Christmas Traditions in Provence

Symbolically rich, charged with excitement and emotion, Christmas traditions in Provence bring another dimension of meaning and colour to the festivities.

It all really begins on 4th December, St. Barbe's Day. This is the start of the "calendale" or Christmastide period which continues right through to Candlemas Day on 2nd February. Between these two dates a series of traditions, festivities, rituals and customs are observed to a varying extent, depending on the villages, depending on the family.

  St. Barbe's wheat

On the 4th December, wheat germ must be planted in three saucers covered with damp cotton wool. (Small packets of wheat germs are sold in almost all bakery shops and the proceeds go to charity). If the stalks grow straight and green, the coming year will be prosperous. These miniature wheat fields will afterwards be placed in the family crib.


The crib and santons

To prepare the Christmas crib, there are numerous santons markets organised throughout the Provence region from mid-November on. The real santon, deriving from the Provençal word "santoun" meaning little saint, is handmade from clay by craftsmen with a love of their art. Santons must then take on a human aspect, with a personalised appearance, character and even social status&

They represent the inhabitants of the village visiting the Christmas crib: pétanque players, fishmongers, doctors, bakers, shepherds, etc. Here the traditional crib is in fact an ideal model of a Provençal village and its inhabitants. This tradition is present in each department of Provence but it is particularly strong in the Bouches du Rhône. There are about a hundred workshops between Marseille, Aubagne, Aix en Provence, Arles.

Christmas markets

Throughout the month of December, each town has its own Christmas market, giving everyone the opportunity to prepare for Christmas in the most pleasant way. Gastronomy, arts and crafts, decorations and gift ideas are displayed in a warm friendly atmosphere.
The open-air markets often provide the occasion to drink mulled winewith cinnamon to warm you up. You can find all you need to prepare the traditional Christmas meal, whether you prefer a Provençal meal or not: Turkeys and foie gras rub shoulders with dishes for the Provençal "great supper" and the traditional 13 desserts.

Christmas Eve: the

The "great supper" is eaten on Christmas Eve, before going to midnight mass. Everything is minutely prepared. Each dish has its own symbolism and numbers are important :

The table has 3 white tablecloths - 3 for the 3 members of the Trinity - with 3 white lighted candelabras and 3 saucers of sprouted wheat germs planted on St. Barbe's Day. Absolutely no mistletoe believed to bring bad luck&!

The "great supper" is paradoxically made up of 7 lean dishes in memory of the 7 sufferings of Mary. It is served with 13 bread rolls followed by the 13 desserts, which represent the Last Supper with Jesus and the 12 apostles.
These lean dishes differ from one part of Provence to another. The dishes often served are chard stalks and celery, cauliflower, spinach and cod, omelette, snails, garlic soup & but never any meat, simply fish, shellfish, gratins, vegetables, soups and anchoïade (anchovy paste). The only abundance is that of the thirteen desserts.

The thirteen desserts are eaten after Midnight mass. They will remain on the table for the following 3 days, until 27th December:

the 4 mendicant (orders): dry figs (Franciscans), almonds (Carmelites), raisins (Dominicans) and hazelnuts (Augustinians),

dates: symbol of Christ who came from the Orient,

nougat (black and white) for the white penitents and black penitents according to some people, while for others white nougat, soft and creamy represents purity and goodness, the harder and brittle black nougat symbolising impurity and forces of evil&

the "fougasse à l'huile d'olive", also called "la pompe": a flat loaf made using olive oil,

quince cheese or crystallised fruit in the Apt or Carpentras regions,

"oreillettes": light thin waffles,

fresh fruit: mandarin oranges, oranges, pears, raisins and winter melons preserved for the occasion.

Midnight mass

Everywhere you go you will hear Provençal Christmas carols and to celebrate this sacred event some will be accompanied by flute and tambourine players. In some villages, the mass may be in Provençal. Mass can include a living crib where the crib characters are represented by inhabitants of the village dressed as: the Holy Family (Jesus, Mary and Joseph), the three Wise Kings and the shepherds.
In some villages you will also be able to attend the ritual of the "Pastrage" ceremony during midnight mass: a new-born lamb is brought as an offering (it is alive and is not harmed in any way) either in a decorated cart, lined with straw and leaves or carried by shepherds who have come to the church in a procession after walking over the hills. Some midnight masses that include the "pastrages" ceremony are very well known and attract a lot of people, in particular at Allauch, St Rémy de Provence, Tarascon and St Michel de Frigolet, Barbentane, Fontvieille, Rognonas.
The mass can be accompanied by a "pastorale": this is a theatrical representation of the Nativity, sung and spoken in Provençal by people dressed in Provençal costumes. The most widely known "Pastorale" is the Maurel Pastorale but there are 250 different versions based on village histories and Christmas traditions.

  These traditions are handed down from one generation to the next and are part of the community's heritage: the "pastorales", the "calandale" vigils with the great supper and the thirteen desserts are organised in groups, at the mill, or at the community centre, or even at the church &, sometimes before 24th December so everybody can celebrate Christmas with their family in the conventional sense as everywhere else in France with foie gras, turkey with chestnut stuffing and of course Christmas sweetmeats.

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