Christmas in Provence: santons or santouns


Christmas in Provence: santons or santouns

At the bottom of the Christmas tree, have you started to assemble all the villagers to wait for the Holy Child to be born?

In our family, like in many other Provençal families, santons are a tradition that is still very alive. “Santoun” means “little saint” in Provençal.

With our grandparents, Henri and Ginette Fabre, we used to collect moss in the hills around Salon-de-Provence at the beginning of the month of December. We would use it to decorate the nativity, next to the fire place, a carpet for all the figurines in it.

It’s always with great joy that, every year, we take our children to visit santon fairs in the surrounding towns and villages, especially the Aix-en-Provence santon fair. As always, this weekend, the family will be choosing a few more figurines to liven up our Christmas village scene. Real santons are made of clay and hand painted. Often, you can buy them unpainted and our children absolutely love choosing one to paint as they like.

Apart from the well-known nativity characters that everyone knows, Mary and Joseph, Jesus, the ox and the ass, and the three kings, there are some particularly popular characters in the Provençal nativity: lou ravi (the ever joyful simpleton, his 2 arms up in the air), the old couple (side by side), the Gardian (Camargue rancher) and the Arlésienne lady in traditional Arles costume, the gypsy, the blind man and his son (guiding his father by the arm), the washerwoman (beating her linen to wash it) and the shepherd... All of these characters are arranged in a village made of moss, rivers and windmills... And every year it is improved and changed to the whims of the family. All these santons obviously include the Marseille soap seller and washerwoman.

Every year, these traditions wrap us all up in a magical world that is still as enthralling as ever. And that is probably why, generation after generation, the Fabres are all still children at heart.

Did you know that this year for the first time we contributed a little know-how to the making of an original kind of Marius Fabre nativity? We decided to become improvised santon makers by embossing nativity characters in our Marseille soaps. It was a huge success with visitors at our shop in Aix-en-Provence, looking at them with a smile. Perhaps you’ll find one next year at the bottom of your Christmas tree!

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