My little piece of France at Christmas

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My husband’s family comes from Germany and mine is a traditional Anglo-Saxon Australian one. At Christmas time our house is filled to the brim with the usual Australian Christmas decorations as well as our large collection of traditional German ones. Despite this, I still find space for my own little piece of France – my crèche of traditional  Provençal santons.

Santons are traditionally made from terracotta and are little figurines that depict not only the Nativity scene, but also people and scenes from Provençal life. Depending on the maker, the figurines can be left as plain terracotta, painted (santons d’argile) or dressed in fabric clothes (santons habillés.) Makers usually specialize in one type.

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We bought our original crèche a few years back on a trip to Aix-en-Provence. When we arrived at the atelier, we were ushered into the workshop and watched the santonnier in action creating a figurine, then hand painting it and bringing it to life. I lovingly carried ours around France for the next two weeks before bringing it home to Australia. Since that time we have added progressively to our set to include animals and traditional Provençal figures.

Santons are said to have originated in Marseille during the French Revolution when churches were closed and large Nativity scenes were banned. Over the years additional figures have been added and a traditional full set of santons now extends to some 55 figures, plus animals and scenery of Provençal life. Most santons are still traditionally made by hand in family run ateliers, where skills are handed down through the generations.

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I’m particularly excited about my crèche this Christmas – after concentrating on building up my animal collection, this year’s new additions are figures of people traditional to a santon collection – Moliere’s doctor, a blind man, and farandole dancers.

The thing about santons is that they look so different to traditional Australian Christmas decorations – no tinsel, no glitter and not a Santa in sight. Instead, glorious jewel-like colours redolent of Provence itself set themselves apart. Just looking at my set reminds me of France and I feel the spirit, not just of Christmas but of Provence itself.

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While the French and Germans don’t always see eye to eye, my santons and my husband’s German angel choir and other wooden decorations look wonderful together. They make our home feel like Christmas, and more importantly feel like home.

My only problem is, as it continues to grow, where do I display my crèche once it outgrows my sideboard?

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Jo Karnaghan

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