This is the time of the year where we see the Nativity scene displayed in our homes, churches and often with a live cast portraying the birth of the Christ Child.
But let’s go back to the origin of the Nativity. It is believed that St. Francis of Assisi recreated the scene of Jesus’ birth with a live play in 1223 in a cave in Greccio, Italy using real people and some wooden figures, an ass and an ox. By 1226, this custom of having a crib was widespread throughout Italy and France. Live Nativity plays were reenacted throughout the towns and churches
The French Revolution in 1789 was a turning point in the celebration of the Nativity and the French Noel Creche. During this time, churches were sacked, looted and closed; the Midnight Mass and outdoor Nativity scenes banned. Ordinary people began setting up creches in their own homes, a tradition usually reserved only for the wealthy. As time went on, more elaborate creches were created, including figures of local villagers of Provence.
In 1797, the SANTON was created in Marseille, France to add to the French Noel Creche. These were clay figures representing the characters from the play “Pastoral”. In addition to the Holy Family, the colorful figures included villagers in their work clothes bringing gifts that they had made, grown, or hunted to the Christ Child. It was a way to bring religion into homes and keep it alive during the French Revolution.
Earlier Santons, “Santoun” (France) and “Santibelli” (Italy) meaning “little saints” can be found in most French homes. It is a way of teaching the story of the Christ Child and the holy birth to children in a way that they can participate. The santons are small enough to fit into little hands that can be moved around to recreate the birth story. The Christ child is only added at midnight of Christmas Eve. It also teaches the legends of the tradesmen and women of Provence during the 18th century. The villagers put themselves into the story because Jesus came to earth for all of us. The Santons remind us that Jesus was born into every culture and into every time.
I hope that you have a Blessed and Merry Christmas!