The appeal of crèches can be seen in France as early as the XVIIth century. In aristocratic and middle class homes, the forerunners of the domestic crèche began to appear in the form of decorated glass-fronted boxes called grottoes or rockeries.

The crèches depicted the Infant Jesus or scenes from the lives of Christ and the saints. These figures were made of wax, bread dough or spun glass and were set in an imaginary landscape of flowers, waterfalls and animals evocative of paradise. The Neapolitan crèches were particularly successful. When Provencal santons appeared in the XVIIIth century, the family crèche became even more widespread and some of them contained up to 40 different characters.

In Quebec, the Christmas crèche was already part of religious traditions from the beginning of New France. Nonetheless, it is only after 1875 that crèches began to appear in houses and become part of family routines. Even before decorated Christmas trees became the custom, the crèche already had pride of place in people’s homes.

The custom of setting up a under the Christmas tree became widespread during the 1930s. Many families built their own small Read More
The appeal of crèches can be seen in France as early as the XVIIth century. In aristocratic and middle class homes, the forerunners of the domestic crèche began to appear in the form of decorated glass-fronted boxes called grottoes or rockeries.

The crèches depicted the Infant Jesus or scenes from the lives of Christ and the saints. These figures were made of wax, bread dough or spun glass and were set in an imaginary landscape of flowers, waterfalls and animals evocative of paradise. The Neapolitan crèches were particularly successful. When Provencal santons appeared in the XVIIIth century, the family crèche became even more widespread and some of them contained up to 40 different characters.

In Quebec, the Christmas crèche was already part of religious traditions from the beginning of New France. Nonetheless, it is only after 1875 that crèches began to appear in houses and become part of family routines. Even before decorated Christmas trees became the custom, the crèche already had pride of place in people’s homes.

The custom of setting up a under the Christmas tree became widespread during the 1930s. Many families built their own small stables to shelter commercially-bought figures. Later still, whole villages made up of little houses spread out around the crèche appeared at the foot of the tree.

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

Crèche

Print. Plate of a crèche from Wentzel of Wissembourg press.

Photo : Musée Alsacien, Strasbourg, France
Collection : Musée Alsacien, Strasbourg, France
XIXth Century
© 1995, CHIN-Canadian Heritage Information Network. All Rights Reserved.


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 coul Read More
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.

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

Shepherd

Santon by Pierre Pagano. Figure from a Provençal crèche. Painted unfired clay.

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

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


Santon

Santon by Pierre Pagano. Figure from a Provençal crèche. Painted unfired clay.

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

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


Virgin Mary

A kneeling Virgin from a Provençal crèche. Painted unfired clay.

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

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


It is difficult to explain the background to the little houses that are found at the foot of Christmas trees. Some believe, however, that they appeared at the same time as the first santons, towards the end of the XVIIIth century.

We know, however, that the Moravians who emigrated from Germany to the United States in 1741 to establish the town of Bethlehem in Pennsylvania, preserved their customary Christmas crèche decorations. Called putz (from the German putzen: to decorate), this tradition involves adding several decorative elements to the crèche: dozens, sometimes hundreds, of figures, houses, waterfalls, bridges, fences, fountains and even gardens to create imaginary landscapes.

Sets of small buildings began to appear on the market in Canada at the beginning of the XXth century. Around 1920, Germany was exporting large numbers of these sets to North America and from 1930, Japan did the same.

Rugs for the base of the Christmas tree, which appeared on the market around 1913, were a complementary and indispensable addition and were meant to protect floors against the wax of dripping candles. The first rugs sported Santa Claus driving a sleigh drawn Read More

It is difficult to explain the background to the little houses that are found at the foot of Christmas trees. Some believe, however, that they appeared at the same time as the first santons, towards the end of the XVIIIth century.

We know, however, that the Moravians who emigrated from Germany to the United States in 1741 to establish the town of Bethlehem in Pennsylvania, preserved their customary Christmas crèche decorations. Called putz (from the German putzen: to decorate), this tradition involves adding several decorative elements to the crèche: dozens, sometimes hundreds, of figures, houses, waterfalls, bridges, fences, fountains and even gardens to create imaginary landscapes.

Sets of small buildings began to appear on the market in Canada at the beginning of the XXth century. Around 1920, Germany was exporting large numbers of these sets to North America and from 1930, Japan did the same.

Rugs for the base of the Christmas tree, which appeared on the market around 1913, were a complementary and indispensable addition and were meant to protect floors against the wax of dripping candles. The first rugs sported Santa Claus driving a sleigh drawn by eight reindeer. In a northern country like Canada, cotton wool proved to be very useful to simulate great expanses of snow. Towards 1930, crêpe paper designed to look like stone or brick began to replace these unsophisticated rugs.


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

Christmas crèche and village

Some pieces from the Davis collection were used to set up this crèche and village under one of the three Christmas trees erected in the entrance of the Musée de la civilisation during its exhibit, Noël ancien (Christmas of Yesteryear) presented in December 1993.

Photograph : Musée de la civilisation, Pierre Soulard, 1993
Collection : Musée de la civilisation, Québec, Canada
Century
© 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 some Christmas traditions in Canada and their development, with examples;
  • Compare Christmas traditions between cultures, including Canada and France, and over time.

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