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by George W. Rohrer, CPC #1499

Pierre, a jovial Provençal native transplanted to Ohio, recalls some of his early days in Salon-de-Provence. Several weeks before Christmas, families began bringing down little boxes from the attic and unloading the "Little Saints." The little clay figures, retrieved from drawers and boxes will be arranged to create the Nativity scene. Monaco and France have issued attractive stamps that portray these santons of southern France. 

In years past only the Holy Family were represented. Mary, Jesus, and Joseph are pictured on Monaco 1919, 1920, and 1921. The ox and the donkey were included as well as the angel that appeared to the shepherds. (Mary, Scott 1919; Jesus, Scott 1920; Joseph, Scott 1921; Ox, Scott 1885; Donkey, Scott 1883.) 

Today the crèche embraces dozens of villagers, country folk, and trades-people who are bringing gifts to the Christ Child. Some, like the miller, the baker, and the spinner, offer the practical gifts of food and raiment. 

Families used to make many of their figurines at home. As the popularity of santons spread, the number of professional artisans increased. There is now an association of santonniers with a membership of sixty companies. The largest are the Ateliers Marcel Carbonel, in Marseille, and Paul Fouque in Aix-en-Provence. All display their wares at the annual santon fairs in Marseille, Aix, and Aubagne in the expectation of tempting visitors to enlarge their collections. (Angel, Scott 1452; Shepherd, Scott B664; Miller, Scott B665; Baker, Scott 1739; Spinner, Scott 1451; 

In the crèche people from all walks of life come to the manger offering their gifts and talents. An old woman is bearing a bundle of firewood. An elderly couple is approaching the stable, while not far away a fishmonger, a blind man, a garlic vendor, a knife grinder, and a basket maker are all bringing their offerings. A familiar figure is le ravi with his arms in the air, overcome with joy. Among the dignitaries are the consul, the mayor, and the Arlésienne. The city of Arles is famous for its beautiful women and was the setting for Bizet's l'Arlésienne music. The Garde Champêtre, or constable, is on hand to offer protection. (Wood Bearer, Scott 1738; Elderly Couple, Scott B669; Fishmonger, Scott B667; Blind Man, Scott 1449; Garlic Vendor, Scott 1453; Knife Grinder, Scott B669; Basket Maker, Scott 1838; Le Ravi, Scott 1450; Consul, Scott 1766; Mayor, Scott 1768; Arlésienne, Scott 1767; Garde Champetre, Scott 1840.) 

Provençaux are not at all disturbed by anachronisms. The santonnier Paul Fouque of Aix recently produced a two-piece set of the artist Paul Cézanne at his easel. Appropriately, the painting on his canvas is the famed Mont Sainte-Victoire (Figure 1). Figure 2 shows a catalog illustration of a mas or farmhouse that will be the base for the Nativity scene. (Illustrations not shown on this Web Page.) 

Santons are produced in several standard sizes. The smallest is the puce, or flea size. Others measure 1 , 2, and 4 inches. The Ateliers Marcel Carbonel employ a staff of nearly fifty skilled artisans. When the clay figure is released from the mold it is fired for twelve hours before being painted. The colors, applied by hand, are selected from more than one-hundred shades. 

Some of the ateliers are producing santons sculpted of wood. The dolls are dressed in cotton prints displaying Provençal patterns. These santons, from six to eight inches tall, are seldom seen in the household crèche. French stamps B503 and B504 portray this type. 

To maintain complete accuracy, the three kings should not be set in place until Twelfth Night, January 6, the Epiphany, when the Wise Men are reported to have arrived in Bethlehem. 

The Monaco Post Office has obligingly supplied the Magi in a timely issue of October 24, 1996. Balthazar, Gaspard, and Melchior are important elements in the Provençal Christmas scene. 

Another long held tradition is the Yule Log, or Bûche de Noël. This practice, not uniquely Provençal, is necessarily more prevalent in rural areas than in the sections of high rises that are uglifying the Mediterranean coast. Much in vogue is the pastry Bûche de Noel. The log is made of a rolled-up sponge cake. The chocolate coating is mixed to approximate the color of tree bark. The number and quality of embellishments are in proportion to ingenuity of the cook. 

Interest in santons has spread beyond Provence. The figures are in demand in Paris and elsewhere in France. There are several distributing agencies in the United States. Assembling a collection of santons can be increasingly costly. Today the price of a single one of the 2 3/4 inch size will be at least $15.00. Besides the stable and selections from the scores of little people available, the scene may include a windmill, stream, bridge, well, trees, rocks, fences, animals, and a whole village. Fortunate are those who began to collect their little saints decades ago. 

References:

Ateliers Carbonel, Marseille 
LeMonde des Philatelistes, October/November 1995 
Michelin Green Guide, Provence 
Michelin Regional Map #84 
Post Office, Salon-de-Provence 
Santons de Provence, Fouque, Aix-en-Provence 
Service Philatelique de la Poste, Paris

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