"Santons" are a tradition from Provence and ours come from various trips there over the years. The idea of such figures began in Italy, I think, where St Francis of Assisi started the tradition of setting up Christmas crib scenes. It was taken up assiduously in France, particularly in the south, in the 18th C, during the Revolution, when it was forbidden to celebrate Christmas in churches and people set up tableaux representing the Christmas story in their own homes instead.
Along with the principal players, Mary and Joseph, the baby Jesus, the shepherds and three kings, people wanted to personalise the scenes and include the folk, not just of Bethlehem in the 1st C, but representatives of those they saw around them every day, with whom they lived and worked.
So, in a traditional set of santons, you will find, along with the standard male shepherds, the shepherdess like Marcel Pagnol's "Manon", in "Manon des Sources", the "bûcheron" or woodcutter with his packed lunch tied up in a spotty handkerchief and a bundle of wood on his shoulder, the melon-seller with his basket of rosy, orange-fleshed melons (from the local, melon-growing centre in Cavaillon, of course!), "la marchande de limaçons", the woman who sells freshly-cooked, Provençal snails from a tureen with a ladle, "la gitâne", the gipsy woman, with a tambourine and a baby of her own on her back, the lavender-seller with her apron filled with bunches of the dried scented flowers, from the blue summer fields of Provence, that stretch out far and wide below the peak of Mt Ventoux.
You will find the shepherd's wife, complete with her half-spun spindle of wool. The traditional ox and ass are joined by a cockerel, a hen and chickens and a wild boar from the slopes of Les Alpilles. The camel, of course, is there but you might also meet an elephant and also the camel boy who looked after the animals en route because how else did they travel in reality?! You will meet the woman with a basket of new-laid eggs and the man with a hamper of poultry on his head. An old woman with a broom joins the throng, (like the Russian babushka), busy with her sweeping, but intrigued by all the excitement to come and see what's afoot for herself.
My favourite of all, I think is "le ravi" - "le ravi" is the Charismatic, the one who is ecstatically filled with joy at the arrival of the baby Jesus and who holds up his arms in an attitude of praise and wonder, overcome by the enormity of God arriving among humanity.
As with icons, which are "written" (never drawn or painted, strictly speaking) according to a set of rules, while allowing for each iconographer's interpretation, but in a strictly limited way, traditional santons have a prescribed form and traditional colouring. They come in various sizes and may be made of various materials but are most often made out of clay or wood. Mine are clay. The carefully moulded figures are shaped in special moulds, touched up by hand, biscuit-fired and then painted. A traditional maker of santons is known as a "santonnier" and there are some very skilled ones. My santons, are quite small, the larger upright ones each measure only about 7cm high. They have been collected over a period of about twenty five years and all come from the same santonnier workshop in Graveson, a little village near St Rémy de Provence. The workshop is, (or was), run by a lovely and very gifted husband and wife team, M et Mme Rozier. It was still in business when I was last there a few years ago but it doesn't have a website or anything that I can give you a link to.
When H was small, he was enthralled by going to visit this workshop and M Rozier, the santonnier, very kindly allowed him to help mould a couple of figures and gave them to him to take home. At two and a bit, H, not surprisingly, had not a word of French and M Rozier speaks no English, but they got on like a house on fire and I will never forget the two of them, heads bent over the little models as they worked on them together. We took them home with the clay still damp, of course, from the moulding, and they had to be "fired" in the "four" of the kitchen of the "Mas" where we were staying at the time. Unfortunately the oven could not be persuaded to reach the 1000℃ required for biscuit firing(!) so they are slightly more fragile than the professionally finished ones! But it's really special to have them and so far, my amateur firing (and painting) efforts have stood the test of time.
I don't, by any means, have a complete set. There are many others: "le vigneron", of course, the wine-grower, musicians playing tambourines, pipes and drums and other tradesmen, there is the hunter and the fishwife, the washerwoman and "la sage femme et enfant". There are some whose significance I don't know and who have special names - "Barthoumieu" and "Gigie", "Margarido" the old lady who rides a donkey and the elderly couple, arm in arm, "Grasset et Grassette". There are dodgy dealers as well as upright burghers among the throng, because it isn't just the good and the religious who are welcome in Bethlehem, so the poacher and the thief are also part of the crowd, although traditionally the journey made in this joyful company, changed the hearts of the ne'er do wells! No one is excluded - the crowd includes the young and the old, the frail and the hale and hearty, the good and the bad, the pious and the sceptical.
Everyone brings a gift for the child - something they have made or harvested or grown. And some figures who apparently have empty hands bring unseen gifts like the joyful dancing of "la danseuse", the silvery fluting of those playing "la musette" or the rapturous worship of "le ravi" or "les orants" who are a pair of kneeling worshippers.
The lovely thing about them is that the figures invite interaction. They do not remain static, once initially set up, but move about. The kings travel along a bookshelf as Epiphany draws closer. They are still some way off as of today but they are slowly making their way past the poetry books to reach the stable hopefully by 6th January!
The villagers crowd in and mill about among the trees and along the filing cabinet on which the little set-up stands and people visiting are often tempted to rearrange the figures at whim. That's as it should be and I love coming in to my study and finding that, perhaps, the melon-seller is no longer outside the stable but inside it, hobnobbing with the donkey, or the gipsy is cosily comparing new-mother-notes with Mary. The fierce, "sanglier" or wild boar sometimes lurks moodily behind the pine trees and sometimes he is happy to lie down benignly with the chickens! The angel mostly perches on the stable roof outside, singing his song of peace and goodwill, but occasionally he hives up in the loft of the stable near the battery-powered light bulb. Even angels need a break sometimes!
And along with the quaintness and charm of the idea of ordinary folk mingling with Mary and Joseph and the baby Jesus, is the underlying belief that the baby born in a stable does not belong to the pages of a fairy tale book but is the God who came to be a part of ordinary life with us. Ordinary life then and ordinary life now, in all its glory and all its sorrows. And, as we have seen in the news recently, and as we know in our own lives, life has plenty of both. You may, or may not, feel that that belief is one you share, but that is what Christmas at its heart is celebrating.
And if it's true, then it is indeed a miracle worth going to town for in our hearts. Even a little town, lying still and silent in the hills of the Judean countryside where, as the carol has it, "the wondrous gift is given", the gift of the one, in whom rested and in whom, for many, still rest, "the hopes and fears of all the years".
I know it's the fourth Sunday of Advent today and I am linking in again to Floss's A Pause in Advent but because of the way the days fall, it is the Eve of Christmas Eve too, so ...
... Happy Eve of Christmas Eve to you all!