Monday December 09, 2013 | 10:32 AM

             Santons are literally “little saints”.

             They’re figurines that visit many traditional French Nativity displays. As a matter of fact, it makes sense for us to add santons to our home Nativity, as well.

A few years ago, my husband and I enjoyed visiting Les Baux, in Provence, France. This charming medieval town invites visitors on walking tours through its ancient streets to experience how people lived centuries ago.

Les Baux walking tour Provence France

One of the town’s cottage industries is the making and selling of santons. This industry involves a tradition of creating little saints figurines, crafted to resemble familiar people whose purposes are to add significant community individuals to la crèche, or the traditional Holy Nativity. In Les Baux, santons are made to honor nearly every profession or trade imaginable. Occupations like butchers, bakers, candlestick makers and dozens of other images are available.

Les Baux santons display

Santons shop display in Les Baux, Provence France

         Some families display their santons throughout the year.

         Santons enrich the Nativity because they add a particular emotion or point of view to the scene depicting the birth of Jesus. For example, a candle maker might represent “Christ the Light of the World”.

          Maine’s Roman Catholics, who are familiar with Franco-American parishes, will likely recognize “Santon”. Usually, the figure is a formally dressed man included among the statues in the traditional church Nativity, but he clearly doesn’t fit the Biblical scene. Sometimes, he’s depicted tipping his high hat to l‘enfant Jesus, lying in the manger.

          Santons are a tradition in southern France.

l'homme et la femme santons

Santons can be figurines in many shapes and varieties

          Barbara Beck reports in St. Anthony’s Messenger of evidence that santons existed in the 13th century France. They were sold in communities located along the banks of the Rhone River in Provence. Beck reports how santons became a way for the French people to bring religion back into their homes after the carnage of the 1789, French Revolution. Santons became additional Nativity characters in Marseilles in 1803, and the French have been developing their personalities in caricature figurines ever since. They’re sold at santons fairs, beginning in Advent. (www.americancatholic.org/Messenger/Dec2004/Feature1.asp)

         Every Nativity scene begins with the Holy Family. Therefore, the statues of the Virgin Mary, St. Joseph, Jesus, the Three Kings, shepherds and angels are not santons. Rather, santons are respectfully displayed images added to the Biblical scene. They can be a beloved relative or representative of neighbors who live in our communities. Indeed, they can even be statues of favorite saints. For example, since Saint Francis (1181-1226) is credited for developing the display of la crèche, he’s a good candidate to include among some of the Nativity’s santons.

          Although santons were not traditional in my husband’s Franco-American family, we’ve adopted the tradition because they add another meaningful layer to the Nativity.

          Santons became a family tradition after we saw them displayed in Nativity scenes in different Franco-American sanctuaries. St. John the Baptist Church in Brunswick is one among several that includes “Santon” in the Nativity.

          Children are particularly drawn to santons because they’re easily handled and can be moved around to help tell the story of the Nativity. Additionally, santons can be any figurine, not necessarily those made in Provence.

           Visiting Les Baux in Provence, one of the places where familiar santons are made, was an experience that connected us with the history of the tradition and its significance to French religious culture. They remind us how all people are invited to learn about the Nativity and the birth of Christianity.

           Our family’s Nativity santons represent our children, grandchildren and departed parents. We’ve designated them as such by adapting figurines to match those of la crèche on display.

           Information about la crèche and traditions about the Nativity are at the site Friends of the Creche  http://www.friendsofthecreche.org/about/ 

About this Blog

Juliana L’Heureux is a freelance writer whose articles about Maine’s Franco-American history and culture have appeared in Portland newspapers for 25 years. She serves on the Maine Franco-American Leadership Council.

Juliana and her husband Richard live in Topsham ME. Feel free to contact her at Juliana@mainewriter.com.

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