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It is a tradition that many families do not want to depart from, even if they are not particularly religious. Each year, Christmas decorations in many homes in Europe are accompanied by nativity scenes featuring several santons, the small figurines representing the characters from the Bible. But did you know that santons originated in Provence? If you are looking for authentic and quality santons, here are the Christmas markets that host the best santonniers in the Provence-Alpes-Côte-d’Azur region.
What is a Santon de Provence?
Santons are figurines made from fired clay, which are coloured to elegantly adorn Christmas scenes. Very often, they are emblematic representations of the Christian religion: the infant Jesus, the Virgin Mary, Saint Joseph…
Long before the use of clay, santons were made from crumbs of bread, wood, then later from raw red clay. But the real santon de Provence was introduced by Jean-Louis Lagnel (1764-1822), and since then there have been workshops throughout the region.
How much does a real santon cost? If you think you can get by with a few dollars, don’t think you’ll get an entire scene! The price of a santon depends on several criteria: the fame of the craftsman, of course, but also the size of the chosen figurine or character. For example, on the Maison Fouque website , whose reputation is well established, a 2cm santon can be worth around €20, when a 30cm one can exceed €300 euros. But, for this price, they are true works of art.
Fun fact. Do you know when the first living nativity scene in Europe was? It was in 1223 that Saint Francis of Assisi organized the first at a midnight mass in Greccio, Italy. The practice then spread throughout the peninsula to the chagrin of the ecclesiastical hierarchy of the time.
Which markets can you find Santons de Provence at?
This history face is all well and good, but how to be sure to find authentic santons? At Destination (s) Europe we like lists, so here are some of the best Christmas markets where you can buy Provence santons perfect for your nursery.
The Marseille Santons Fair
The Santons Fair is an unmissable event that has taken place every November in Marseille since 1803! It has been held at the bottom of the Canebière since 2009, where you will find many sculpted representations, including all the characters from the Christmas nativity. Since the emergence of the first santon craftsmen, Marseille has become the true cradle of santon.
The Carpentras Santons Market
This market brings together about twenty local artisans offering Christmas decorations as well as many handmade santons. And it is not just anywhere! This santon market is held in the large Chapel of the College, built between 1628 and 1637. In addition to offering various activities and shows, the santon market in Carpentras (map) offer nearly 500 figurines for sale and exhibition. To foster the magical Christmas atmosphere, the market exhibits a giant nativity scene decorated with plants.
Avignon Christmas market
The city of Avignon is not only famous for its famous bridge, but also for the Chemin des Crèches during Christmas. In addition to offering many gifts and local products, its santons are also in the spotlight thanks to the animated cribs. If you want to take a look, these wonders are located on the Cours Jean Jaurès.
Moreover, if you are in Avignon, do not forget to go to Fontaine-de-Vaucluse, about 30km away, to visit the Museum of santon and traditions of Provence.
The santon fair in Aix-en-Provence
Just as Alsace has its Strasbourg Christmas market, the PACA region has that of Aix-en-Provence. In addition to being a wonderful city, Aix-en-Provence is recognized for hosting the most beautiful Christmas market in the region, which showcases the best local santon makers, selling handcrafted and authentic figurines.
The city is also home to its small santon fair on the Cézanne esplanade, and a large nativity scene is staged on the Cours Mirabeau.
The Christmas Market and the Santons of Fontvieille
This two-day event is aptly named and takes place every year in Fontvieille (map) in the centre of the village. Many local santonniers display their most beautiful figurines. Discover their exceptional know-how in a festive and musical environment. Each year, nearly 8,000 visitors flock to this fair to admire the creations of around twenty artisans.
Do you know of other santon fairs which do not appear in this list, but which deserve to be there? Let us know in the comments or send us a message.