Christmas in Provence and 'Santon' Figurines

Tradition

Publié le 12 February 2015 Mis à jour le 7 May 2018

From the decorated table to 'Santon' figurines, a Merry Christmas in Provence !

Provence is a land of traditions and even more so when Christmas comes around.
There's no snow in the countryside, but the sky is whisked clean by the Mistral wind and stars shine in the deep blue night. Christmas markets flourish virtually everywhere like in most regions, but it's only in Provence that you'll find the 'Gros Souper' (Christmas Eve dinner), '13 Desserts' and 'Santon' figurine markets.

Christmas in Provence

Christmas biscuits

We get ready for Christmas well in advance in Provence! It all begins with the harvest of autumn fruits to garnish the table…
The Christmas festivities per se kick off on December 4th, on Saint Barbara's day. We wake up the little 'Santon' figurines sleeping in their cardboard box and gather moss and twigs to garnish the crib scene. This is also when we plant 'Saint Barbara's wheat' to being us wealth and good fortune throughout the year.
Although the classic Christmas tree is now in vogue, it's also traditional to use a pine branch decorated with red and yellow ribbons – the colours of Provence.
To celebrate the start of winter, we light Saint John's fire on December 21st. On the 24th – the long-awaited Christmas Eve – we share the 'Gros Souper'. The table is laid with three white tablecloths, lit with 3 candles and decorated with our 3 pots of wheat. The meal is simple but fit for a king: fish (often cod) and vegetables, with an anchovy sauce. We finish up with the '13 Desserts', mainly the fruit harvested in autumn. The list can vary, but the first dessert is the 'Pompe à Huile' (perfumed bread made with olive oil). Then come the '4 Beggars': figs, raisins, almonds and walnuts, to which are added black nougat, white nougat, 'Calisson' candies from Aix-en-Provence, 'Navette' biscuits from Marseille, quince jelly, yellow melon and tangerines… all served with Christmas mulled wine. The Christmas festivities officially end on January 6th, with the arrival of the Three Kings on the Epiphany. And on Candlemas, on February 2nd, the little 'santon' figurines are returned to their box until next year…

But let's get back to the crib scene, the very symbol of Christmas in Provence! 'Santon' figurine making (the name 'santon' or 'santoun' means 'little saint) is a real art! I'm talking about the real 'Santon' – the 100 % hand-made in Provence one, sculpted and decorated by a master santon maker. The most reputed are 'Les Santons Fouque' in Aix-en-Provence, 'Carbonnel' in Marseille, 'Scaturro' in Aubagne and 'Vezolles' in Arles. You can meet with the craftsmen at their workshops or at the local santon fairs: the most famous is the one held on La Canebière in Marseille and dates back to 1803.
The genuine Provencal crib scene represents the village inhabitants set around the Holy Family, the donkey, ox, angel and holy star. It is completed with animals, the shepherd and his flock of sheep, the fishmonger, the miller, the 'ravi' (village idiot), the drummer and the farandole, in a typical Provencal décor consisting of houses, wells, a river, bridge, mill and cypress trees… The Provencal crib scene is a valuable object embellished over the years and handed down through the generations.

We love perpetuating traditions here in Provence. The crib scene is sometimes subject for debate, but what would Christmas in Provence be without it? Everyone is free to interpret it as they please - whether religious or pagan – and decorate it with the characters of their choice.

Christmas in Provence

The "Santons" are celebrating Christmas !

Lou Ravi (the village idiot) is the lucky charm of the crib scene…

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