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12 December, 2008

My French Nativity Scene...or...Santons de Provence

I want to share with you my favorite purchase during my retirement trip to France last crèche, or nativity scene. I promised myself that this was the one thing I would bring back from Provence. That area of France is known for its santons or little saints. They are clay figures representing the Holy Family and all of the accompanying visitors to the Nativity. Now you might see some that you don't recognize. I will explain....

I was fortunate enough to visit the santon museum in Fontaine de Vaucluse, France. Santons as they exist today have a long history. They became very important during the French Revolution, when most of the churches were closed and were being used as stables and munitions depots. The people in the countryside held secret church services in their homes and made little nativity figures out of the local clay to keep Christmas traditions alive. See the painting I'm standing beside? Remember the figure depicted there. You will see more of him later.

This is a beautiful example of one such crèche. It is a more traditional nativity scene such as we are accustomed to seeing here. Remember that you can click on any photo to enlarge it.

This, on the other hand, is a crèche absolutely filled with figures that we as Americans cannot recognize! The santons of Provence include not only the Holy Family, the Magi and the shepherds, but the whole village who has come to worship the Baby Jesus! Notice that they are dressed in the typical costumes of the 1700's.

I found my santons in a lovely little shop in Old Nice. You can see the figures on the shelf behind me. The most well-known santons are created in Marseilles and Aubagne and then sold in shops around the South of France. There are two kinds: the santons d'argile which are hand-painted clay such as you see in the background....

...and the santons habillés which are dressed in cloth and have miniature implements. These are much larger and are not generally seen in the family nativity scene.

These are my santons. The actual manger was purchased here because I had to hand carry them home on the plane and could only take so much! They are Santons Didier from Marseilles. Click here to access his web site and to see  the large number of santons that exist. Also, if you click on the little picture it will enlarge and give the name of the santon. It is all in French, but I think you can see from the pictures what they are called...woman gathering firewood, man cutting lavender, etc. They are simple people from the village performing what would have been common labor at the time. Scroll all the way to the bottom and you can see what the provençal manger looks's made of stone!

This is, of course, the Holy Family. These santons are made in molds from the clay of Marseilles and then fired in a kiln at 1650 degrees for 48 hours. They are then individually hand painted. The size that I chose is 7 cm or about 3 inches tall.

Look at the detail. The Baby Jesus has rosy red cheeks! Look at the tiny eyebrows!

I love Mary's robes! And doesn't she have an adoring, motherly expression?

Joseph has such a kind face. Look at his little staff! It's a tiny piece of wood!

Look at the feathers on the angel's wings. I love the robe.

Isn't the donkey just looking straight at you?

You can almost feel the ox's breath!

Here are the Magi or Three Wisemen.

Of course their robes are much more magnificent! Look at the tiny cord between the two clasps and his striped sash. The detail on the gift is incredible! Look at his hair...realistic, isn't it? Keep in mind that he is 3 inches tall!

Here is another of the Magi. He has a tiny beard. Once again...incredible detail in the clothing. Remember that this is all individually hand-painted.

And the third of the Magi... Have you noticed the gold trim at the bottom of each of the robes? can see inside his sleeves. Amazing, isn't it?

This is, of course, the shepherd and his flock. Remember the painting at the museum? This is that figure...the Mistral. I have to say that he is my favorite.

He is called the Mistral because that is the name of a very strong winter wind that blows in France. See how he's holding on to his hat to keep it from blowing off? His staff is also a tiny piece of wood.

Here is his sheep. Do you see his woolly coat? Look at his tiny hooves!! Those of you who know me know I love this little fellow! Just look at that little face! Doesn't he just look like he's headed for trouble? Look at his little cute! He even has tiny eyelashes! Do you see? When I told the lady in the store that I just wanted a goat and no sheep, she was very upset. That was just not natural...a shepherd with no sheep. So I bought the one you just saw...but I love the goat best!

Here is where we encounter figures that we don't recognize. I wanted to add two of the traditional figures from Provence to my nativity scene. This one is the Niçoise...the woman from Nice. She is wearing the typical provincial dress of that region. Look at her flowers! The detail is amazing! I bought her because I was in Nice when I purchased my santons.

The lady in the shop suggested this one as my second figure from Provence...le Ravi...or the simpleminded man. He is the first villager to see the Baby Jesus and is proclaiming the news to the rest of the village. And from what I have read, she was absolutely right. He is considered first among the essential members of the village santons. He is usually depicted with his arms raised in delight. I hope to be able to add to my collection. The man with the bundle of firewood will probably be my next acquisition. Did you look at the others? What do you think?

Thank you for visiting my santons de Provence and for allowing the French teacher in me to give you a little lesson! Joyeux Noel! Merry Christmas!
I am joining Lynn at Happier than a Pig in Mud for her Reason for the Season Party! Please head on over to see a beautiful collection of nativities!


  1. :) :) How are you?
    I don't mind at all about Ms Lucy...she was at times in such trouble it was indeed painful..thank goodness fro Ricky or it is hard to tell where she would have been!

    Now to your blog post! Oh I can see why you are in love :) And the goat is so sweet...I really like the Mother Mary...the tilt of her head is just so like a mom.... :) But how can one choose!? I know you will be thrilled to keep adding to your lovely collection! MMm wonder if the little mad will have real wood (a la miniature?)

  2. Love your treasures...I think you need to go back to France & bring back some more for next year's Christmas post! Wouldn't that be fun?

  3. What a wonderful collection you have Debbie. I know you'll enjoy adding to your beautiful collection.. The story along with the beautiful pictures moved me to tears..I think my favorite is the Sheperd as well.. You can look into his eyse and find such peace..thanks for sharing one of the true moments of the season...hugs ~lynne~

  4. Good morning Debbie! I love this post! What a great story and I love the pics of you shopping in France. Each time you post one of your France adventures I wanna cry b/c I miss Europe so much. Did you ever get to Normandy and visit all the beaches and the museums? It really put into light what those poor men had to deal with during the war. Sorry to get off base - see how you make me reminisce? Have a great day...Barb

  5. Thank you so much for sharing the crèches and the santons. They are enchanting. Your trip to France must have been wonderful. Lovely post.

  6. Oh Debbie, what a delightful tour. You always make it so real that I feel like I was right there with you. All the figures are just wonderful and the detail is incredible. I don't know how you would ever pick a real favorite. There are so many figures to choose from that I'd be there for days trying to decide. I really loved the tour. Thanks Hugs, Marty

  7. lst comment didn't take, so here goes again. I loved the tour. You make it so real that I always feel like I'm right there with you. All of the figures have such incredible detail. I can't imagine painting something so small and intricate. There are so many figures to choose from it would be hard to pick a favorite or even make a final selection. You could spend days in that shop. Such great fun. Thanks Hugs, Marty

  8. This is so lovely!
    The detail is just incredible. :)

  9. Debbie, oh how lovely! Why is it that the French do everything with such charm and beauty? It's wonderful, and I know you will enjoy it for years to come. I love the villager tradition you mentioned, I'm crazy about le Ravi, the simpleminded man, proclaiming the good news. Paul said that the Lord sent the Gospel in such a way as to confound the wise. It takes a simple faith to believe. :-)

    A neighbor near our place in St. Augustine sells creches from Spain. Last year, she made a whole nativity scene (backdrop) for one of her creches for the Cathedral there. It was amazing. I have a teeny, tiny creche, but I collect the sheep from other creche sets that have gone astray. If you have sheep missing, you'll know where they wandered. ;-)

    Love to you, Debbie...


    Mrs. Magpie

  10. Debbie, this is delightful! I loved seeing the pictures of your beautiful Santos, and I loved getting the French lesson. I enlarged most of your pictures just so I could better see the wonderful details. This was such a smart thing for you to purchase--somethig you'll treasure forever, and your children and grandchildren after you. I love it! laurie

  11. It is so wonderful to see how another country celebrates the things I grew up with. It reflects the perspective of that region of the world. No day is a total loss when you learn something new. Today is not a loss. Thank you for educating us on another way of looking at things.

  12. Oh, Debbie, I just gobbled this us. I have such a weakness for European history (of course, it's England first, the continent second, lol). PLUS I love nativity scenes. All summer and fall I've been reading nonfiction about the Albigensian Crusade/s, and I am just crazy to get back there to poke around the Languedoc. Someone very dear to me just returned. The details on the figures are extraordinary, and I loved learning about the history behind them.
    Tres magnifique!

  13. My first comment disappeared so I'll try again. I appreciate you educating us on the ways things are done in another country, in comparison to the way we were reared.
    I have always heard, no day is a total loss if you learn something new. Today is not a loss, as I have gained a new perspective on the way another culture displays the nativity.

  14. Your Nativity from France is beautiful Debbie! Thank you so much for your lesson about the history, I always enjoy learning new & interesting things.

  15. Hi Debbie, I really enjoyed your post today and your explanations. Just yesterday we bought ANOTHER Nativity set...I'll be doing a post about it when we get some photos... Don't you just love all the details! ;-) Bo

  16. What a wonderful post. The santons are gorgeous and I always love learning something new. The detail on the figurines is amazing. Thanks for sharing more of your travels and collections. Kathy (love the music too)

  17. Love, love, love them all, Debbie. And those on the website as well. So beautifully painted and interesting. What a true treasure!

  18. I just love your Nativity and how special that you brought it from France. Beautiful and unusual!...Christine

  19. What a beautiful memory of your retirement visit to France. It must have been a lovely experience to have lived there! Your Nativity is a reminder of what Christmas is really all about. Thanks for sharing. Joyeux Noel

  20. Oh Debbie this is so special and so wonderful. I did feel like I had taken wing and joined you walking through those beautiful streets, gazing, and deciding which of these precious things were coming home with us. Thank-you for sharing this it really touched my heart. Cindy J.

  21. Hi Glenda...Thanks so much for visiting my nativity scene. You always leave such thoughtful comments!...Debbie

  22. Hi Cindy...So nice to see your name on my blog! Thanks for the sweet comment...Debbie

  23. Hi, Debbie. I'd love to go back to France--we used to go all the time (but mainly I was stuck on England); but now, I don't know if we will ever leave this farm for more than 2 seconds. We were down at the barn tonight, trying to catch one of the roosters--he'd gotten loose, and we were afraid the fox would get him. Always something on a farm (and we are city slickers--it's Green Acres redux, with the Yorkies, too). :-) Thanks for your sweet comments on my blog.

  24. Thanks for sharing the crèches and the santons. It looks like your trip was great. France is so fabulous. I've been to Paris and Nice and thought it was fantastic. I just can't wait to go back. Everyone should go at least once.

  25. Debbie,Thank you for another trip to France.What a beautiful piece to bring home as a wonderful memory of your trip and a piece that you will always hold dear.I loved the history lesson and the art lesson,You make everything so interesting.It truly is like we got to go with you, thank you so much for sharing with all of us, Hugs Kathysue

  26. deb,what an awesome is just gorgeous.....and as for paper dolls?they're still out there.little girls just don't particularly like them.i loved katy keene.she was in a funny book.i bought some from ebay.but if you can't sit down and play.the thrill is gone.ha...ann

  27. Good morning Debbie, thanks so much for swinging by and for leaving such kind comments. The pinecones do hold alot of memories. Dh wasn't too fond of picking them all up but he sure enjoys them'm glad I got another chance to swing by another reminder I have another Nativity to get Be sure to take lots of pictures tomorrow. I know you're going to have a "great" time. Take a picture of you and Maxx together if he decides to come out...give Susan a hug from me...Did you purchase any more dishes on your outing yesterday? :-)
    Have a super day my friend..hugs ~lynne~

  28. Hi Debbie!! I love your blog! I really enjoyed the history lesson and your nativity set is just beautiful! Hope you're having a great weekend! Laura

  29. I enjoyed reading your post and seeing your creche. The figures are beautifully formed and painted.
    My santons habilles are by Claude Carbonel and I have not found an angel figure for my aprox. 12-inch tall set. Maybe I will have to settle for one from a different maker.
    Again thanks for sharing about santons,

  30. HI DEBBIE,


  31. Debbie, It is always a delight to visit your blog. Thank you for sharing your creche and santons with us. I love that you brough this back from France! Joyeux Noel to you as well!

  32. So Precious, Love your post made me feel like we were shopping together!


  33. How awesome is that!! Your nativity set is so beautiful. I have never traveled abroad. Maybe someday. Have a great night!! Hugs, Terrie


Thanks so much for stopping by and taking the time to comment! I appreciate my wonderful readers!... Debbie