The Christmas crib

  • © ATOUT FRANCE/Fabrice Milochau

    © ATOUT FRANCE/Fabrice Milochau

The Christmas crib


It would appear that the crib is a particularly old tradition, as it is said to have been invented in the 13th century by Francis of Assisi, who represented the story of the Nativity in an old stable using people and live animals.
Come the French Revolution, the tradition of creating a Nativity scene in every home was born, and it was not long before this charming Provençal tradition swept across France. 

An authentic Christmas crib is in fact the perfect representation of a village, in which everyone has his/her place or role, including pets.

In Provence, the decor is a two-part projection of life in a local community, with its houses, wells, oven, water mill, snow, pine trees, olive trees etc, the illuminated night sky, and a stable with the baby Jesus, Virgin Mary, Joseph, donkey and ox, the comet-tailed star guiding the Wise Men, and the crowd which comes to pay homage to them.

An important moment in Provençal family life is the handing down from father to son of the figurine or "santon", which comes from the Provençal word "santoun" meaning "little saint".

Every santon is produced from an original mould representing popular Provençal characters which the santon-maker leaves to dry before varnishing. He then makes a plaster and, more rarely, a resin mould. The santon is then trimmed around its base before it is pressed by hand a second time on the mould. It is then left to dry in the shade and trimmed again once it has dried. Using gouache paint, the brightest colours – used for example on the face – are painted first, followed by the darker colours.

The very first santon originated from Marseille. The oldest mould was created by Louis Lagnel and is part of the collection of the Musée du Vieux Marseille (Maison Diamantée).

As a general rule santons come in three sizes: the miniature santon, measuring between 1-3cm in height, the traditional, thumb-sized santon, and the large santon, which can reach 18-20cm. Some of these, generally the larger size, can be dressed in costumes. Each santon is inspired by local folklore and traditions, such as the shepherd offering the lamb, a symbol of sharing, and the woman with the black hen, whose chicken broth was recommended for new-born babies.
Consequently, all the traditional trades of the past century, numbering around fifty in total and with a host of evocative names, can be identified among the santons!
- Roustido, the kindly bourgeois lady with a red umbrella held by her husband.
- Bartomiou, the incorrigible drunkard with his long cotton hat, who presents Baby Jesus with a flat, dried cod.
- Pistachié, the clumsy oaf leading a donkey laden with sacks of wheat.
- Lou Ravi, raising his arms to the sky in a sign of admiration.
- The baker and his basket of traditional cakes (fougasses)
- Not forgetting the garlic seller, the fishmonger, the farm labourers carrying lanterns, the fisherman with his net slung over his shoulder, the worshippers (those on their knees), etc.
All these characters surrounding the Baby Jesus, Mary, Joseph and the Three Wise Men are put in place on 6 January during Epiphany and remain until 2 February, the day of Candlemas, when the crib is taken down for another year.

Christmas crib-related events and activities


- Betschdorf pottery "Christmas crib route" in Masevaux
- Live nativity scenes in Ribeauvillé, in Haguenau (Cour de la Douane) and in Eguisheim
- The "Christmas crib route" in Bergheim
- Christmas crib tour in Dambach la Ville
- "Giant Christmas Crib" in Saint Jean les Saverne
- The majestic Christmas crib in the Eglise Saint-Antoine, in Sélestat

Anjou (Pays de la Loire)
- Large Provençal nativity scene featuring 500 characters at the Château de Breze 
- The live Christmas crib in Chollet involving over 160 volunteers, both adults and children, who relive the nativity scene in a 45-minute sound and light show.

The small village of Muzeray in the north-east of the Meuse département organizes in December a World Christmas Crib Exhibition. 

Since its opening on 4 June 2005, the new Espace Muséographique de Muzeray has gathered together a collection of 300 Christmas cribs from over 40 countries across the globe. Now, these unique exhibits, created from materials as diverse as cardboard, aluminium, ebony, clay, acacia, wax, plaster, bronze and silver, and by people ranging from a Polish mason to Franciscan monks, can be admired all year round, as the "Crecchio" Christmas crib museum is now open to visitors every weekend of the year (and midweek by prior arrangement).

The live Christmas nativity scene in Saint-Hilaire-du-Harcouët: this show, lasting 35 minutes and with a text read by a famous celebrity, involves 40 actors and 15 animals.
Opening of the Musée du Manoir de Saussey, housing a collection of Christmas cribs that are quite unique in France. This charming 18C residence exhibits an unrivalled display of 17th and 18th century French and Italian Christmas cribs (spun glass from Nevers, ivory, bone, wax, quilling strips).

Provence-Alpes-Côte d'Azur
A large Provençal Christmas crib stands in the peristyle of the town hall in Avignon. Created by a master santon-maker, it features all the characters and traditional trades of a Provençal village and is hugely popular with visitors of all ages.