Nativity plays are crèches set up and presented in public and are called, depending on the kind, the period or the region: public, talking, pastoral or Besançon crèches.

There is no direct link between the liturgical dramas and the popular theatre of the crèche, whose earliest appearance dates back to the end of the XVIIIth century.

Their beginning is rather to be found in the Christmas books that proliferated from the XVIth century in which some songs consist of dialogue between two or more partners. These books contain all the elements necessary for playlets in which shepherds played important roles and from which pastoral crèches were derived.

Nativity plays are crèches set up and presented in public and are called, depending on the kind, the period or the region: public, talking, pastoral or Besançon crèches.

There is no direct link between the liturgical dramas and the popular theatre of the crèche, whose earliest appearance dates back to the end of the XVIIIth century.

Their beginning is rather to be found in the Christmas books that proliferated from the XVIth century in which some songs consist of dialogue between two or more partners. These books contain all the elements necessary for playlets in which shepherds played important roles and from which pastoral crèches were derived.


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

The Besançon crèche is a puppet show about the Nativity that emerged in France towards the end of the Ancien Régime. In Besançon just before the Revolution, a puppeteer put on a popular show by adding characters drawn from local society to the traditional Nativity figures. The satiric character Barbizier personified the resistance of the Francs-Comtois to France’s assimilation policies and the battle against the abuses of power and wealth. He thus became the spokesman for regional cultural identity.

The Besançon crèche was banned during the Revolution and gradually became less of a vehicle for social criticism than a children’s show by the end of the XIXth century. The words, handed down orally, were written down in 1865 by Abbé Bailly. Several years later a show where young people took on the traditional roles of the puppets was staged.

The Besançon crèche continues to be performed today.
The Besançon crèche is a puppet show about the Nativity that emerged in France towards the end of the Ancien Régime. In Besançon just before the Revolution, a puppeteer put on a popular show by adding characters drawn from local society to the traditional Nativity figures. The satiric character Barbizier personified the resistance of the Francs-Comtois to France’s assimilation policies and the battle against the abuses of power and wealth. He thus became the spokesman for regional cultural identity.

The Besançon crèche was banned during the Revolution and gradually became less of a vehicle for social criticism than a children’s show by the end of the XIXth century. The words, handed down orally, were written down in 1865 by Abbé Bailly. Several years later a show where young people took on the traditional roles of the puppets was staged.

The Besançon crèche continues to be performed today.

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

Puppets from the Couvent de la Providence used in the Besançon crèche.

Puppets from the Couvent de la Providence used in the Besançon crèche.

Photo : Jean Paul Tupin, Musée Comtois, France
La Providence, Musée Comtois, La Citadelle de Besançon, France
19th Century
© 1995, CHIN-Canadian Heritage Information Network. All Rights Reserved.


Puppet of the Besançon Crèche.

Puppet from the Couvent de la Providence used in the Besançon crèche.

Photo : Jean Paul Tupin, Musée Comtois, France
La Providence, Musée Comtois, La Citadelle de Besançon, France
19th Century
© 1995, CHIN-Canadian Heritage Information Network. All Rights Reserved.


In Provence, the first Nativity plays were mechanical crèches, which appeared at the end of the XVIIIth century. At the beginning of the XIXth century, puppet crèches became popular and performances evolved to the point that mechanical exploits and imaginary situations took precedence over the religious. Pastorals superseded this type of popular theatre of which the most celebrated was written in 1844 in Provencal by Antoine Maurel and which has been performed every year since.

The custom of the family crèche sprang up in Marseilles at the beginning of the XIXth century with small clay santons created by santonniers or santon makers. A whole world of non-biblical characters appears with Jesus: these are the poor people of Marseille. Except for the Virgin, Saint Joseph and the Wise Men, the santons wear traditional Marseilles costumes.
In Provence, the first Nativity plays were mechanical crèches, which appeared at the end of the XVIIIth century. At the beginning of the XIXth century, puppet crèches became popular and performances evolved to the point that mechanical exploits and imaginary situations took precedence over the religious. Pastorals superseded this type of popular theatre of which the most celebrated was written in 1844 in Provencal by Antoine Maurel and which has been performed every year since.

The custom of the family crèche sprang up in Marseilles at the beginning of the XIXth century with small clay santons created by santonniers or santon makers. A whole world of non-biblical characters appears with Jesus: these are the poor people of Marseille. Except for the Virgin, Saint Joseph and the Wise Men, the santons wear traditional Marseilles costumes.

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

Provençal Crèche

Provençal crèche

Photo : MNATP
Collection : Musée national des arts et traditions populaires
20th Century
© 1995, CHIN-Canadian Heritage Information Network. All Rights Reserved.


Santons by Thérèse Neuveu

Santons by Thérèse Neuveu

Photo : Museon Arlaten, Arles, France
Collection : Museon Arlaten, Arles, France
20th 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 the development of Christmas traditions, with examples;
  • compare Christmas traditions between cultures.

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