There are a few Christmas traditions that define the holiday for me. Without them, things just wouldn’t feel festive. And since I go home to Provence for the holidays every year, I’m always able to visit the marché aux santons and get my fix of Christmas spirit. This market is exclusively dedicated to santons, the small clay nativity figurines unique to my home region.
Santons have been a part of traditional Provençal Christmases since the French Revolution. When the revolution forced churches to close, their extravagant nativity scenes could no longer be viewed by the public. So, Marseillais artist Lagnel took matters into his own hands by crafting dozens of clay figures. Among the characters depicted are mainstays of life in the region at that time, including the scissors grinder, shepherd and drummer. Since 1803, santons have been a staple of the Christmas markets and even have their own annual two-day fair in Marseille.
Our hometown market isn’t quite as big as its Marseille equivalent, but as a child, it still filled me with wonder. My grandmother would give me a few francs to buy some new figures for our collection, and I enjoyed nothing more than wandering the stalls looking for the perfect farmhand or washer woman.
I still head to that same market each year, though it’s barely half the size of what it was. More than anything, seeing these markets declining strengthens my resolve to be an advocate for tradition, for artisans and independents, for the little guy.
The rise of big retail seems to have turned Christmas from a celebration of tradition, religion, and family to one of consumerism and excess. The pressure on modern families to prepare an enormous feast and mountains of presents comes from the stores that want us to spend, spend, spend. Sharing traditional dishes with loved ones and picking up a few hand-crafted, inexpensive figures feels refreshing in comparison. The only pressure I put on myself is adding some new santons to the outstanding nativity crèche I build each year!