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Behind Provence’s famous traditional festive figurines - The Story of Marcel Carbonel Santons

Posted on December 12, 2020 | 0 Comments

We are delighted to share this wonderful article by Camille Renoux on the tradition of Marcel Carbonel Santons - the premier Santons workshop in Provence, which we are very proud to carry. Only Carbonel paints Santons with the meticulous painting processes detailed here.

"During December in Provence there are numerous fairs selling individual handcrafted traditional crib figures known as santons made in the region.

One of the oldest workshops is Santons Marcel Carbonel, named after the first man to be awarded Meilleur Ouvrier de France for his work as a santonnier in 1961 (santonsmarcelcarbonel.com).

The company, awarded Entreprise du Patrimoine Vivant for its traditional savoir-faire has stayed in the same family for four generations.

Why are santons made in Provence?

The first live crib was created by Saint Francis of Assisi during a mass in the forest of Abruzzi in Italy in the 13th century.

In the 17th century we know that a Capuchin friar, with a gift for sculpture, reproduced the characters for use by his congregation in Marseille.

Up until the Revolution, churches used to have nativity scenes at midnight mass, but afterwards these were forbidden and people started making miniature versions they could display in their own homes.

First, they would make them out of anything to hand, but gradually a profession grew up around them.

Master-craftsmen appeared in the 19th century and they would include characters from everyday life.

The first annual Foire aux Santons et aux Crèches was in 1803 in Marseille, and it is still an annual event today. Provence probably became the centre because the craftsmen made the figures out of clay which was readily available in the region.

Who was Marcel Carbonel?

He was a well-known santonnier who had studied at the Beaux Arts and worked as a lithographer before he started making his first crib figures in 1935.

His father, who was an electrician, also made cork santons as a sideline, which he sold at the Foire aux Santons in Marseille.

When he died, Marcel started making his own, out of clay. His figures stood out from others because he made his own natural pigments, still used today, to decorate them so they were brightly coloured but not shiny. He painted the faces with fine details which made the figures come alive as real personalities. He set up his first workshop in Marseille in 1942, and we are still here nearly 80 years later.

How are the santons made?

Everything is done by hand. First a character has to be designed and created.

Every year we introduce a new one to our range. Then a plaster mould is made and copies of a poorer quality are made which are sent out to our crafts people who mostly work in their own homes.

The poorer quality mould is designed so that it will not last for long, so it won’t be copied. It is in two parts. The clay is pressed into each side and then pressed together. The figure is released from the mould and carefully trimmed so that you cannot see any trace of the seam.

The craftsperson adds fine details such as the handle of a basket or the drumstick of a tambourine player by hand. After drying the figures are fired in a kiln. “Each piece is checked at each stage of the production and rejected if there is the slightest sign of any defect.

There are two firings a week all year round. Santons are in the kiln for 24 hours. It takes 12 hours for the kiln to heat up to its maximum temperature of 980°, they bake for six hours and then it takes six hours for the oven to cool so the figures can be taken out without cracking.

How are they decorated?

There is a chief decorator who works out the detail of each character and other decorators follow his or her instructions.

The watercolours are all prepared in our workshop. Each figure has 16 layers of paint. The decorators paint 50 at a time, and repeat the same layer on each one, so by the time they have reached the last one, the first has dried and they will be able to start with the next layer.

Each decorator paints around 150 a week. Each piece is checked at each stage of the production and rejected if there is the slightest sign of any defect.

What skills do you need to make santons?

You have to have passion and dedication. Santonniers have to be very meticulous with great attention to detail.

Who are the figures in a Provençal crib?

The different local crafts and jobs are represented as well as the biblical figures found in all crib scenes.

They come from the Pastorales Provençales, [plays which are traditionally acted out around Christmas, particularly around Marseille. They depict the nativity story as it would have happened if it had been in Provence].

Our characters come from one of the most-famous pastorales called la Maurel. All types of work carried out by local people are represented. There are olive pickers, stone masons, shepherds, lavender pickers, a woman with a baby, a monk, a fisherman and so on. Every year we add a new figure. This year’s was a hat maker.

When is the crib set up?

Traditionally, families open the box where the crib has been stored all year in November. They plan what it will look like and what new characters to add.

Maybe there will be a walk to collect moss, leaves and small wood chips to decorate the scene. It takes time to set it up. The finished crib is then traditionally on display from Sainte-Barbe, on December 4.

This marks the beginning of the Christmas season in Provence when wheat grains are planted in three saucers of humid cotton and if they have grown well by Christmas Day it is a sign of a good year ahead. Every day the santons are moved to create a new scene.

Finally, on Christmas Eve, the Baby Jesus is laid into the manger, at midnight. The three Kings start approaching until they arrive for the Epiphany. The crib is then put away until the next year.

Are your clients mainly from Provence?

We have customers all over France. It is a tradition that has spread throughout the country. Often families add a new figure every year and grow their collection.

They are all types of people. Provençal, Parisian, religious, carrying on a family tradition. Often the crib is passed down the generations and we have families who have been faithful to us over many years. We also sell to the United States, Japan, Belgium and Switzerland.

Many countries have their own cribs. What is different about those from Provence?

We have a museum with more than 2,000 pieces from the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries from all over the world.

They are made in many different materials including wood, cork, paper, glass and porcelain. In Provence, they are made from terracotta. There are five major producers including ourselves in the region and we all have our own characteristics."

Posted in Carbonel Santons, Christmas Traditions, French Christmas, Nativities, Provence Christmas

Marcel Carbonel's new Santon for 2019 / Size #2 - The Hat Maker

Posted on October 23, 2019 | 0 Comments

New this year, from the Carbonel Santons workshop in Marseille, is the Size #2 Milliner / Hat Maker / la Chapelière.

This delightful figure commemorates the traditional folkloric straw hats worn by Carbonel's Provençal Santons.  

The Hatmaker

There exist several modern hatmakers where one can find these wonderful Provençal straw hats, including Tracelet 

and Mouret

One can also find at Mouret the traditional black felt hat worn by many of Carbonel's male figures

Felt Frederic Mistral ( Capeu di Frederi Mistral ):
Of French manufacture, exclusive creation, the black hat, with broad edges, of Frédéric Mistral and felibres is the typical hat of Provençal. Can be worn on horseback as in the city everyday.

Add the Milliner / Hat Maker / la Chapelière in Size #2 to your collection and celebrate the 18th / 19th century dress of the Santons world.

 

 

Posted in Carbonel Santons, French Christmas, Nativities

Marcel Carbonel's New for 2018 - the Pharamacist

Posted on October 04, 2018 | 0 Comments

The Pharmacist is, simply said, essential to any community. This year, 2018, Carbonel has added this smart figure to their Size #2 / Elite Santons collection. 

   

The Pharamcist / Apothecaire

We enjoyed reading about the history of pharamacy - here - going back to 2100 B.C.E.

He joins the townspeople to include the Mayor, Mr. Jourdan, the Notary, etc. and will make a lovely addition to your collection.

Posted in Carbonel Santons, French Christmas, Nativities, Provence Christmas

'Tis the Season to Gather and Send Advent Calendars

Posted on October 28, 2016 | 0 Comments

Advent Calendars are a special part of the Christmas season. From December 1 through Christmas Eve open a little door to discover an image or a biblical quote. They are simple and of an everlasting nature (spiritually and because they can often be reused year-in-year- out). They bring us a bit of "quiet time" amid all the hustle-bustle. 

Angels Looking After the Children

All of the advent calendars that we offer come, of course, from Germany. We try to add a significant selection of new ones each year.

Nativity Scene

 and rejoice in keeping as many of the standard classics as well.

Santa and Angel with Horse Drawn Sled

They make a perfect little gift for family and friends - add a touch of joy throughout the holiday season. Find our full selection here - German Advent Calendars .

 

Posted in Advent, Angels, Christmas Traditions, German Christmas, German Folk Art, German Traditions, Nativities, Santa

The Helbig Workshop Nativity - Your Way

Posted on December 09, 2015 | 0 Comments

The nativity set from the Emil Helbig Workshop, the oldest wood-carving work shop in the Erzgebirge (Germany's Christmas Capital), is without a doubt one of, if not the, finest hand-carved German nativity sets.

The joy of the Emil Helbig Workshop nativity is all the possibilities - rejoice in the complete set (above).

Choose a Helbig Nativity with a Bavarian stable (below) and a selection of nativity figures plus Bavarian accessories.

Choose the simplicity (below) of the Helbig Mary, Joseph, and Jesus with a hand-carved tree and a tree platform (both from the Erzgebirge).

or choose a set of Mary, Joseph, and Jesus (below)

When and if you want to add additional Helbig figures to your selection, we now offer all of them separately -

     the three kings

     the ox

     the donkey

     the sheep     

     the shepherds   

     and the camels     

We feel privileged to be able to offer the Emil Helbig nativity figures to you.  To find them in our shop - click here or on any of the photographs above.

______________________

Emil Helbig Workshop - since 1933
Grunhainichen - A Toy Makers Village
Oldest Woodcarving Workshop in the Erzgebirge
Three generations strong - Celebrating the native Linden Tree
Winner of the 2007 Erzgebirge Craftsman and Toy Makers Association
Award for Outstanding Care in  Preserving the Erzgebirge Tradition
Unique - Original - Elegant

Posted in Christmas Traditions, Emil Helbig, Erzgebirge, German Christmas, German Folk Art, German Traditions, Nativities

Now in Size #3 - The Olive Gatherer - La Ceuilleuse d'olives - New from Marcel Carbonel Santons for 2015

Posted on December 02, 2015 | 0 Comments

Happily, 2015 brings The Olive Gatherer - La Ceuilleuse d'olives - to Marcel Carbonel Santons Size #3 / Grande - the 3-1/2" size.

First introduced in 2012, we loved the Olive Gatherer in Size #2

and we love her even more in Size #3.  She is more than elegant, wearing a wide-brimmed black hat to shade herself from the sun over a green cotton headdress. She has a headscarf on her shoulders, a pinafore around her waist, and carries a basket of olives on her right arm, a branch of olives in that right hand, and an olive rake in the other. A bag of olives lies at her feet.  The painting of her costume is, as always, exquisite.

Yet, more than that, we think she is especially appealing to those of us who are not from the French culture, as she symbolizes the harvesting of the glorious olive trees and in turn the pressing of those olives into olive oil, that we, as foreigners automatically and rather romantically associate with Provence.  

Olive trees were planted by the Greeks when they settled circa 600 BC in Provence and around the Mediterranean. The trees thrived in the dry, stony, limestone soil and helped prevent erosion. Today, Olive oil from Provence is a limited crop. Varied and distinctive, Provence is known not known for the quantity of its olive oils, but for their superb quality.

Patricia Wells, a renown Provence cookbook writer rejoiced in this year's harvest. 

Just last month, in November, she made the decision to pick the olives in her olive grove by hand. She writes:

"The events of Friday November 13th in Paris left us stunned and horrified. It is the city that I have come to call home and not uncommonly for a Friday night, I was out dining with friends at a small bistro on the left bank when the news of the attacks broke. We decided that the most positive action we could take was to continue with our plans to harvest our olive grove in Provence, both to celebrate the longevity, strength, beauty, and bounty associated with the revered olive and to soothe our saddened souls."

Carbonel's Olive Gatherers make a soulful addition to everyones Santons collection!

Enjoy our My Growing Traditions Marcel Carbonel Pinterest Board - click here 

Posted in Carbonel Santons, French Christmas, Nativities, Provence Christmas

Bavarian Stables - Perfect for Santons or Helbig Nativity Figures

Posted on November 13, 2015 | 0 Comments

We have expanded our offerings in wooden stables this year.  We are always looking for the best. These hand-crafted in Bavaria stables are stellar pieces of folk art in their own right, and work ever so well with Carbonel's Santons or the nativity figures from the Emil Helbig workshop.

For Carbonel Size #3 - the Grande - 3-1/2" size - this stable is perfection...

On a wooden platform, wooden and plaster walls, a hay crib - click here or on the image above to see close-ups of the architectural detail.

For Carbonel Size #2 - the Elite - 2-3/4" size and for the Emil Helbig Workshop nativity figures, choose between these Bavarian stables. Again, they are of wood and plaster, and are superbly crafted.

       

Bavarian Folk Art for display of your chosen nativity figures.
To find them click on the images above or click here 
My Growing Traditions offers Free Shipping for all three of these stables.
We know you will find them to be exceptional!

 

 

Posted in Carbonel Santons, Emil Helbig, French Christmas, German Christmas, German Folk Art, German Traditions, Nativities

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