As the Metropolitan Museum of Art‘s site points out, the tradition of decorating Christmas trees comes from Northern European Protestants, while the custom of assembling elaborate Nativity scenes comes from Southern European Catholics.
Santons (from the Provençal for “little saint”) are small, painted terracotta figurines. They originated in Provence during the French Revolution, when large nativity scenes were banned. A traditional Provençal crèche contains 55 figurines, representing not just the customary figures from a Nativity scene, but also characters from old Provençal village life: A baker, a water carrier, a blind man, a gypsy, a chestnut seller, a farmer, etc. (There are many, many more characters available beyond the traditional 55, and, as you’d expect with this kind of “collectable”, some people go more than a little overboard. With santons averaging about $50 each, this can add up fast).
There are about 100 ateliers–most of them small family businesses that have been handed down through many generations–making santons. For 210 years, santonniers have gathered in Marseille from mid-November to the end of December to display and sell their wares at the Foire des Santonniers.
The blog Santons et crèches de Provence has some excellent pictures.
We had a small set, a gift from my Great Aunt Hélène, who was one of the people who exported santons from France to the United States.
You really have to click and enbiggen this picture and the next one to get an idea of the range of santons.