In many regions of France nativity scenes known as crèches are seen in every village. They are not as popular as the swinging Santas that seem to abound where I live in the Nord-Pas de Calais, or Christmas trees but there are still plenty of them.
Crèches can be seen in gardens, windows and churches – ranging from the very stylish and traditional to the totally over the top and quite bizarre.
The nativity scenes represent the birth of Jesus in a manger, there are usually animals and figurines of the Virgin Mary and the three wise men, sometimes there are shepherds and often these days Father Christmas seems to be there too.
The figures are known as santons and it appears that the practice of creating these crèches has been around for centuries – in fact since the 13th Century when churches in France placed figurines of the baby Jesus in churches at Christmas time – maybe to keep the children entertained through long services.
The French Revolution put paid to many religious practices, so families started a tradition of placing the santons in their own homes – it was Christmas after all.
To this day it’s still popular all over France to create crèches and santons of different styles and sizes – I’ve seen life size to miniature, hand-made to shop bought, traditional to quite garish – which the children always seem to like best! Santons are passed down the generations and are valued heirlooms – not in a financial sense usually but rich in tradition, heritage and family history.