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Santons are a key to Provençal festivities

Nativity scenes are a combination of Christmas and everyday local life

Nativity scenes can be found in many Provençal homes during the Christmas season, paying homage not only to the nativity but also to local folklore. They are populated by small clay figures called santons, which are hand-made using traditional methods handed down through generations of families of craftsmen.The term santon derives from the provençal word santoun, which in turn comes from the Italian ‘santi belli’ meaning ‘little saints’.

Nativity scenes are said to date back to Francis of Assisi who used villagers and live animals to represent the Christmas story in the 12th century. After his death, the custom of placing crib scenes in homes at Christmas began to spread throughout Europe.

‘Little saints’ can now be found in various European countries, notably Spain and Italy. In Naples, there is an entire street dedicated to them.

In 18th-century France, santons took on an added significance. Midnight mass and nativity plays were banned during the 1789 revolution, and churches closed in 1794. Subsequently, little crib scenes began to pop up in church foyers and private homes.

In 1797, one of the most celebrated santon-makers, or santonniers, Jean-Louis Lagnel, began to add archetypes from Provençal folklore to his nativity scenes, launching a rich tradition of mixing the local with the Biblical.

Provençal scenes will often include such figures as the chestnut-seller, the blind man, the scissor-grinder, and the fish-wife.

Santons come in various sizes: the ‘puce’ measures between 1 and 3cm; the ‘cigale’ between 7 and 10cm, and the ‘grand santon’ stands at 20cm or more. This allows people to create perspective in their crib scenes, with little figures in the background and the larger ones in front.

Nativity scenes are traditionally installed in Provençal homes for the period from the feast of Sainte-Barbe on December 4, to the Epiphany on January 6. Building the scene often involves the entire family, and a range of materials, such as hillsides moulded from boxes covered in green cloth, paths traced out with sand, or a star suspended from on high.

Most of the santons are then installed before Christmas, with baby Jesus added on the night of December 24 when French families traditionally gather for a meal after midnight mass. The idea is to collect santons over time, embellishing the scene a little more each year.

Santons can be purchased all year round, but in the run-up to Christmas they can often be found on stalls in festive markets.

There are also several dedicated fairs for santons, notably in Marseille and Aix-en-Provence.

Provençal santons are made with local clay

The tradition of the santonnier is flourishing in Aix-en-Provence, home to the Maison Fouque. Founded in 1934 by Jean Baptiste Fouque, the business has been passed down through four generations to his grand-daughter Mireille Fouque and her son Emmanuel.

In 1952, the company achieved world renown with Paul Fouque’s ‘Coup de Mistral’ figure, a shepherd with a billowing cloak battling against the famously fierce Provençal wind.

All Maison Fouque’s santons are hand-made using local clay. Until 1990, the clay was refined in-house according to a traditional process: Emmanuel Fouque remembers his grandfather gathering clay from the foot of the Montagne Sainte-Victoire (an inspiration to Cézanne) near Aix.

However, changes to the law have meant that the company must now use pre-prepared local clay instead.

Each new santon will be created by a member of the Fouque family. “I have a new idea every day, so inspiration is not a problem,” said Emmanuel Fouque. “The real difficulty is selecting the ideas that are simple enough to work with using a single mould.”

Making the santons is a long and painstaking process. First, a two-piece plaster mould known as the ‘mother mould’ is taken of the original model, and a further mould of this is then made, called the ‘child mould’. This is used to make multiple replicas of the original santon.

Once each santon has been released from its mould, it takes between eight days and two months to dry. It is then fired in a clay oven at 960ºC, for nine hours. The fired clay figures are then left to cool inside the oven for 48 hours, before being hand-painted, with colours gradually layered from light to dark.

Each year, Maison Fouque adds as many as three new characters to its collection: this year, a pork butcher and a carpenter.

Emmanuel Fouque said he is particularly proud of the carpenter figure. He added: “He was so complicated that he took a week to create. His accessories are intricately detailed.”

Santons made by Maison Fouque are sold throughout France, and you can also visit the family’s workshop in Aix-en-Provence. Here, you can buy the entire collection of models, and you can also see an award-winning nativity scene which took Paul Fouque 1,000 hours to make.

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