History tells us that, "in 1640, the Ursuline nuns in Quebec made the first crèche with its wax Jesus". Because of the difficulty at this time of importing figures for the crèche from the mother country, the nuns undertook to make figurines of different sizes by hand, of bee’s wax melted down in plaster moulds. They made all the figures for the crèche, including not only the wax Christ Child, but also angels and sometimes animals, jealously guarding the secret of their methods.

The first ornamental figures, or santons, from Provence emerged from the development of family crèches. Commercially-produced figures in polychrome plaster were to appear later. Little by little these replaced the home- made wax figures. In Quebec, several churches have nonetheless preserved their traditional wax Jesus.

More lively than ever, the tradition of the church crèche has resulted in the recent remarkable works for the crèche of Saint Jean Port Joli, which includes the famous Marie de l’Avent (Mary of the Advent) which has aroused much curiosity and admiration.

History tells us that, "in 1640, the Ursuline nuns in Quebec made the first crèche with its wax Jesus". Because of the difficulty at this time of importing figures for the crèche from the mother country, the nuns undertook to make figurines of different sizes by hand, of bee’s wax melted down in plaster moulds. They made all the figures for the crèche, including not only the wax Christ Child, but also angels and sometimes animals, jealously guarding the secret of their methods.

The first ornamental figures, or santons, from Provence emerged from the development of family crèches. Commercially-produced figures in polychrome plaster were to appear later. Little by little these replaced the home- made wax figures. In Quebec, several churches have nonetheless preserved their traditional wax Jesus.

More lively than ever, the tradition of the church crèche has resulted in the recent remarkable works for the crèche of Saint Jean Port Joli, which includes the famous Marie de l’Avent (Mary of the Advent) which has aroused much curiosity and admiration.

© 1995, CHIN-Canadian Heritage Information Network. All Rights Reserved.

Crèche with wax figures

Crèche with nine life-size figures whose heads, hands and feet are made of wax. The bodies are made of pasteboard on wooden frames. Some pieces dating from the XIXth century come from the Musée Grevin in Paris. These figures came from the Musée historique canadien in Montreal which closed in 1989, donating its entire collection of 26 scenes of wax figures, including the Christmas crèche, to the Musée de la civilisation.

Photograph: Musée de la civilisation, Pierre Soulard, 1992
Collection : Musée de la civilisation, Québec

© 1995, CHIN-Canadian Heritage Information Network. All Rights Reserved.


The tradition of the wax Jesus was brought to this country by an Ursuline nun from France, Sister Saint Claire. She made the first Canadian wax Jesus for Amerindians at the request of Father Lallemant.

The Ursulines kept all the necessary material for the figurines: bee’s wax, plaster moulds in different sizes, glass eyes, the natural hair of children and nuns, dolls’ clothes of delicately hand-embroidered cotton and linen.

Among other religious orders, the Augustines, the Sisters of Charity and the Sisters of our Lady of Perpetual Aid also produced wax figures of Jesus.
The tradition of the wax Jesus was brought to this country by an Ursuline nun from France, Sister Saint Claire. She made the first Canadian wax Jesus for Amerindians at the request of Father Lallemant.

The Ursulines kept all the necessary material for the figurines: bee’s wax, plaster moulds in different sizes, glass eyes, the natural hair of children and nuns, dolls’ clothes of delicately hand-embroidered cotton and linen.

Among other religious orders, the Augustines, the Sisters of Charity and the Sisters of our Lady of Perpetual Aid also produced wax figures of Jesus.

© 1995, CHIN-Canadian Heritage Information Network. All Rights Reserved.

Wax Jesus belonging to the sisters of Augustines of Dieppe

Gift of the Augustines of Dieppe (France) to their sisters in Quebec Early XVIIIth century. Rescued from the 1755 fire, this wax Jesus is probably the oldest belonging to the order, 15 cm.

Photograph: Musée de la civilisation, Quebec, Pierre Soulard, 1995
Collection : Musée des Augustines de l'Hôtel-Dieu-de-Québec, Québec, Canada

© 1995, CHIN-Canadian Heritage Information Network. All Rights Reserved.


The student boarders at the Ursuline convent carefully prepared the ceremony of the procession of the Christ Child for Quebec nuns. Dressed in white robes and wearing crowns, the young girls (of whom the littlest had the signal honour of carrying the basket in which the wax Jesus lay) formed a procession and moved slowly forward towards the crèche in the chapel singing « Cher petit frère». This hymn, to the tune of an old melody, was the work of Sister Saint Mary Simon. This custom ceased in 1935 when parents began to collect their children for Christmas. Before then, the school holiday began on December 27 and ended the day before Epiphany.Each year, the Ursulines brought out their most beautiful ornaments for the festival of the Christ Child. Hangings for the Nativity in needlepoint, silver candelabra dating from the beginning of the colony, embroidered altar cloths and copes of Lyon silk, fashioned just like the draperies of Madame de la Peltrie, gave this ceremonious procession of the Christ Child its solemn and impressive character in spite of the simplicity of the surroundings.

Other churches also had their processions of the Christ Child as this Brit Read More
The student boarders at the Ursuline convent carefully prepared the ceremony of the procession of the Christ Child for Quebec nuns. Dressed in white robes and wearing crowns, the young girls (of whom the littlest had the signal honour of carrying the basket in which the wax Jesus lay) formed a procession and moved slowly forward towards the crèche in the chapel singing « Cher petit frère». This hymn, to the tune of an old melody, was the work of Sister Saint Mary Simon. This custom ceased in 1935 when parents began to collect their children for Christmas. Before then, the school holiday began on December 27 and ended the day before Epiphany.Each year, the Ursulines brought out their most beautiful ornaments for the festival of the Christ Child. Hangings for the Nativity in needlepoint, silver candelabra dating from the beginning of the colony, embroidered altar cloths and copes of Lyon silk, fashioned just like the draperies of Madame de la Peltrie, gave this ceremonious procession of the Christ Child its solemn and impressive character in spite of the simplicity of the surroundings.

Other churches also had their processions of the Christ Child as this British traveller recounts who, between 1780 and 1790, attended a Midnight Mass in Canada:
"Around 10 o’clock in the evening, a cradle was ceremoniously carried right into the choir of the church in Quebec. At midnight, a wax Jesus was placed in it with great ceremony and then rocked throughout the whole mass to the sound of carols.”

Today, this ceremony still takes place in some Canadian provinces particularly in Edmonton, Alberta where many Catholic parishioners gather together for the procession of Saint-Joachim.

© 1995, CHIN-Canadian Heritage Information Network. All Rights Reserved.

In Canada, in 1987, Abbé Sarto Lord, then the parish priest of Saint Jean Port Joli, wanted to replace the old plaster figures of the parish crèche. These did not really go with the sparkling colours of maple, oak and linden that panelled the interior walls of the church.

This town is considered the capital of Quebec woodcarving and some 15 carvers set out to work together at the initiative of Benoi Deschênes, himself a woodcarver, to provide their church with a crèche of 21 people and animals in linden wood. Jesus, Mary, Joseph, the ox and ass, shepherds and their sheep, the Angel Gabriel as well as the Wise Men populated this new crèche.

Six other pieces have since been added to the impressive collection: camels, a shepherd, a German shepherd dog, the Star of Bethlehem and, most recently, a pregnant Virgin.
In Canada, in 1987, Abbé Sarto Lord, then the parish priest of Saint Jean Port Joli, wanted to replace the old plaster figures of the parish crèche. These did not really go with the sparkling colours of maple, oak and linden that panelled the interior walls of the church.

This town is considered the capital of Quebec woodcarving and some 15 carvers set out to work together at the initiative of Benoi Deschênes, himself a woodcarver, to provide their church with a crèche of 21 people and animals in linden wood. Jesus, Mary, Joseph, the ox and ass, shepherds and their sheep, the Angel Gabriel as well as the Wise Men populated this new crèche.

Six other pieces have since been added to the impressive collection: camels, a shepherd, a German shepherd dog, the Star of Bethlehem and, most recently, a pregnant Virgin.

© 1995, CHIN-Canadian Heritage Information Network. All Rights Reserved.

wood carved figures for Church Crèche

Overall view of the crèche containing 27 figures and animals in linden wood. Work and gifts of some fifteen wood carvers from Saint Jean Port Joli. 1987-1994

Photograph : Musée de la civilisation, Québec, Pierre Soulard, 1995
Collection : Musée de la civilisation, Québec

© 1995, CHIN-Canadian Heritage Information Network. All Rights Reserved.


Bourgault sculpted a pregnant Virgin whose natural and realistic appearance is a homage to motherhood. Far from being shocking, Marie de l’Avent (Mary of the Advent) invites reverence and touches the heart. This extremely original sculptural work adds a new dimension to the crèche of Saint Jean Port Joli which sees itself as "a creation in movement, a re-created Birth".
Bourgault sculpted a pregnant Virgin whose natural and realistic appearance is a homage to motherhood. Far from being shocking, Marie de l’Avent (Mary of the Advent) invites reverence and touches the heart. This extremely original sculptural work adds a new dimension to the crèche of Saint Jean Port Joli which sees itself as "a creation in movement, a re-created Birth".

© 1995, CHIN-Canadian Heritage Information Network. All Rights Reserved.

Marie de l'Avent (Mary of the Advent) - Pregnant Mary

This pregnant Virgin is placed in the crèche during Advent. At Midnight Mass, she is replaced by another Virgin, also carved by Jacques Bourgault. In 1994, Jacques Bourgault (son of the well-known sculptor Médard Bourgault) accepted a commision from Mrs. Michèle Legros and Abbé Marcel Lamonde to produce a second Virgin, pregnant this time, for the crèche that Mrs. Legros had been tending since its creation in 1987.

Photograph : Musée de la civilisation, Québec, Pierre Soulard, 1995
Saint-Jean-Port-Joli Parish Corporation, Québec, Canada

© 1995, CHIN-Canadian Heritage Information Network. All Rights Reserved.


The ox and the ass have been universally adopted in depictions of the Nativity and always appear in crèches. Their origin is not to be found in the Gospels, however, but in the prophecies of Isaiah:
"The ox knoweth his owner,
and the ass his master’s crib:
but Israël doth not know
my people doth not consider" Isaiah( 1: 3)

The ox and the ass have been universally adopted in depictions of the Nativity and always appear in crèches. Their origin is not to be found in the Gospels, however, but in the prophecies of Isaiah:
"The ox knoweth his owner,
and the ass his master’s crib:
but Israël doth not know
my people doth not consider
" Isaiah( 1: 3)

© 1995, CHIN-Canadian Heritage Information Network. All Rights Reserved.

Santon of a cow

Santon by Pierre Pagano, Marseilles

Photo: Musée national des arts et traditions populaires (MNATP), Paris, France
Collection : Musée national des arts et traditions populaires (MNATP), Paris, France

© 1995, CHIN-Canadian Heritage Information Network. All Rights Reserved.


santon of an ass

Santon by Pierre Pagano, Marseilles

Photo: Musée national des arts et traditions populaires (MNATP), Paris, France
Collection : Musée national des arts et traditions populaires (MNATP), Paris, France

© 1995, CHIN-Canadian Heritage Information Network. All Rights Reserved.


Learning Objectives

The learner will:
  • Identify how people, events, and ideas of the past shape the present;
  • Describe the Christmas tradition of the crèche in Quebec and its historical development.

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