Christmas – Introduce the beloved European family tradition of collecting ‘Santons’ at Christmas!
Have you ever heard of ‘saints’? Well, they are great for Christmas collectors in Europe. Santon is derived from the word ‘santouon’ which means ‘little saint’. They are clay figures, hand-painted and about 70 millimeters high that represent French Provencal characters from the 19th century.
Many people have a real passion for collecting these figures. There are hundreds of different figures, animals and accessories to choose from. There are bakers, millers, fishermen, water carriers, and even bear trainers! It is popular for most families to add a piece or two each year to their home collections. The Santon collections are considered family heirlooms that are lovingly passed down from father to son through the generations. Every year, families enjoy the fun of choosing one or two new additions to their collections.
Santon making is said to have started as a popular act of resistance during the French Revolution to the closure of churches during this time. Nurseries were big business before the French Revolution and were displayed in churches where crowds flocked to view the elaborate designs. With churches closed, the people’s beloved nurseries were no longer available for public access. It was Jean-Louise Lagnel (1764-1822) of Marseilles who began making the beloved nativity scenes for people to buy and display in their own homes. Jean-Louise was in demand with his figures at affordable prices.
Jean-Louise Lagnel used fine clay from the province of Marseille and Aubagne. He used small molds and the casts were painted by hand. It didn’t take long for others to begin perfecting his technique. The figures were referred to as ‘nurseries for the people’. Soon, santon makers added local characters and trades that became popular. The santonmakers’ idea of using ordinary people from everyday life in their path to pay homage to the Holy Family became an instant hit. Later, santon fairs were held in all regions. Today the oldest and also the largest (founded in 1803) is still alive and popular today in Marseille. It is celebrated from Advent to Epiphany. It is an event that you cannot miss!
Still popular to this day is the art of making santon with workshops in many regions of Provence that visitors are welcome as workshop participants or to browse and shop. The same techniques that have been practiced for centuries are still practiced today. It’s a chance to see artwork in the making firsthand, as well as a chance to purchase figurines as treasured gifts or for the home.
Marcel Carbonel is recognized as one of the oldest and most famous Santon makers in Marseille in France today. Santon’s boutiques and workshops, including Marcel’s, are open year-round. You can even buy figurines online at most major workshop stores and boutiques at their online stores. Here are a few you can Google:
Santons in Marseille – Atelier Arterra, Cabanon des Accoules and Marcel Carbonel
Santons in Aubagne – Lei Santoun Castelin Peirano, Santons Magali. saints scaturro daniel
Santons in Aix en Provence – Santons Cavasse, Santons Fouque, Santons Jouve, Santons Richard
Unsurprisingly, santons don’t come cheap! Basically there are two styles:
1. Santons ‘d’argile’ which are hand-painted clay figures, in six different sizes (from one inch to six inches). These are the most popular for French collectors and especially in size 2.
2. ‘Clothed’ figurines resembling small cloth-clad dolls usually carrying everyday items such as baskets.
So why not introduce ‘santons’ to your family this festive season? They are an opportunity to participate in a much-loved tradition that could soon become a tradition for your family. Collect and have fun. Share stories and folktales related to the santons with your family and you too can enjoy this much-loved tradition today!