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Christmas traditions in Provence

Rich in symbolism, strong in emotion and sensations, the traditions of Christmas in Provence give meaning and colour to the festival.

It all starts on 4 December, Saint Barbara's Day, and marks the start of the "Calendale" period, which doesn't end until Candlemas on 2 February. Between these two dates, there is a succession of traditions, festivities and customs that are followed to a greater or lesser extent depending on the village and the family.

The different Provençal Christmas traditions

Saint Barbe's wheat

Blé de la Sainte Barbe

On 4 December, you have to germinate wheat seeds in three saucers covered in damp cotton wool. The little bags of wheat seed are sold in almost all bakeries for charity. If the stalks grow straight and green, the year will be prosperous. These miniature fields will then take their place in the family crib.

The nativity scene and the Santons

Santons en Provence.

To prepare the crib, numerous santon fairs are held throughout Provence from mid-November onwards. The real santon, from the Provençal "Santoun" (little saint), is made of clay and created by hand with love. The santons must then take on a human form, a look, a character and even a social rank.

They represent the inhabitants of the village on their way to the crib: pétanque players, fish merchants, doctors, bakers, shepherds, etc. The authentic crib is in fact an ideal representation of the Provencal village and its little world. This tradition is present in every department of Provence, but is strongest in the Bouches du Rhône. There are around a hundred workshops between Marseille, Aubagne, Aix en Provence and Arles.

Christmas markets

Throughout December, Christmas markets take place in every town, giving you the chance to prepare for Christmas in style. Food, crafts, decorations and gift ideas are all on offer in a warm and friendly atmosphere.

Open-air markets often offer cinnamon mulled wine to warm you up. You'll find everything you need to prepare traditional Provençal or non-Provençal Christmas meals: turkeys and foie gras alongside Provençal suppers and 13 desserts.

The Aix en Provence Christmas Market

Don't miss the Aix-en-Provence Christmas market, which attracts visitors from all over the region for its cheerful, festive atmosphere and large number of exhibitors. It's the perfect opportunity to stock up on regional products to prepare for Christmas Eve in the Provencal style, and to find little gifts for the whole family.


Christmas Eve: the big supper and the 13 desserts

The big supper is served on Christmas Eve, before going to midnight mass. Nothing is left to chance, there is a symbolism behind each dish and the numbers are important:

The table is covered with 3 white tablecloths - 3 for the 3 persons of the Trinity - with 3 lit white candlesticks and 3 saucers of sprouted wheat from St Barbara's Day. No mistletoe, which is reputed to bring bad luck!

The big supper is paradoxically made up of 7 lean dishes in memory of Mary's 7 sorrows. It is served with 13 bread rolls followed by 13 desserts representing the Last Supper with the 12 apostles and Jesus.

The lean dishes served differ from one corner of Provence to another, often including chard and celery, cauliflower, spinach and cod, omelette, snails, garlic soup, but never meat, just fish, shellfish, gratins, vegetables, soups and anchovy paste. The only abundance is the thirteen desserts.

The thirteen desserts are eaten on returning from mass, and will remain on the table for the next 3 days, until 27 December:

  • the 4 mendicants: dried figs (Franciscans), almonds (Carmelites), sultanas (Dominicans) and walnuts (Augustinians),

  • dates: symbol of Christ from the East,

  • nougats (black and white) for the white penitent and the black penitent according to some, for others the white nougat, soft and unctuous represents purity and goodness, the black nougat harder and more brittle evokes the impure and the forces of evil.

  • fougasse in olive oil (la pompe): a round flat cake in olive oil,

  • quince paste or candied fruit in the Apt or Carpentras region,

  • oreillettes (a small, light, thin waffle),

  • fresh fruit: mandarins, oranges, pears, grapes and winter melons preserved for the occasion.

Midnight mass

You'll hear Provençal carols everywhere, some accompanied by flutes and tambourines to celebrate this sacred moment. In some villages, the mass may be in Provençal. The mass can include a living nativity scene in which the figures in the crib are represented by costumed villagers: the Holy Family (Jesus, Mary, Joseph), the Three Wise Men and the shepherds.

In some villages, you can also attend the ritual of the Pastrage ceremony during midnight mass: a newborn lamb is brought as an offering (it is alive and no harm is done to it) either in a decorated cart, decorated with straw and foliage, or in the arms of the shepherds who have come to the church in procession after crossing the hills. Some midnight masses with pastrages are very well known and attract large crowds, particularly in Allauch, Saint Rémy de Provence, Tarascon and Saint Michel de Frigolet, Barbentane, Fontvieille and Rognonas.

A pastorale may accompany the mass: this is a dramatised representation of the Nativity, sung and spoken in Provençal by characters dressed in Provençal costumes. The most popular Pastorale is the Pastorale Maurel, but there are 250 different versions, telling stories of villages and Christmas traditions.

Christmas carols in Provençal

In old Provençal families, it's also a Christmas tradition to sing a few carols in Provençal on Christmas Eve. It's a tradition deeply rooted in our elders, and one that appeals to the younger generations who have been taught these lovely traditional songs. The best-known Provençal Christmas carols are "La cambo me fai mau" ("the leg hurts" in English) and "la marchau di Rèi". Carols in Provençal are also sung at midnight mass in some parishes.

How do you say "Merry Christmas" in Provençal?

The Provençal word for "Merry Christmas" is "Bòn Nové". It's the expression used by Provençal families who speak our beautiful regional language.


You'll find plenty of superb restaurants to spend Christmas Eve in Provence. We recommend that you choose a pretty village in Provence where you feel at home, and book a good restaurant in advance to enjoy a delicious Christmas meal! You could, for example, spend a week in the Alpilles or the Luberon. Or choose the Côte d'Azur and its dreamy villages like Eze.


The villages and towns of Provence organize numerous festivities throughout December to celebrate Christmas. These often stretch from Saint Barbara's Day (December 4) to New Year's Eve. We invite you to take a look at our selection of December village fêtes in Provence, so you're sure to find one near you! It's great fun to admire the Provencal cribs in the various villages of Provence, to browse the Christmas markets and to attend some of the big festivals, such as the Fête de la Lumière in Saint Raphaël.


December 26 is traditionally a public holiday in Provence. This is also the case in other French regions such as Alsace and Moselle. This tradition dates back to ancient times, when it took a long time to travel from town to town. Workers who had to travel back to their villages to be with their families for Christmas on December 25 didn't have time to return to work in the city for December 26... so it was decided to make this day a public holiday so that everyone could enjoy the festive season. Nowadays, it's a great way to recover from a drunken Christmas dinner!

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