In many parts of France, the crèche de Noël is more important than the Christmas tree. I grew up with a crèche, not because my family is French, but because they appreciated the religious emphasis. We had the standard crew in ours, Mary, Joseph, baby Jesus, highly astonished shepherds, very cute sheep, Wise Men, complete with grumpy looking camels – they had traveled a long way, after all.
A typical French crèche, however, is full of all the usual suspects plus santons (little saints), terra cotta figurines that represent all the folks in a Provençal village, each bearing a gift. They represent figures from the Pastorales, a series of southern French folk tales: a blind man healed by a visit to the Christ-child, the comical Bartoumieu, and local trades people, such as knife grinders, basket weavers and fishermen. The scene is completed with an olive tree, usually represented by a branch of thyme.
Crèches date back to the 13th century and Saint Francis of Assisi. When religious displays were banned during the Revolution, small domestic scenes replaced life-size crèches in public squares. For over 200 years, the best place to get them is the Foire aux Santons de Marseille from late November through the end of the year.