Saturday, November 26, 2016

Tis the season for Santons

You know I love santons, the hand-made clay figurines that depict the colorful people, traditional trades, activities and costumes of Provence. In Provence, they are set out at Christmas in a Provençal crèche (nativity scene). Up to now, as I told you here and here, the santons we own are on display all year long as decorations at our homes in Windsor, California and Sablet, France.

I have been talking to Shirley about buying santons for an authentic Provençal nativity scene for our home in Windsor, California. So when we are in Provence, I have been checking out every santonnier atelier (workshop) we pass and look at every display of santons we come across in local shops and I have been consulting an expert.

My expert is my own cousin Annick who lives near Aix-en-Provence. While she is not a santonnier (santon-maker), she knows a lot about how santons are made, their history, and who are the best santonniers in Provence. She and her daughter set up a beautiful Provençal crèche in their home every year. She says she owns at least 400 santons.

I have learned that the Provençal crèche have been around for centuries, but the importance of santons (the word comes from santoùn, which means in provençal "little saint") began immediately after the French Revolution in 1789. Churches at that time were forcibly closed or converted into other uses such as storehouses. Large nativity scenes were prohibited too, and so intimate nativity scenes in private homes assumed a key role in keeping alive religion and tradition.

Last summer, Shirley and I agreed that we would buy santons for a Provençal crèche when we returned to Sablet in October. So one Friday, we arranged with cousin Annick to rendezvous at one of the santonniers she likes at her workshop called Oustau d'Antan in a little village called Jonquerettes, about 15 miles east of Avignon.

Oustau d'Antan

Santons can range in size from 2cm to 15cm and come in two types: santons d'argile (figures made entirely of clay) and the slightly less common doll-like santons habillés (figures wearing cloth costumes, with hand-made accessories: baskets, fishing rods, etc).

The new collection for 2016 by Oustau d'Antan

Come November and December, the santon-makers present their new collections at santon fairs throughout Provence. It is the event of the year for all lovers of santons who come to add to their own collections, purchase gifts, or simply admire the santonniers handiwork and their colorful figurines.

Shirley, cousin Annick and I at the santonnier

The traditional crèche is composed of a cowshed, Mary, Joseph, baby Jesus (who is placed between his parents on December 24, at midnight), the donkey, and the ox who are warming Jesus with their breath, some shepherds with their sheep, then, at the epiphany, the 3 wise men. I should mention that when my French cousins saw my nativity scene on Thanksgiving Day, they immediately told me that it was too soon to have baby Jesus in the manger or the 3 wise men nearby.

The addition of figures representing country life and craftsmen drawn from a Provencal village of two centuries ago derived from the idea of Provencal inhabitants on their way to the Nativity. Some bear presents: the miller with his sack of flour, the poor old woman with nothing more than a bundle of sticks for the fire, a farmer's wife with a rabbit and a basket of fresh eggs. Others simply arrive: the mayor, the bandit, the street musician, even the parish priest.

Santons and accessories on sale at Oustau d'Antan

As the santonnier explained, when she makes a new figure, she works with a fine-pointed instrument, painstakingly modeling the face and clothing. When the clay piece finally meets her standards, which could take hours, she uses it to create a plaster mold. That original mold, in turn, will used to make figures which line the shelves of the workshop. To make the figures, she places a glob of clay between the two halves of a mold, squeezes them together and -- voila -- a wise man.

The wise man will spend about 12 hours in the workshop's kiln and then she will paint them. Then, the santons come alive as the vibrant colors are applied: Mary's red dress, the basket-maker's blue shirt, the orange tile rooftops of the villagers' homes.

The santonier of Oustau d'Antan showing us a special piece

The patron saint of santonniers is Saint Francis of Assisi, who first began staging nativity scenes with live models in Italy in 1223. Soon afterwards, Christmas crèche with model figures began appearing in churches.

Award winning collections by Oustau d'Antan

We were told that many of the artisans santonniers base their figures on the characters in a famous Christmas play written by Antoine Maurel -- the brigand, for example, who kidnapped the blind man's son; Roustido, who arrives late because he's hard of hearing; Pimpara, the knife grinder, who can always be counted on for a story.

Santons and accessories on sale at Oustau d'Antan

For parents and children, santons offer a chance to create their own Christmas world at home. Each year they add to their collection, choosing their favorite characters from among those offered for sale, buying houses, trees or windmills to provide a village setting.

Santons and accessories on sale at Oustau d'Antan

When we got to Oustau d'Antan, Annick was already there. She had with her a beautiful cowshed and a windmill (see below) she had handmade and painted for us as a gift to help us start our Christmas crèche.

The santons we already have are larger so-called "santons habillés" (figures wearing cloth costumes) which don't normally appear in nativity scenes. So we chose the more typical size of 7 cm or about 3 inches tall for the figures in our crèche.

The Holy Family in Annick's cowshed with the three wise men and shepherd with his flock of sheep

Village characters on their way to the Nativity

Village characters on their way to the Nativity with their gifts

More villagers with Annick's windmill

Most of these figures were bought at Oustau d'Antan. We added a few we found at a shop in the center of Vaison-la-Romaine which carries a nice collection of santons made by various santonniers from Provence. We will follow the tradition of adding a few new santons to our collection every year.

As you probably know, we have 5 curious and energetic grandchildren who range in age from 2 years to 10 years. So to protect our precious santons and cowshed and windmill, we set up our Christmas crèche on top of our fireplace mantle. This is not ideal so in the future when they all are a little older, we will set up in a more traditional place.

If you are around Windsor, please feel free to stop by and take a look at these beautiful handmade and painted figures from Provence. Happy Holidays everyone. Its the season for Santons.

Oustau d'Antan
220 Impasse des Alpilles
84450 Jonquerettes
Tel: 06 11 65 71 83

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