According to tradition, the Christmas celebrations in Provence begin on the 4th of December on Saint Barbara’s Day and end on the 2nd of February at Candlemas. The four weeks of Advent is the perfect time to visit the town and villages adorned with festive lights, Christmas markets and Santon fairs. However, Christmas in Provence culminates on the 24th and 25th of December, with many traditions to follow. Let’s learn more about the traditions and celebrations, including the top spots to visit in Provence at Christmas!
The Traditions of Christmas in Provence
St. Barbara’s wheat
In Provence, the Christmas period is called “La Calendale“. It starts on the 4th of December, the day of the patron Sainte Barbe or St. Barbara. (Remember that the French calendar attributes most days of the year to a different patron Saint).
On St. Barbara Day, it is customary to sew wheat seeds or lentils in three saucers full of moist cotton (le blé de la Sainte-Barbe). Successful germination would indicate a good harvest or financial outlook for the following year.
Upon sprouting, the wheat stalks are decorated with ribbons, knotted around the shoots and the saucers are placed in the nativity to represent the fields or on the three tables at which the Great Supper will take place on Christmas Eve. They are watered until the end of the Calendale, on the 2nd of February (la Chandeleur). At this point, the shoots are traditionally transplanted into a field to ensure their ongoing fertility.
The Great Supper
The Great Supper (le Gros Souper) is the name of the Christmas Eve feast in Provence (24 December). Before the midnight mass, this meal is served on three white tablecloths of different sizes, with three chandeliers and three wheat saucers.
The three tablecloths are of decreasing size:
- one for the “big supper”,
- one for the Christmas Day meal, the next day at noon – a meal made up of meats –
- and finally, the last one for the evening of the 25th of December, where the leftovers are placed on the table.
On these tablecloths are placed:
- the lentils or wheat of Saint Barbara (planted in 3 plates to make them germinate from the 4th of December, i.e. Saint Barbara’s day),
- a holly branch to bring happiness,
- and three candles (representing the Holy Trinity).
The bread, placed upright, is cut into three parts:
- the “poor man’s share”,
- the “guest’s share”,
- and the “lucky share”, which is kept in a cupboard.
It is traditional to set an extra place setting for the poor man (le pauvre).
“Poor” (or pauvre) refers to someone who has died, but it can also be a beggar who passes by and asks for alms. The poor man’s share is a reminder of the story of the Holy Family, who found no one to welcome them that night.
Seven ‘meatless’ dishes are served in remembrance of the seven plagues of Christ (these dishes can include fish, snails, omelettes, pies, salads, pâté and bread rolls), if possible, to be served with seven different wines and 13 desserts.
The Thirteen Desserts of Provence
The tradition of the Thirteen Desserts represents the last supper (Christ and His 12 apostles). The Thirteen Desserts comprise regional products.
However, the first mention of the Thirteen Desserts did not appear until 1925. In a special Christmas issue of the newspaper La Pignato, a writer from Aubagne, Dr Joseph Fallen, said:
“Here is a number of sweets, of delicacies, the thirteen desserts: thirteen are needed, yes thirteen, not more if you want, but not one less”.
The composition of the desserts varies according to region, canton, city and even family. More than fifty-five have been counted. Despite this, there is a temptation to impose standards for codifying the thirteen desserts.
The thirteen desserts of the “Musée des Arts et Traditions Populaires du Terroir marseillais” (Museum of Popular Arts and Traditions of Marseille) are often presented as the reference, but this is only an indicative list.
The museum proposes :
- the pompe à l’huile (pòmpa a l’òli) or the fougasse of Aigues Mortes à la fleur d’oranger,
- the Four Mendicants (mendiants), see below…
- verdaù (green melon),
- black nougat,
- white nougat,
- sorbs and
- fresh grapes.
To these desserts, one can substitute or add :
- sweets (chocolate, candied fruit, calissons),
- quince paste or other fruit pastes,
- bugnes (beignets),
- dates, the only exotic fruit, a reminder of the flight to Egypt, with the “O” engraved on its stone, which recalls the exclamation of the Virgin, Saint Joseph and the Child Jesus when they tasted the fruit.
The desserts can accompany cooked wine, muscatel wine, or homemade liqueurs.
The four mendicants
These delicacies represent the different religious orders that took a vow of poverty, and their colours remind the church’s four mendicant orders of friars:
- Augustinians (walnuts or hazelnuts),
- Carmelites (almonds),
- Dominicans (sultanas),
- and Franciscans (dried figs).
This is also the occasion for preparing the delicious little chocolate mendiants delicacies.
The Yule log
The Christmas log is a chocolate or chestnut cream cake in the shape of a log (elongated and round). It symbolises the Provençal tradition of “Lou Cacho Fio” (literally meaning “starting a fire”).
On Christmas Eve, both the eldest and the youngest members of each family go in search of a large log and carry it around the table three times. Then, they bless it by spraying it three times with fortified wine and putting it on fire before starting dinner.
The log must burn for at least three days, if not until Epiphany (6 January). The best way to ensure the log lasts until this date is to light it every evening and then extinguish it at midnight. The ashes of the burnt log are collected and used for various things: they are mixed with natural remedies and spread under furniture to protect the house against fires or spread across the fields.
Today, bakers often decorate Christmas logs with little plastic or edible objects representing elements of the Christmas celebration: Santa Claus, a holly, Christmas trees, a saw, elves, miniature candles, etc.
Midnight mass in Provence
After the Great Supper, everyone gets ready to go to midnight mass.
It is common to hear Provençal Carols in the countryside, some accompanied by flutes and tambourines.
Some Provençal parishes even organise a mass in the Provençal dialect.
The mass can include a living crib where the characters of the Nativity are represented by the inhabitants of the village in costume: the Holy Family (Jesus, Mary, Joseph), the Wise Men and the shepherds.
The Pasturage (le pastrage) is a traditional shepherd’s ritual in Provence that takes place during the midnight mass.
According to the Bible, they were the first to be aware of the birth of Christ. The chief shepherd chooses the most beautiful newborn lamb as an offering (rest assured, it is alive, and no harm will come to it).
He then places it either:
- in the arms of the shepherds who have come to the church in procession after crossing the hills, or
- in a decorated cart filled with straw, foliage, ribbons and candles.
Sometimes, the cart is filled with presents in some villages.
The lamb’s mother pulls the cart, and the shepherds follow her down to the village. There, they announce the birth of Christ, and the villagers join the procession with presents, candles and musical instruments.
A few Provençal towns and villages still perpetuate the tradition of pasturage and attract many people: Allauch, Arles, Barbentane, Curucon, Eygalières, Fontvieille, Les Baux-de-Provence, Rognonas, Saint-Michel de Frigolet, Saint-Rémy-de-Provence, Saintes Maries de la Mer, Tarascon…
The Provençal Nativity
Coming from a long Catholic tradition, the Nativity scene is still present in many households in France today, in both miniature and life-size displays in churches and public places.
Contrary to the traditional nativity, the Provençal nativity combines biblical characters (Mary, Joseph, the donkey and the ox, the three Wise Men) with typical Provençal village characters (the town crier, the poacher, the old man and woman: Grasset and Grasseto, the washerwoman, etc…).
The Pastorales in Provence
The role of each in the story of the birth of Christ is explained in Provençal Christmas tales called the “Pastorales”.
The Pastorales are re-enacted in public places around Christmastime in Provence. They are also passed down from generation to generation when parents tell them to their eager children on Christmas Eve.
The French Revolution forbade public nativities. Consequently, “private” nativities developed in Provençal homes soon after 1803.
The Provençal Santons
The miniature figurines were called “Santons” (little saints) and were made from moulds, passed down from father to son with a great deal of secrecy from the 19th century onwards. The Santons are generally made from either argyle or earthenware and are painted and dressed.
However, the tradition in the past was quite different and involved making them from crustless bread. Jean Louis Lagnel, a native of Marseille, became the first professional Santons manufacturer in 1800, and the profession of Santonnier is now recognised as a traditional Provençal craft.
Santons Fairs in Provence
You can buy santons in workshops everywhere in Provence. However, you will find the most famous sellers at the Santons Fairs in Marseille and Aix-en-Provence.
The Santons Fair of Marseille has been running since 1803 and is located on the Cours Honoré d’Estienne d’Orves and is the most significant event dedicated to Santons.
The characters of the Provençal Nativity
The main characters of the Provençal Nativity are:
The donkey and the ox are compulsory in any nativity. Tradition has it that they watched over baby Jesus and kept him warm with their breath. The sheep are also essential to the nativity; they represent the shepherd’s flock. Alone at the feet of Christ, the lamb symbolises the shepherds’ offering.
The angel is the messenger of Jesus’ birth. The most famous is the angel Boufareu who guides the population to the barn with his trumpet and is generally hung over the nativity.
The blind man and his son
According to the Maurel Pastorale, the son leads his father to the barn where Jesus is born, and the latter regains his sight in front of it.
He is a comical character from one of the Pastorales and has a “négligé” air about him.
Shepherds are biblical characters described in the New Testament. But their representation is strongly influenced by the popular Provençal image. Of course, they are represented in several different ways and positions in the nativity, but most often, the shepherd is situated very near to Christ, as they were the first to arrive at the barn. They can be depicted as young or old, standing, holding on to a cane, kneeling, and sometimes with a sheep in their arms or shoulders.
She is always depicted carrying a child in her arms.
The priest (le curé)
Often portly and bold, he is responsible for the parish in the neighbouring village. The importance of the parish priest in Provence in the past explains his ongoing presence in the nativity.
He is an essential character of the Provençal nativity; he finds his origin in the works of Alphonse Daudet and reminds us of the endearing Tartarin, who talks too much.
Often represented with a fishing net and a basket of fish, he can be seen as a biblical character, as some of Christ’s apostles were fishermen.
The water carrier
His offering is simply a jug of water. The origin of his importance in the nativity is connected to the scarcity of water in Provence at various times.
Le Ravi or town crier
Le Ravi is the village idiot, a naïf character who has nothing to offer but is touched by the grace of the event. He rejoices in Christ’s birth and is thus also represented with his arms raised (a well-known gesture of the Mediterranean people). The character wears a bonnet on his head, has a wife called “la ravido”, and is associated with the state of astonishment.
The knife and scissor grinder
He exercised his activity in the streets of various villages but also on roads and would sharpen anything when he was requested to do so.
The Wise Men
According to tradition, there are three Wise Men: Melchior, Gaspard and Balthazar. The Magi are richly dressed, and each brings an offering for Jesus (gold, frankincense and myrrh). They come from a long way away, guided to Bethlehem by a star (a miniature version of which is hung above the nativity and on top of the Christmas tree). In the Provençal Nativity, they are often represented with at least one camel and a cameleer.
According to tradition, they arrive at the barn on 6 January and thus are generally hidden behind the nativity until that date (some families even move them around the room throughout the whole Christmas period until they finally reach the barn of the nativity on 6 January).
Saint François d’Assise (St Francis of Assisi)
He is the patron Saint of all the Santonniers. Thus, he is always represented in the nativity with his homespun robe.
The Tambourine player
He is always represented with his tambourine and flute, which reinforces the idea that Christ’s birth is a time for celebration.
The basket maker
He is represented by a giant willow basket designed to be the crib for baby Jesus. Despite its parallels to the story of baby Moses’ basket in the Old Testament, it is more probable that this character finds its origins in the importance of the occupation of basket maker in the preceding centuries in Provence.
The old man and the old woman
They are called Grasset and Grasseto and are often represented sitting together on a bench in the village square or holding each other’s arms.
Also originating from the Pastorale of Antoine Maurel, he looks like a farm valet, timid and greedy. In the Nativity, he is represented carrying presents to Jesus. The offering he makes to Christ is a hare that he has successfully killed with only one rifle shot. It is supposed to be a miracle of God, as he traditionally misses his target, according to the Pastorale of Yvan Audouard. He is also the husband of Honorine, the fishmonger.
In the 4th century, the date of the 25th of December was decided as the birth date of Jesus. Since then, every year on the 25th, the Santon representing Jesus has been placed in the Nativity (some nativities have it already present, though upside down). The first nativity known to man dates back to the 6th century, from which time writings describe the Christmas celebrations as being centred around the nativity: “ad Praesepe” in the church of Saint Mary in Rome.
In 1223, St. Francis of Assisi created the first living nativity with people from his church in Greccio. The characters were played by villagers and even included live animals as well. To represent the baby Jesus, St. Francis put a consecrated host in the nativity, although a live infant later replaced it and, little by little, the custom spread. Apart from Provençal nativities and live ones, there are also Baroque, Neapolitan, Comtoise nativities (from Franche-Comté) and theatre nativity scenes (the latter was presented in the town hall square of Paris for 17 years).