If you spend enough time in Provence you’ll begin to see how invested people are in continuing the local traditions. This is perhaps most evident at village festivals where celebrants dress in period costume, bring out their finest musical instruments, and hold processions in the center of town – venerating everything from saints to local specialties like olives and “pistou” soup.
And did you know that the region’s most famous “cookie”, the calisson, is blessed every year in an elaborate ceremony taking place in the church of Saint-Jean-de-Malte in Aix-en-Provence? That’s pretty serious stuff…. But if you’ve ever tasted a calisson done right, you’ll certainly understand what all the fuss is about.
(You can learn all about this annual ceremony at: http://www.benediction-calisson.com)
So it comes as no surprise that Christmastime is full of its own set of Provençal traditions and events. And how “sweet” and fun they are!
Here are some of the highlights of the season:
-Le Marché de Noël
Christmas markets are one of the best things about the holiday season in France. Whether you’re in Paris, Alsace, or Provence, you’re sure to be captivated by all the seasonal “goodies” the markets have to offer. While the markets of the north transform whole towns into “Christmas wonderlands”, the Provençal markets have their own unique and special offerings. Notably, some staples of southern markets include: Provençal nougat, calissons from Aix-en-Provence, and the famous Provençal santons – small figurines that make up local Nativity scenes. Of course you’ll also find Christmas market-staples like hot wine, gingerbread, and decorations of all shapes and sizes.
-Provençal crèches (Nativity scenes)
Nativity scenes in the South of France are all about santons – handcrafted and intricately painted figurines which depict Biblical and Provençal scenes. And wow, they can be quite elaborate. My favorite crèche is on Cours Mirabeau in the center of Aix-en-Provence. It depicts everything from Provençal “maidens” handwashing their laundry to fishmongers selling their wares at an outdoor market. There’s a replica of Aix’s beautiful 4 Dolphins Fountain and you can spot workers in the “lavender fields” at the top of the crèche. It’s full of incredible details and is quite amazing.
-Le Gros Souper (Christmas Eve meal)
A very traditional Christmas celebration starts with songs which are sung in the Provençal dialect, recounting religious events and local traditions. Le Gros Souper, Christmas Eve dinner, takes place before Midnight Mass and is a very light meal. Although it’s on the lighter side, it still involves a lot of preparation. The table is dressed with three white tablecloths, overlapping each other, and is adorned with three large white candles – symbols of the Trinity and of Hope. On the table, you’ll also find small bunches of holly and three bowls of wheat.
Seeds of wheat are planted in three separate bowls on December 4th, the day of Saint Barbara (St. Barbe), in remembrance of her sacrifices. Taken from Roman times, the tradition goes that if the wheat sprouts green and healthy, you can expect a prosperous New Year. In Provençal: “Quand lou blad vèn bèn, tout vèn bèn”! When the wheat grows well, all is well!
The seeds of wheat can be bought at bakeries around Provence.
On the menu are 7 lean dishes in memory of the 7 pains of the Virgin Mary, including traditional vegetables: cauliflower, celery, and artichoke – served with olive oil or white sauce, and accompanied by an anchoïade. There is no meat on the table, only fish, shellfish, vegetables, gratins, and soups. The meal is served with 13 small breads and 13 desserts representing the Lord’s Supper with the 12 apostles and Jesus.
-Les Treize Desserts de Noël (13 desserts of Christmas)
The 13 desserts are served after Le Gros Souper and are the only “abundance” on the table. The choice of desserts varies from town to town, and even region to region within Provence. It seems that you can do a bit of mix and match, according to your own traditions, but the number can never surpass 13. Here is an example list:
1 – Fougasse or pompe à l’huile (a traditional bread from Marseille).
2 – White nougat with hazelnuts, pine nuts, pistachios, and almonds.
3 – Dark nougat.
4 – Dry figs.
5 – Almonds.
6 – Walnuts.
7 – Raisins.
(*the figs, almonds, walnuts, and raisins are known as “mendiants”, each representing a religious order)
8 – Pears.
9 – Apples.
10 – Dates.
11 – Oranges or mandarins.
12 – Candied lemons.
13 – Homemade jam.
The desserts can be accompanied by hot wine, muscat wine, or homemade liqueurs.
Other traditions include processions and Provençal chants during Midnight Mass, a burning of wood ceremony (yule log), and a traditional Christmas lunch served at noon on December 25th.
For more details, please see Provence Web.
Wishing you a very Merry Chirstmas and a Happy New Year!
…and in Provençal:
-Uno bono annado (une bonne année)
-Uno urouso annado (une heureuse année)