Provençal Clay Figures

They beckon from shop windows in every hill town, these miniatures called santons, from the dialect santouns for "little saints." But whatever commercial role they may play today, their roots run deep in Provence.

The Christmas crèche has been a part of Provençal tradition since the Middle Ages, when people reenacted the tableau of the birth of Christ, wise men, shepherds, and all. When the Revolution cracked down on these pastoral plays, a Marseillais artisan decided to substitute clay actors. The terra-cotta figures created a new fashion and the santon craze was on.

A Marseille tradition that eventually migrated to Aubagne in the hills above (where the clay was better), the delicate doll-like figurines spread throughout Provence, and are displayed every Christmas in church crèches that resemble a rustic backcountry hill village as much as they do Bethlehem. Against a miniature background of model stone houses, dried-moss olive groves, and glass creeks, quaint, familiar characters go about their daily tasks: the lumberjack hauling matchstick kindling, the fisherman toting a basket of waxy fish, the red-cheeked town drunk leering drolly at the pretty lavender-cutter whose basket hangs heavy with real dried sprigs. The original cast from Bethlehem gets second billing to a charming crowd of Gypsies, goatherds, and provincial passersby. And these days there are plenty of Gérard Depardieus, Carla Bruni-Sarkozys, and Yves Montands.

It's a highly competitive craft, and while artisans vie for the souvenir trade, some have raised it to an art form. Molded, dried, then scraped with sharp tools down to the finest detail—wrinkled foreheads and fingernails—the santons are baked at 1,000°C (1,832°F). Once cool, they are painted with a watchmaker's precision: eyelashes, nostrils, and gnarled knuckles. The larger ones have articulated limbs to allow for dressing; their hand-sewn costumes, Barbie-scaled, are lavished with as much fine detail as the painted features.

Many artisans maintain highly public studios, so you can shop direct. Little santons (about an inch high), without articulated limbs, run about €12; big ones (8–10 inches), dressed and painted by the best artists, cost around €50.

But the preferred format is the crèche tableau, and it's easy to get hooked on building a collection of Provençal rustics to be lovingly unwrapped and displayed every Christmas season.

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