Have you ever heard of santons’? 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 about 70 millimeter high representing 19th century French Provencal characters.

Many people have a real passion for collecting these figures. There are hundreds of different figures, animals and accessories from which to choose. There are bakers, millers, fishermen, water carriers and even bear trainers! It is popular for most families to add a piece or two every year to their home collections. Santon collections are considered family heirlooms which are passed down lovingly from parent to child through the generations. Each year families enjoy the fun of choosing a new addition or two for their collections.

Santon making is said to have began as a popular act of resistance during the French Revolution to the closing of churches during this time. Creches were before the French Revolution big business and were displayed in the churches where crowds flocked to view the elaborate designs. With the churches closed the people’s beloved creches were no longer available for public access. It was Jean-Louise Lagnel (1764-1822) from Marseilles who started to make the beloved creche figures for people to purchase for display in their own homes. Jean-Louise was in demand with his affordable priced figures.

Jean-Louise Lagnel used the province of Marseille’s and Aubagne’s fine clay. He used small moulds 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 trades which became popular. The santon makers idea of using ordinary people from every day life on their way to pay homage to the Holy Family became an instant hit. 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 very day is the art of santon making with workshops in many regions across Provence which visitors are welcomed as participants of workshops or to browse and purchase. The same techniques that have been practiced for centuries are still practiced today. It is an opportunity to see first hand works of art in the making as well as the opportunity to purchase santons as prized presents or for one’s home.

Marcel Carbonel is renowned as one of the oldest and most famous santon makers in Marseille in France today. Santon Boutiques and workshops including Marcel’s are open all year. You can even purchase santons online from most major workshop stores and boutiques in their online stores. Here are some you can Google:

Santons in Marseille – Atelier Arterra, Cabanon des Accoules and Marcel Carbonel