This is an excerpt from an article called “Christmas Abroad” from The Illustrated London Magazine (1864), which describes the little santons (figurines) which are part of the famous crèches of Marseilles (Provence, France).
These creches – which include a surrounding countryside and multitude of figurines – are my favourite type and they remind me of those I loved to visit in Italy.
“Whilst their elders are feasting, the children are not forgotten : a fair is held for them during a whole week, which is called, in the patois, “lafiero deis santouns”— the fair of the little saints.
Stalls are set up on each side of the Cours Belsunce, on which the merchants place a multitude of roughly made plaster figures, not more than three inches in height, destined to people the interior of the cardboard buildings which represent the stable at Bethlehem, and to which they give the name of creches.
In this little edifice the child Jesus occupies the foreground between the ox and the ass. The Virgin Mary and Joseph stand near, whilst the wise men of the East are kneeling. To the right and left a crowd of peasants are coming to adore the Messiah—these are the (?)
The decorations are truly rustic; the stable is on the first floor; on the second is drawn a landscape, with details more or less complicated according to the grandeur of the crèche. Generally there are hills covered with windmills, meadows where flocks are browsing, clay houses, lakes, and rivers. All these are made of painted paper, pottery-ware, moss, and lichens, resembling a landscape in Dauphiny, just as much as the neighbourhood of Bethlehem.
Besides, they do not hesitate to give the Marseillais costume to the shepherds of Palestine, or to place among them modern characters, such as tambourine-players, gypsies carrying a cat and a drum, soldiers in blue tunics and red trousers, priests in surplices, and people of every profession, who offer to the blessed Infant eggs, milk, cakes, fruits, lambs, and birds.
But these anachronisms do not take away any of the charm for the young owners; each family must have its crèche, which is placed in one of the most exposed parts of the room, and surrounded by wax tapers, which are lighted every evening, to the great delight of the children.