Santon’s “Little Saints”

The following is an essay from former, long-time Lowell Historical Society board member and archivist, Martha Mayo. Martha was also a Librarian at the Center for Lowell History at the University of Massachusetts, Lowell.

Photographs of some exemplars are available below, along with descriptions for each piece.

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Santons “Little Saints” are small hand-painted terracotta creche (nativity) figures produced in the Provence region of Southern France. A traditional creche can have as many as 100 individual figures representing various characters and members of the village and passion plays, each carrying their gift to the new born Christ Child. My favorite was always the poorest of the poor, the Old Woodcutter bringing his bundle of wood as a gift. Among the most popular are the Fishmonger, Ravi, Spinner, Basket Maker, Gypsies, Cheesemonger, Blindman and Son, Snail Seller, Highwayman.

The first clay Santons were created in Marseilles about 1800, when during the French Revolution, catholic churches were closed and their large nativity scenes prohibited. Craftsmen modeled small creche figures to be used at home out of local red clay. The main figures in the creche, Mary, Joseph, and the 3 Kings always wear traditional biblical clothes, all the villagers are dressed in clothes and hats from the early 1800s.

The major portion of my collection are Santons by Marcel Carbonel from Marseilles, France. Carbonel Santons were collected by the French Club in my high school in Falmouth, Maine. During the holidays, clubs members sang French Christmas Carols through the school hallways, made French pastries for a Mother / Daughter Tea, and selected one Santon to describe in French to the class. Each year, a few French Club members made the annual trip to Damariscotta, Maine to acquire new Santons from one of the few shops selling Santons in the country. I was terrible in French, but loved the cultural and culinary traditions. After the required two years, I begged our teacher / advisor and later good friend Dottie McCann to let me continue as a member (although very unusual, she agreed.) Once working full-time, every summer vacation included a trip to Damariscotta and later to Newburyport with the discovery of another small shop selling Santons. My collection of Carbonel Santons grew after several trip to Southern France and expanded even more with the creation of ebay and online websites.

The first time, I exhibited my collection of Carbonel Santons was at the Mogan Cultural Center as part of a Lowell Family First Night Celebration in the mid-1990s, along with the traditional Thirteen Desserts. Thirteen Desserts are the traditional desserts used in celebrating Christmas in Provence. The “big supper” ends with a ritual 13 desserts, representing Jesus Christ and the 12 apostles. The desserts always number thirteen, the exact items vary by local or family tradition, but must include dried fruits, nuts, fresh fruits, and sweets.

Around 2000, I was asked by Ray Hoag to participate in the annual “No Room at the Inn: Creche and Nativity Display” at St. John’s Church, 260 Gorham Street, Lowell, MA the first weekend of December for many years. At St. John’s Church, I showed not only the Carbonel Creche of over 75 villagers, animals, and buildings, but examples of dozens of other Santonniers from Provence.


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