativity scenes out of whatever they had to hand. In 1797 in Marseille, a man called Jean-Louis Lagnel started making small figures out of clay and selling them for an affordable price. People began to display their own nativity-type scenes at home. The santon became a form of political revolution.
You will find all of Provençal life depicted in the santons in people’s homes – everyone from the tinker, the tailor and the candlestick maker. Every kind of local, native animal are usually included, too. At Christmas, many towns such as Aix-en-Provence lay out huge santon nativity scenes in an enclosed log cabin for the whole of December for people to come and look at and spend hours looking to spot key tradespeople and villagers.
If you want to buy them, check out the Christmas markets in every major town in Provence. At other times of the year, you’ll be able to find them in specific santon shops or workshops. Many of these offer tours, notably in Aix-en-Provence and Marseille. In Marseille, the workshop of Marcel Carbonel showcases over 2,000 figurines that he devoted his life to making. In Aix, a visit to the workshop and factory called Santons Fouque is essential for every schoolkid in town. Alternatively, you can buy them online from Santons Didier.
Marcel Carbonel, 47 Rue Neuve Sainte-Catherine, 13007 Marseille, France, +33 4 91 54 26 58
Santons Fouque, 65 Cours Gambetta, 13100 Aix-en-Provence, France, +33 4 42 26 33 38
Santons are often laid out in elaborate settings as part of a wider scene | © Alexas Fotos / Pixabay