Saturday, January 25, 2014


The house that got me thinking of santons.
Before Christmas 2013 fades into ancient history, I want to write a bit about something I mentioned in an earlier blog. At the very end, there is reference to a small ceramic house that looked very French to me. I saw it in a local garden shop just after Christmas.

When I was a Junior Year Abroad student in Montpellier, France, I came across small clay figurines in all the store windows as Christmas approached. It seems that during the French Revolution (1787-99), large nativity scenes in churches -- and the midnight Mass itself -- were outlawed. Instead, potters created small figures for use in the home.

There were the traditional figures of Mary, Joseph, and Jesus, as well as shepherds, animals, and Wise Men. Something surprising, however, was the large variety of figures of French Provincial characters, dressed in country garb, including a priest, a woman carrying wood or wine, a baker, a farm hand, and so forth. It seemed odd to me at the time that these "locals" should appear in a nativity scene, but as I soon learned, this was a way of bringing the goings-ons of the first Christmas closer to the present time. These figurines are called santons, or "little saints." There were even small buildings and trees, windmills, carts, and other accessories appropriate to a country scene. The figures shown here are either two or three inches tall.

To bring the idea further into the present, I suppose you might re-imagine those figurines as portraying the Holy Family surrounded by convenience store clerks, Krispy Kreme bakers, swat team members, school teachers, and perhaps even Lady Gaga.

Sarah's wine-seller.
Interestingly, the Moravian Churches (founded in what is now the Czech Republic in 1457) of today carry on a similar tradition with a putz, which can be a simple manger scene; in its most elaborate form, the putz fills a room. The word putz comes from the German word putzen which means to decorate or clean. The manger is always the center of any putz. I don't think there are contemporary figures, as the putz aims to illustrate Isaiah's prophecy and Mary's annunciation to the visit of the Wise Men and the flight of the Holy Family into Egypt. 

At any rate, I knew my mother would love to have a souvenir from France that would pertain to Christmas, her favorite holiday. The figurines were very inexpensive but well-formed from clay and painted by the Fouque family of Aix-en-Provence. They are still in business now, 48 years later.

Since by the time the santons appeared in the stores, it was too late to mail them (by boat, of course; who could afford air mail?), so I brought them home with me in June. My mother displayed them every year for many years, until one year she thought I should have them back to use with my own family.

Since we did not decorate inside the house for Christmas this year, those little santons rested in the old Pomeroy's jewelry box, where they have been safely wrapped in tissue paper for many years. But when we got to our daughter Sarah's house after Christmas, I was happy to see in her kitchen two santons that I have given her over the years. Of course, I had to take pictures of them, which you see here.

A farmer with a rooster in his basket.
When we got home, I found two more santons on top of a wooden cabinet in my office. To tell you the truth, I didn't know where they came from when I first saw them. Now I recall that I bought them in an antiques store in York County as few years ago. I am pleased to say that they were a real bargain, like two for a dollar or a dollar each, something like that. Just to show you how valued these are, many sell online for $18.00 each for the two-inch tall ones, and up to $35.00 each for slightly taller ones.

So at Christmas these little saints, made from clay -- made out of France herself! -- remind me of the unique experience of living in France for a school year; of the wonderful friends I made that year; of my mother and her love of a holiday I grew to dread as a church musician; and the thought that these little souvenirs will perhaps pass into the next generation and have a place in my daughter's and grandchildren's future celebrations. Maybe they will even think of me when they see them!

Sarah's firewood gatherer.
A flower vendor.

Fisherman, priest, and woman seated on firewood. (1966)

Shepherdess with lamb and sheep. (1966)

Olive seller, fish seller, and overjoyed man. (1966)

Whole villages are created with santons  and all the accessories. (Internet)