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Visit French Affair at the Bastille Festival, Circular Quay Sydney on Saturday July 14th from 10am to 10pm and Sunday July 15th from 10am to 5pm.

Santons

Rather than decorating a Christmas tree, most French homes display a nativity scene filled with clay figures called "santons" or "little saints".

Santons became popular in the small villages of the Provence during the French Revolution, when many churches were closed and larger nativity scenes were outlawed. It was a way to keep religion alive inside the home as any public display of religion had dire consequences.

After the French Revolution, times were harsh and seeking refuge in religion was one way to cope. This is perhaps why santons became immensely popular and more elaborate. During these times, Provence developed its own santon style. Whole Provençal villages were recreated, including many of its inhabitants. Competition was fierce and clever craftsmen soon developed custom made figurines, depicting their customer's families and friends honouring the Holy Family.

A typical santon scene has the Holy Family as the centre piece, the Rois Mages (the Three Kings) and angels. Shepherds call Provençal villagers to honour the Holy Family. First the important notables of the village, the mayor and the parish priest and then the craftsmen, such as the baker, the grocer, the butcher, the fromager and musicians. Depending on where the village is located, there might be a vigneron (winegrower), a fisherman, a basket weaver and a potter.

Then there are the common people of the village, rich and poor. The traditional santon scene includes musicians and dancers who dance the farandole with joined hands. But it doesnt stop there .. the village animals are then added .. and lots of them. The traditional ox and the ass are a part of any nativity scene, but in the Provençal Nöel Crèche there are also sheepdogs with bells under their necks, sheep, goats, rabbits, pigeons on the roof, and other barnyard animals. And then theres the ravi (sometimes called ravie) - a man or woman throwing up their arms in delight, interpreted as being either a simpleton or simply a very happy person.

In 1803 the first Nativity Fair was held in Marseille to sell santons and before long there were other santon fairs at a number of villages in Provence. The Marseille santons fair is held to this day, every Advent through Epiphany and there are many regional santons fairs, some starting as early as November.

The craftsmanship needed to create many of the gaily coloured santons is absolutely astounding as they're often working on figurines no bigger than 2 cm. The moulds have been passed down from generation to generation since the 17th century.

Santons are fashioned in two halves, pressed together, and fused. Hats, baskets and other accessories are applied with an adhesive. When the figure is completely dry, it's given a gelatin bath to harden the figure further and to provide a surface for the application of pigments.

Faces are painted first, then hair, clothing and accessories. Until the end of the 19th century, santons were air-dried rather than fired in a kiln. As a consequence, such figures were fragile and easily broken. Modern santons are generally fired in a kiln.

If you're visiting Provence in the festive season, be sure to look for these little masterpieces and perhaps take some home to add some French tradition to your Christmas.