Crèche dans une église
One of the great traditions du Noël
in the home en la France
is la crèche
, the crib or manger. Around la crèche
are placed santons
, "little saints," which are figures of Mary, Joseph, shepherds, animals, and the Wise Men. Since the Middle Ages, la crèche
has been displayed in churches during the period from Christmas Eve to le 6 janvier, la fête de l'épiphanie
- the 12 days of Christmas. The custom was originated by none other than St. Francis of Assisi in 1223 at Gréccio, Italy. From the church, the custom spread to the home. La crèche
in France is a more important custom than l'arbre de Noël
, the Christmas tree.
representing the baby Jesus is not placed into la crèche
until la nuit de Noël
, Christmas Eve. Often the honor of placing baby Jesus in the crib is reserved for the youngest child of the family.
One little French town, Aubagne, in the south of France in Provence, has become famous world-wide for its production of the little clay figures made by craftsmen throughout the year. Aubagne is a modest little town about halfway between Marseilles and Aix-en Provence. Aubagne is also the home of the French Foreign Legion. In addition to the usual Holy Family, shepherds, and Magi, the craftsmen also produce figures in the form of local dignitaries and characters. The craftsmanship involved in creating the gaily colored santons is quite astounding and the molds have been passed from generation to generation. Provencal santons are made from the fine clay, argile
, found in the area between Marseilles and Aubagne. Two-piece plaster molds made from original carvings are filled with the clay for molding. The piece is removed from the mold for painting before being dried and baked. After the santon
is baked, it is hand painted with great care.
Santons, fresh from their molds, await painting.
In addition to those made in Aubagne, santons
are made as a cottage industry practiced by artisans in some of the smaller villages in the Beyond
region of Provence. You can find santons in village shops and ateliers, and often in the markets.
Santon d'un berger, shepherd.
Throughout novembre et décembre
the figures are sold at annual foires aux santons
, "little saints fairs," especially in Marseille and Aix. The tradition of the foire aux Santons
was begun by Jean Louis Lagnel in 1803.
In 1789, during the French Revolution, the churches were closed, depriving the population of crèches
to observe and depriving crèche
makers of their market. Jean-Louis Lagnel (1764-1822) of Marseilles, who made molded figurines for the church crèches
, decided to make the santons for the general population, at a price they could afford.
Santons for the public became an instant success, and an industry (and tradition) was born. From Lagnel's first foire aux Santons
in Marseille, the santon fairs spread throughout Provence. The original Marseille santon fair is still in existance, from the end of November to Twelfth Night (Epiphany).
In many churches in France, la crèche
is outside and thus quite large. It is not uncommon for these outdoor crèches vivantes
to have members of the parish represent the figures of Mary, Joseph and Jesus.
Crèche vivante à une église en France.
Christmas in France
Christmas in France