Some families have a tradition of adding a new figurine to their Nativity scene every year—perhaps another shepherd or angel, or a representation of a typical regional character or profession. This year, a new one was created by a French craftsman — a little girl with Down syndrome.
“Clay is to the maker of creche figurines what man is to God,” wrote French author Frédéric Mistral. Clay is from Provence, a region of France where there is a particularly strong and colorful tradition of making creches. As God fashioned man in his own image and likeness (Gn 1, 26), some 200 specialized craftsmen (santonniers) in France continue to create small plaster or clay figures (called santons) that populate the creches on Christmas Eve.
Among these santonniers is Didier Zaouche, head of the Marseilles-based workshop called Santons Didier, who agreed in early 2021 to design a new model of santon: a child with Down syndrome. The request came from the Jérôme Lejeune Foundation, which has the mission of researching intellectual disabilities of genetic origin initiated by Professor Jérôme Lejeune, and to treat people with these condition, and to defend life.
Although the shepherds, the priest, and the washerwoman are essential characters in Provençal nativity scenes, no one had ever thought of including a person with a disability.
Surprised by the nature of the request, the workshop manager was initially skeptical about the possibility of creating a figure properly. “At first I thought it wouldn’t be possible,” he told the Foundation. “But I decided to persevere, to try anyway, and to start from an existing model to make it easier for me. It was a bit of a challenge.” A few weeks later, the santonnier presented a prototype to the Foundation, which then ordered several hundred copies.
He explains, “I thought of my son’s sister-in-law while making this project, who herself has Down syndrome.” This indirect family link undoubtedly gave the project extra soul.
May this unique and unprecedented creation contribute to the wider acceptance of people with Down syndrome in our society. We hope to see more figurines like this one become available around the world.