Originally, the family crèche contained only Nativity figures. In Quebec, the first Nativity figures were modelled in wax by religious orders.

Then, in the XVIIIth century, a small industry sprang up in the Midi of France, which began to make all the characters for the crèche. The santons really became popular when the Revolution banned Midnight Mass and church crèches. The people of Marseilles were very loyal to their crèches and created "public crèches", produced by individuals who displayed them for visitors. The custom of setting up a crèche in every household thus developed.

Through the work of skilled artisans, the famous santons or small clay figurines of Provence, which appeared for the first time at the Christmas fair in Marseille in 1803, rapidly gained popular favour: they competed with the more sophisticated but also more expensive wax santons. Soon these brightly coloured little figures decorated not only Provencal crèches, but also those of Dauphiné, Roussillon and Languedoc.

In 1798, Louis Lagnel fabricated plaster moulds for the santons. The new technology completely revolutionized this cottage industry. Since they could be mass-produced, products could be more widely distributed at the santons fair. Lagnel’s models, whether as copied or remoulded works, have influenced santonniers or santon makers to this day.

Until 1945, most santons were made of coarse clay left to dry in the open air. Later, the clay was fired to make it stronger. The classical figures of the crèche were joined every year by pastoral figures, traditional characters representing Provencal town or country trades people: spinners, milkmaids, tambourine players, fishermen, pie sellers, pilgrims and many others.
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