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Christmas – Introduce the Beloved European Family Tradition of Collecting ‘Santons’ at Christmas!
Have you ever heard of ‘santon’? Well they are big for Christmas collectors in Europe. Santon is derived from the word “santouon” which means “little saint”. They are clay figures, hand painted and approximately 70 millimeters high representing French Provençal characters from the 19th century.
Many people have a real passion for collecting these figures. There are hundreds of different figures, animals and accessories to choose from. There are bakers, millers, fishermen, water carriers and even bear bearers! It is popular for most families to add a piece or two each year to their home collections. Santon collections are considered family heirlooms that are handed down lovingly from parent to child through the generations. Every year families enjoy the fun of choosing a new addition or two for their collections.
Santon creation is said to have started as a popular act of resistance during the French Revolution to the closing of churches during that time. Nurseries were big business before the French Revolution and were displayed in the churches where crowds gathered to view the elaborate designs. With the churches closed the people’s beloved nurseries were no longer available for public access. It was Jean-Louise Lagnel (1764-1822) from Marseille who began making the beloved nursery figures for people to buy to display in their own homes. Jean-Louise was in demand with her affordable priced figures.
Jean-Louise Lagnel used the fine clay of the province of Marseille and Aubagne. He used small molds and the casts were hand painted. It didn’t take long for others to start perfecting his technique. The figures were referred to as “creches for the people”. Soon santon makers added local characters and crafts that became popular. The idea of santon makers to use ordinary everyday people on the road to pay homage to the Holy Family became an instant success. Later santon fairs were held throughout regions. Today the oldest and also the largest (founded in 1803) is still alive and popular today in Marseille. It is held from Advent through to Epiphany. It is an event not to be missed!
Still popular to this day is the art of santon-making with workshops in many regions across Provence, which visitors are welcomed as workshop participants or to browse and shop. The same techniques that have been practiced for centuries are still practiced today. There is an opportunity to see first-hand works of art in the making as well as the opportunity to purchase santons as appreciated gifts or for one’s home.
Marcel Carbonel is famous as one of the oldest and most famous santon makers in Marseille in France today. Santon shops and workshops including Marcel’s are open year-round. You can even buy santons online from most major hardware stores and shops in their online stores. Here are a few you can Google:
Santons in Marseille – Atelier Arterra, Cabanon des Accoules and Marcel Carbonel
Santons in Aubagne – Lei Santoun Castelin Peirano, Santons Magali. Santos scaturro Daniel
Santons in Aix en Provence – Santons Cavasse, Santons Fouque, Santons Jouve, Santons Richard
As you would expect santon’s are not cheap! There are basically two styles:
1. Santons ‘d’argile’ which are hand painted clay figures, in six different sizes (from one inch to six inches). These are the most popular for French collectors and especially in size 2.
2. Santons ‘habilles’ which resemble small dolls dressed in cloth usually carrying everyday items such as baskets.
So why not introduce “santones” into your family this holiday season. They are an opportunity to participate in a much-loved tradition that could soon become a tradition for your family. Collect and have fun. Share stories and folktales related to the santons with your family and you too can enjoy this much-loved tradition today!
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