O’bon Paris team makes you discover a stunning tradition of Provence: the santons. We visited the ateliers of one of the most traditional Santon making family in France, Maison Fouque in Aix en Provence.
The Santons are a central element in the culture of Provence. It’s a tradition that dates back from the end of 18 century. During Christmas time, it’s frequent to display “Nativity Scenes” in Churches, made of big statues representing the birth of Jesus (celebrated on Christmas day, December 25th). But during the French Revolution most of the Church were closed: it is said that Santons were invented at that time. As the Christians of Provence could not go to church for Christmas time, they made terracotta figurines representing the characters of the nativity scene. The representation of the Nativity scene made of Santons is called “crèche”. For more than 200 years, all the family of Provence keeps this tradition to make a “Crèche” at home in December.
Crèche is prepared carefully in Provence by children as well as adults during the month of December. As background, people usually use colorful papers or elements that they pick up in nature (stones, wood, moss…). The small crèches display only a handful of santons, whereas in the biggest ones there can be hundreds of santons. In the Crèche, the santon representing baby Jesus is added on 24th at midnight: it symbolizes his birth. In the Christian tradition, it is said that 3 Magi visited the infant Jesus: The visit of the Magi is celebrated on January 6th (Epiphany). The 3 Magi santons are added to the crèche on that day. The crèche is usually displayed in the houses until mid-January.
The peoples of Provence have at home a lot of Santons, but they also buy new ones every year. Nowadays, in most of the cities of Provence, there are in December (until December 25th) “Santon Markets”. Artisans from all over Provence introduce and sell their creations. The price of a small size santons range from 8 euros to 20, but the big ones can be much more expensive (50 to hundreds of euros).
As we mentioned, the santons are part of the Catholic tradition. However, with time it became more cultural than religious. Indeed, the santons represent different characters of the Provence villages of the 19th century. Even if the Nativity Scene is supposed to take place in the Middle East (Bethlehem), the santons are all dressed up with traditional Provence outfits.
Moreover, even if there are religious characters (Angel Gabriel, Joseph, Mary…) most of the characters represent people of Provence: there is, for example, the miller carrying his sack of flour, the shepherds, the hunter, the bourgeois women from Arles, the lavender seller…. There are around 50 characters in the traditional crèche of Provence, but every year new santons are created and in santon shops, you can find hundreds of different characters, representing different kinds of peoples or animals.
The making of a santon is a labor of love. The traditional santons are all handmade and hand-painted. We visited the atelier of the most famous Santons making family in Aix en Provence, Fouque. For the Fouque, creating santons is a family business handed down from parents to children since 1934.
Santons are made of clay. They are molded in two halves pressed together. The plaster molds are all made from a first handmade model (new models are created every year). After being removed from the mold, santons are dried for several weeks before being fired in a traditional kiln. The heating is done gradually for nine hours, and the kiln remains closed for 48 hours to cool down gradually.
The last stage is the painting, which is a very meticulous and delicate process, as the santons are very small but have a lot of details on their outfits.
You can visit Fouque Atelier in Aix for free. They also organize some guided tours (minimum of 9 people, 3 euros each) and display a huge crèche exhibition. The atelier and the shop are opened all year long.
Author and photographs - Vincent Sacau
Address: Santons Fouque, 65 Cours Gambetta, 13100 Aix-en-Provence
Transportation: From Place de la Rotonde, you can take bus n°3 to the bus stop “Tour d’Aygosi”. From Aix city enter, it’s also walkable distance (around 15 minutes).
Opening hours: Monday to Saturday 10:00-18:00.