Learn about the traditions of Christmas in Provence

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Christmas in Provence starts with the Sainte Barbe celebrations on the 4th December and culminate on Christmas Day with many local traditions…


Christmas in Provence: the traditions


Christmas in Provence: St. Barbara’s wheat

Christmas in Provence starts with the celebrations of St. Barbara © French Moments

In Provence, the Christmas period is called “La Calendale“, and starts on 4 December, the day of the patron Sainte Barbe (St. Barbara) (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). A successful germination would indicate a good harvest or a good 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, 2 February (la Chandeleur), at which point, the shoots are traditionally transplanted into a field to ensure their ongoing fertility.


Christmas in Provence: the Great Supper

The Great Supper (le Gros Souper) is the name given to the feast which takes place on Christmas Eve in Provence (24 December). Before the midnight mass, this meal is served on three white tablecloths of different sizes, with three chandeliers and the three wheat saucers.

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.

Chocolate mendiants © French Moments

The tradition of the Thirteen Desserts represents the last supper (Christ and His 12 apostles) are made from regional products (oranges, pears, apples, prunes, melons, white nougat, black nougat, pompe à l’huile, sorb). In addition, dates or dried figs, almonds, nuts or hazelnuts, and black raisins are included; their colours serving as reminders of the four mendicant orders of friars in the Church: Augustinians, Carmelites, Dominicans and Franciscans). This is also the occasion for preparing the delicious little chocolate mendiants delicacies.


Christmas in Provence: the Yule log

Christmas in Provence © French Moments

Log in the fire © French Moments

The Christmas log is a chocolate or chestnut cream cake in the shape of a log (elongated and round), symbolising the Provençal tradition of “Lou Cacho Fio” (literally meaning “starting a fire”). On Christmas Eve, both the eldest and the youngest member of each family go in search of a large log and carry it around the table three times. They then bless it by spraying it three times with fortified wine and put 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 different things: they are mixed with natural remedies, spread under furniture to protect the house against fires or spread across the fields.

Bakers often decorate Christmas logs with little plastic or edible objects representing elements of the Christmas celebration: Santa Claus, holly, Christmas trees, a saw, elves, miniature candles, etc.


Christmas in Provence: the pasturage

The Pasturage (pastrage) is the shepherds’ celebration. According to the Bible, they were the first to be aware of the birth of the Christ. The chief shepherd chooses the most beautiful suckling lamb, puts it in a small cart decorated with boxwood, ribbons and candles (and filled with presents, in some villages). After the Great Supper, as everyone is getting ready to go to midnight mass, the mother of the lamb 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. Certain villages and cities still do perpetuate the tradition of pastrage: Les Baux-de-Provence, Saint-Rémy-de-Provence, Saintes Maries de la Mer,…


Christmas in Provence: the Provençal Nativity

Christmas in Provence: Nativity in Saint-François Xavier church, Paris © French Moments

Christmas in Provence: Nativity in Saint-François Xavier church, Paris © French Moments

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 as well. 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 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 and they are also passed down from generation to generation when parents tell them to their eager children on Christmas Eve.

When public nativities were forbidden during the French Revolution, nativities developed in Provençal homes soon after 1803. The miniature figurines were called “Santons” (little saints) and they were made from moulds, which were 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 then also 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, which must be preserved. Santons can be bought in workshops everywhere in Provence but the most famous and specialised sellers are found at the Santons Fair 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 biggest event dedicated to Santons.

Christmas in Provence © Bernadette Michaud

Christmas in Provence © Bernadette Michaud

The main characters of the Provençal Nativity are:

The animals

The donkey and the ox are absolutely compulsory in any nativity. It is said that they watch over baby Jesus and keep him warm with their breath. The sheep are also a very important part of the nativity; they represent the shepherd’s flock. Alone at the feet of Christ, the lamb symbolises the shepherds’ offering.

The angel

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 who 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.

Bartoumieu

He is a comical character from one of the Pastorales and has a “négligé” air about him.

The shepherds

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 to the barn. They can be depicted young or old, standing, holding on to a cane, kneeling, and sometimes with a sheep in their arms or on their shoulders.

The bohemian

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.

Marius

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.

The fisherman

Often represented with a fishing net and a basket of fish, he can be seen as a biblical character, as some of the 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 in the past.

Le Ravi or town crier

He is the village idiot, a naïf character who has nothing to offer but who 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). He wears a bonnet on his head, has a wife called “la ravido” and is also 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

There are three Wise Men: Melchior, Gaspard and Balthazar. They 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) and they are often represented with at least one camel and a cameleer. According to tradition, they arrived at the barn on 6 January and thus they 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 his flute and reinforces the idea that Christ’s birth is a time for celebration.

The basket maker

He is represented with a big willow basket which is designed to be the crib for the 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 standing holding each others’ arm.

Le pistachié

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 which he has successfully killed with only one shot of his rifle. 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 December was decided as the birth date of Jesus and since then, every year on the 25th, the Santon representing Jesus is 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.

Provençal Nativity, church of Saint-François Xavier, Paris © French Moments

Provençal Nativity, church of Saint-François Xavier, Paris © French Moments

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 it was later replaced by a live infant and, little by little, the custom spread. Apart from Provençal nativities and live ones, there are also Baroque, Neapolitan, Comtoise nativities (from Franche-Comté) as well as theatre nativity scenes (which was presented in the town hall square of Paris for 17 years).


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About Author

Pierre is a French/Australian who is passionate about France and its culture. He grew up in France and Germany and has also lived in Australia and England. In 2014 he moved back to Europe from Sydney with his wife and daughter to be closer to their families and to France. He has a background teaching French and holds a Master of Translating and Interpreting English-French with the degree of Master of International Relations and a degree of Economics and Management.

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