My family set up a nativity scene every Christmas. Our first figures came from West Germany. We purchased them at the Woolworth’s in Oak Park, across the alley from my grandparents’ home. Every year we looked for new figurines. Eventually we had so many that we set the crèche under the tree instead of on the bookcase. This enabled us to place the three kings at a distance from the Holy Family. Each day we moved them a little closer until they reached the manger on Epiphany, January 6.
We were very careful with the paper mache figures, but accidents happen. Somehow, one of the kings lost his head. Fortunately, a careful gluing restored him, and he is fine to this day. In one of my favorite stories from Told under the Christmas Tree, a French santon, also one of the kings, is damaged. The children in the tale model a new one of terra cotta and paint it. They surprise their parents by setting it in their nativity scene, off to the distance, so that he can make his way to the manger with the other kings.
Many years later, I spent a month in Nice, France, studying Provençal customs, including the crèche and the santons, figurines not only depicting the Holy Family, shepherds, and angels, but all the people of the village and countryside who bring gifts to the infant Jesus. I found a shop that carried santons in many sizes. I visited it often and brought home a pocketbook filled with figurines from ½ inches tall to 3 inches. When I set up my crèche, I still put the kings far away and move them in for Three Kings’ Day, Epiphany. They join the mayor, the baker, the robber, the farm wife, the knitter, the fisherman and others in welcoming Jesus.
If you would like to see what my French santons look like, visit https://www.santonsmarcelcarbonel.com/?language=en
Locally, we like to visit a panaderia and purchase a rosca de reyes, a festive cake to celebrate with. These ring-shaped cakes are delicious and beautiful, decorated with candied fruit. Hidden in the cake is a baby Jesus, much like the King Cake that is popular in New Orleans from Epiphany to Mardi Gras. Whoever finds the baby, is queen or king of the feast.