What Lauscha is to Christmas tree ornaments, Marseilles is to the Creche, or Nativity display. The artisans of Marseilles did not create the idea of a Nativity Scene. That honor actually goes to Francis of Assissi, who organized the first living Nativity Scene in Greccio, Italy in the 13th century. The performance was such a wild success that it was soon replicated in churches and cathedrals throughout Europe. In addition to the living Nativity Scenes, which involved live performers as well as animals, static Nativities featuring elaborate statues and sets became increasingly popular during the Renaissance.
In the wake of two major events, the Protestant Reformation of the 16th century and the French Revolution of the 18th century, anti-Catholic elements throughout Western Europe sought to suppress the incredibly popular Nativity Scene tradition that had become such an integral part of the holiday. In order to get around the ordinances that prohibited the display of such decorations in churches and other places, artisans in Provence in southern France began manufacturing miniature sets of santons, or ceramic figurines, which could be set-up in private homes.
The first true miniature Nativity Scene is attributed to Jean-Louis Lagnel, a resident of Marseilles and a talented clayworker. Lagnel’s work set the standard for Nativity Scenes produced in Provence, including the number and type of figurines that would be included in a typical set. Within a few years, many other artisans in Provence had taken up the Creche manufacturing trade. The region’s dominance in the production and sale of Nativity scenes was cemented in 1803 when the first Foire de Santonniers was held in Marseilles in order to encourage trade in the popular santons.
Marseilles remains the center of the Christmas figurine industry to this day. The Santonnier’s Fair still runs every year, usually from late December until early January (dates and times vary annually). For those who cannot make it to Marseilles during the holiday season, the Museum de Santon (Figurine Museum) in Marseilles is open year-round, Tuesdays through Sundays from 10:00am-5:00pm. Web: www.visitprovence.com/agenda-culturel/arts/provence/2524-salon-international-des-santonniers (official website of the festival)