The travel souvenir that’s a part of our family Christmas tradition

Hi Frugalistas!  We put up our Christmas decorations yesterday.  One thing I love putting out every year is our crècheCrèche is the French word for a Nativity Scene, and ours is a very special one.  It is French, and is made of santons, traditional Provencal clay figurines.  Purchasing our santons, adding to our collection, and putting them out every year is now a traditional part of our family Christmas.  I don’t buy very many souvenirs from my travels, but a traditional crèche was one souvenir I was happy to carry home.

Provencal santon creche with 3 wise men, stable, Jesus, Mary, Joseph and the Angel Gabriel

The traditional nativity scene

The History of Santons

While traditional Nativity scenes date back to the time of St Francis of Assisi, santons originated in Provence during the French Revolution, when the revolutionists banned traditional Nativity scenes from churches.  Instead, the faithful made small figurines they could set up and use at home.  There are still approximately 150 santon makers (santonniers) in Provence.

Putting together your traditional santon crèche

There are three different types of santons:  painted ones like mine, plain clay ones that are not painted, or clay ones with painted faces and proper clothes made from cloth.  It’s really a matter of personal preference as to which ones you buy.

santons of Jesus in manger, Mary, Joseph and the Angel

We aren’t a religious family, but love the tradition of our santons at Christmas

They range in size from teeny tiny, all the way up to mantelpiece size pieces.

The first thing to do is decide what type of santons you like, what size you want and your budget.  While santons are readily available in souvenir shops throughout Provence they are often poor quality, made in China.  For genuine, traditional, artisan santons seek out family owned and operated santonniers (santon makers).  Our santons come from Santons Fouques, a fourth generation family atelier in Aix-en-Provence.

Chose your stable first as that will decide the size you need for your other figures.  Good ateliers will size their products to a standard, so the relative sizes of all the figures are correctly scaled.

The travel souvenir that's a part of our family Christmas tradition

“we three kings…..”

Choosing your santon characters

A traditional santon crèche starts with all the traditional figures you would expect in a European or Anglo Saxon nativity scene.  A stable should be your first piece to determine the size of your figurines.  Then start adding your key figures:  baby Jesus in his manger, Mary and Joseph, the Angel, the three Wise Men with their gold, frankincense and myrrh, the shepherds with their flock.  Don’t forget a donkey and cattle to low in your stable.  That completes your classic nativity scene.

santons of shepard and shepardess and sheep

“as shepherds watched their flocks by night”

Over the years Provencal santonniers have added other characters that feature in either Biblical stories or Provencal life.  St Francis is usually included in honour of the legend that he commenced the nativity tradition.  A blind man and fisherman are also traditionally included, based on the miracles that the Bible says Jesus performed during his life.  Characters from Provencal life such as farandole dancers, washerwomen and gypsies are often included.  Characters from French literature also feature – I have a figure of Moliere’s doctor for example.

Animal lovers can also go crazy.  Larger ateliers will sell a wide variety of animals – both biblical and otherwise.  If you buy from the same atelier they will also be sized appropriately to complement the other figures in your scene.

The travel souvenir that's a part of our family Christmas tradition

Traditional farandole dancers in Provencal costumes


If you have space you can also include additional buildings, such as windmills and Provencal houses to make a real village scene.

Many traditional ateliers also have a santon or santons that are unique to their atelier.  Santons Fouques for example, features a character known as “Le Mistral” after the wind that blows in Provence.  To honour the history of Aix-en-Provence they also make a santon of Paul Cezanne, the Impressionist painter who lived and painted around Aix-en-Provence.

The travel souvenir that's a part of our family Christmas tradition

French literature and the Bible combine – Moliere’s doctor and the blind man

Purchasing santons if you aren’t in Provence

I purchased my initial crèche while visiting Aix-en-Provence with my husband.  Over the years we have purchased additional pieces over the Internet direct from Santons Fouques.  There are retailers in the US I have found on line who stock santons.  This may be of use to North American readers, however, I’ve seen the range is quite limited.

There are a number of ateliers in Provence who sell direct online.  Most of the sites have an English language button.  All price in Euros, and seem to ship internationally.  Make a thorough search before you purchase, as the quality and styles do vary quite widely.

santon figure le mistral from Santons Fouques

“Le Mistral”

If you are in Provence I suggest a visit to a traditional santonnier.  Many offer guided tours of their workshops, where you can see the santons being made, and hand painted.  I normally find workshop tours a bit ho-hum, but I must admit the tour of Santon Fouques was fascinating.

Regardless of your faith, or whether you even have faith, a traditional French crèche makes a wonderful souvenir from Provence.  It is the sort of souvenir you can easily build a tradition around – purchasing new pieces each year, and adding to your collection.  Choose a quality crèche and you also have a wonderful heirloom to pass down to future generations.  Get rid of those glittery dancing Santas!

santons of cow and donkey in a stable

“the cattle are lowing, the baby awakes…..” inside our stable

Do you have any special travel souvenirs you love to share with your family?

Author’s note:  I purchased my own crèche from Santons Fouques.  I genuinely recommend them for a quality product and excellent customer service.  Their atelier is an easy walk from central Aix-en-Provence if you are visiting.



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4 Comments on “The travel souvenir that’s a part of our family Christmas tradition”

  1. Sartenada 22/12/2014 at 1:13 am #

    They are cute and beautiful.

  2. galanda23 23/12/2014 at 3:20 pm #

    What a beautiful tradition! I love Christmas traditions, they seem to bring the family closer together, don’t you think so? I always wanted to have a Crèche like yours, but here they are so unbelievably expensive that I had to settle for a very small one. Have a Merry Christmas, Jo.

    • frugalfirstclasstravel 23/12/2014 at 7:36 pm #

      Thanks Anda. Ours was expensive to buy the initial creche, but the smaller figures are literally just a few Euros each. Have a wonderful Christmas

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