When lived in France everyone had their Christmas box filled with precious family Santons. Also known as santoun,” or “little saint”, these small hand-painted terracotta nativity scene figurines were produced in Provence but are now a widely accepted tradition throughout the country.
It is said that St Francis of Assisi was the first person to recreate the Nativity Scene in 1223 – only he used living people.
Making a crib scene caught on and figurines in general were produced for centuries (Louis XIV had several scaled models made of himself). But at the time of the French Revolution all such church-related frivolity was banned so it was a brave act when people started to make terracotta figures representing the Holy Family in secret at home.
These new versions were revolutionary in that they represented local townsfolk and ordinary workers going about their business, as if Jesus had been born in their local village. It kept the authorities off their back as they argued they were just a bit of fun for the children and, ironically, were actually very egalitarian in their inspiration. I love the range of local life represented – like this scene of the village potter below,
or this fishwife,
or these old men playing boules.
Santons today come in all sorts of grades from the finest work of craftsmen to roughly produced supermarket versions. They are all delightful and I recommend you look out for them on your travels – they can become a bit of a Christmas compulsion. I would love to see a British village version. Let me know if you come across one.