If you’re a fan of Peter Mayle and his wonderful stories about Provence life and culture then you may be familiar with santons. The word means “little saints” and refers to handmade clay figures dressed in old style traditional dress and come in a few sizes, you might even say pocket size. The first santons date back to the French Revolution when churches and nativity scenes were banned. Over time, the cast of characters has expanded to the point where an entire village can be created. When I visited Provence several years ago santons were not on my radar so I didn’t go driving around the coutryside looking for santonniers who sell year-round. This distinctive craft is kept alive by families who for generations have created the butchers, bakers and other artisans, folk going about their daily tasks as well as the farm and forest animals – all of which now populate Provençal fireplace mantels or tabletops at Christmas time. These scenes of village life are fascinating and much more interesting – to me, at least – than the typical grouping in the stable with just a couple of sheep and the three “wise guys” as we called them when we were kids (I want to say that label came from a stand-up comic’s routine in the 1960s but can’t find any proof). The miniature figures populate a village completed with the addition of houses, shops, bridges and other structures.
So. Anyway. I was pleasantly surprised to find a chalet at the Christmas market in Metz, France selling santons. Metz is in Alsace, so not a region where you’d expect to find santons. Mesmerized by the display of so many figures, I spent several minutes paging through the laminated catalogue at the stall to see what figures were available and to ask for them properly. It took a while to make up my mind. I didn’t want to start my little bunch with the baby in the straw but getting a mini-town started could be costly, even if I chose the smallest size figures which only cost a few euros each. Just look at the all the different figures you can get to populate your ideal little community!
In the end, I decided on a few pieces to get my village off the ground and which would also be something of a scene that could tell its own story. The female figure is “une fille de joie”. She seems to be taking a break between customers. I’ll leave it to your imagination to infer her occupation. The black cat – just because I have one at home; the wild boar is an iconic forest critter in Provence known as “un sanglier” and the bridge was just a way to complete the scene.
Perhaps I’ll fill the background with bits of model train scenery… maybe do that next year. So… what do you think? Non-traditional for sure but I’ve always preferred to blaze my own path. Joyeux Noël!