What is a Santon?
Santons are small hand-crafted figurines which depict the lives and livelihood of those who called the villages of Provence home at the time of the French Revolution. They were originally designed to be included in the annual nativity scenes but over time they became more of a representation of the rich diversity and day to day life of the Provence people. These lovely collectable items feature all the different individuals who made up these villages, from tradesmen to farmers to shepherds and peddlers, each crafted with exquisite detail to make them as realistic and historically accurate as possible.
The history of the santons, or “dressed santons” as they’re sometimes called, began back at the end of the 18th century when local craftsmen would design personalized figurines and model them after people they knew from the villages. These treasured gifts became family heirlooms and were proudly displayed by many of the recipients as a part of their church’s nativity scene during Christmas. Beginning in the 20th century, these beautiful little figurines began being produced in a series featuring a variety of sizes and made available for purchase, as they are today.
How Santons are made?
The expert craftsmen who make santons are called santonniers and are renowned for their remarkable attention to detail. Extensive research is conducted to ensure that no detail is forgotten and that everything from the figure’s clothing to its accessories are historically accurate. Facial features are incredibly detailed and just about every activity and trade of the time is represented. Modern santons are crafted of clay and fired in a kiln to make them more durable and are designed by present-day santonniers to whom the craft has been passed down from generations before.
Santons provide a unique and fascinating way to journey into the rich history of the Provence region and discover life as it was there centuries ago. These figurines paint a vivid picture of the area’s crafts and specialties. Collectors in particular love santons because they portray many trades and professions that have long become a thing of the past. This glimpse into Provencal life during the French Revolution provides a lasting tribute to those who helped to shape the region into what it is today.
Many santonniers welcome visitors into their workshops year-round to view their exquisite masterpieces. Some even offer guided tours. The best time to experience santons, however, is during Christmas, as they are still a significant part of the area’s holiday traditions. Hundreds if not thousands are displayed prominently with dazzling seasonal touches like lights and music to add to the magic and enchantment of the scene. Some villages even host parades that feature real live santons, dressed in traditional 18th century attire. It’s a fascinating and unforgettable way to experience the incredible history and rich cultural diversity of the Provence region.