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CHRISTMAS CRIBS AND SANTONS.


Paradoxically, the origin of the Provencal Christmas crib is to be found in Italy. Indeed, as early as the12th century in Italian churches Nativity was represented with movable sculptures. Crossing the Alps this Provencal crib grew in importance in Christmas celebrations to become the most followed custom in Provence as well as all the other French Provinces. The Provencal crib, the setting up of which begins before Christmas, gave birth to the Pastoral plays, a theatrical representation of Nativity.

The crib represents Nativity and is composed of figures called “santons” which formed our villages some centuries ago, the shepherd, the drummer, the village idiot and many others. The first Christmas crib known in France was set up in 1775 in Marseille. Nowadays they are set up around end-November, beginning-December and dismantled after Epiphany when the Three Kings join the other figures. The origin of the word “santon” is the Provencal noun “santoun” which means little saint. Santons are traditionally hand made of clay and painted by artisans. They come in various sizes and may be arranged so as to give an impression of perspective. The word “crèche”, crib, comes from the Provencal “crupio” which is a stable feed trough.

Each santon has its own history which may be discovered by watching a Pastoral play as currently shown in Provencal villages.

Here are the particulars of the most emblematic ones:
The New-Born, Jesus: inspired by Christian culture, he is shown resting on a straw bed only covered by a bed sheet with a bare breast. The figure appears in the crib on Christmas Eve at midnight only.
Virgin Mary: She is shown kneeling down; hands joined wearing a pink tunic under a blue coat. She is on the right of the new-born.
Joseph, the father: dressed in white under a brown coat he stands on the left of the New-Born.
The donkey: shown lying down with his back turned to Jesus he is placed to the right of the New-Born.
The ox: always given the same size as the donkey, he finds his place to the left of the New-Born warming him up with his breath.


L'Enfant Jèsu, The New-Born, Jesus Lou Santo Vierge Marie, Virgin Mary San Jousé, Joseph, the father
Lou Biou, Le Boeuf L'Ase, L'Ane

“Lou Ravi”: wearing a nightcap he is the village idiot. Arms raised and a blissful face, Lou Ravi as prominent figure of the crib; used as nickname it refers to somebody who is just waking up or appears thunderstruck. It is said that he is the first one to be placed in the crib because he brings luck.
The shepherds: Wearing their coats and a shepherd’s hat they are shown either watching their herd leaning on their crook or lying in the grass. A young shepherd stands in front of the crib holding a lamb as an offering to Jesus. Essential figures of the crib the shepherds are often placed near the stable because they are the first ones to have come.
The Star: In the night it shows the shepherds their way as well as to the other members of the crib including the Three Kings.
The “boufareù” Angel: This is a small angel with puffed cheeks and spread wings. He is shown blowing in a golden trumpet to announce the good news to everybody. He is normally in a very visible part of the crib, either on the roof of the stable or hung in the sky.


Lou Ravi Lou Pastre, The shepherds The “boufareù” Angel

The miller: he is either shown on his donkey carrying a bag of flour or just waking up.
The drummer: he is shown drumming while walking, he sets the pace of the procession.
The bohemian: dark skinned and wearing a cloak, he is the tramp in search of a dirty trick.
The blind man and his son: guided by his son the blind man walks to the pace of the drummer without being able to bemoan his other son he has just lost.
Pistachiet & Giget: bringing offerings such as oil and cod; these two farmhands meant to raise a laugh come from the Maurel Pastoral play.


Lou Tambourinaire, The drummer The miller Lou Boumian, The bohemian

The old people: there are three of them: the Jordan-Margarido couple arm in arm but always quarreling: whereas he is shown wearing a morning coat, an embroidered waistcoat and holding a lantern, Margarido is wearing lace and a flowery shawl and carries a wicker basket. They are escorted by their friend Roustido whose refined outfit reflects his social standing of former notary of the village. He often carries a large red umbrella.
The fishermen: are shown seated holding their fishing rods, nets and fishing baskets.
The basket makers: are shown with a large wicker basket which will be used as a cradle for the New Born. This is a reminder of the importance of this trade during the 18th and 19th century in Provence.
The water carriers: they are shown in the crib with a bucket or jar filled with water as a reminder of the scarcity of water during the past centuries.


Lou Pescaire, The fishermen The water carriers

The Wise Men: Melchior, Gaspard and Balthazar are shown in the crib at Epiphany only when they bring their offerings to the New Born, gold, incense and myrrh.


Gaspard Melchior Balthazar

The villagers: this non-exhaustive category of people represents the rural trades such as the baker, the farmer, the washer woman, the water bearer and so on but also city dwellers such as the fishmonger, the porter, the flower seller, the tinker, the grinder, etc. Finally one will find the lower earners such as the hunter, the angler, the chimney sweep, the ragman, the snail seller, the blind and the child, the gypsies, the tramp, etc. And many other trades of days bygone…

All these santons are shown in the crib around such structures as the stable, the bridge, the well, the wind-mill, a grotto or a Provencal cottage. To bring more life to the crib it is common to add moss as grass, sprigs of thyme and rosemary as well as twigs of cypress in way of trees. Water is represented by aluminum foil and snow by flour. The wheat planted at Saint Barbara’s day may also come and decorate the crib.


Dates back to 1844, it is the oldest and most spectacular Provencal Pastoral play known.
Provencal is the only language in the world where feminine names can end with the letter « o ».



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