Christmas in Provence charms with ancient traditions. Nativity scenes, santon figurines, a “gros souper” dinner on Christmas Eve, the famous 13 desserts, and midnight mass.
Saint Barbara and Saint Lucy
Wheat, lentils, mistletoe and holly
Saint Barbara, the patron saint of artillerymen and miners, is celebrated on December 4th when the people of Provence sow wheat and lentils in three saucers. During the 20 days leading up to Christmas, the seeds sprout into pretty green tufts, symbolizing a plentiful harvest in the coming year. On Christmas Eve, the most verdant saucer is placed on the table. On Saint Lucy’s Day on December 13th, mistletoe and holly are gathered. The mistletoe is hung above the doors as a sign of peace and goodwill, while the holly protects from witchcraft!
The Nativity Scene
After Saint Barbara’s Day it’s time to set up the nativity scene. This is a very special family time in Provence. The nativity scene is said to have been invented by Saint Francis of Assisi, who recreated the Nativity in an abandoned stable using real people and animals. However, the tradition only gained ground after the French Revolution and spread to every region of France. In Provence, the nativity scene portrays an idyllic Provencal village. In addition to the characters placed between the houses, together with a well, oven and mill, the scene features the stable sheltering Baby Jesus, the Virgin Mary, Joseph, the ox and star guiding the Three Kings – which gets added on January 6th.
Tradition & folklore
Provence’s traditional nativity scene simply wouldn’t be the same without our famous santons (from the Provencal word “santoun” meaning “little saint”). These little, hand-made clay figurines, representing many popular Provencal characters, are air-dried before being hand-painted. They are often inspired by local folklore, traditions and ancient trades. Some of the most typical and famous are Roustido, a friendly bourgeois with a red umbrella, Bartomiou, the drunk with a long cotton hat, and Pistachié, the oaf who leads a donkey loaded with sacks of wheat.
Cacho-fio and the gros souper
Christmas Eve kicks off with the cacho-fio ritual: the lighting of the log. Before sitting down to eat, the eldest and youngest members of the family place a log (traditionally pear, cherry or olive) in front of the fireplace then douse it three times with mulled wine before placing it in the fire and lighting it as they sing. The Gros Souper is a simple meal served on Christmas Eve, presented in a very particular way. The table is laid with three white tablecloths and decorated with three candles evoking the Holy Trinity. It is also adorned with holly and the wheat grown since Saint Barbara’s Day. An extra place is set, referred to as the “poor man’s place“. The menu is made up of seven frugal dishes, symbolizing the Seven Wounds of Christ.
The 13 desserts
Good luck for the coming year
After the gros souper it’s time to savour the 13 desserts, in honour of Christ and the 12 disciples. Among them are the “four beggars” in reference to religious orders that take a vow of poverty: walnuts and hazelnuts (Augustinians), dried figs (Franciscans), almonds (Carmelites,) and raisins (Dominicans). The remaining desserts vary according to the town and family and may include the pompe à huile (brioche made with olive oil and orange flower water), nougat, apples & pears, tangerines, candied fruit, quince paste, calissons from Aix-en-Provence, and dates. Each guest must eat a little of each dessert to get good fortune in the coming year.
A vigil, Christmas carols and the pastrage
This magnificent Provencal tradition is now famed the world over. Before the mass itself comes the vigil, a moment of reverence accompanied by carols in Provencal dialect referred to as Noëls. The highlight is the stirring pastrage ceremony when the traditional offering is made. Shepherds dressed in long woollen robes make their way slowly to the altar. Their leader bears a lamb, which the prior takes in his arms. The shepherd tells the story of his voyage with his companions through the hills and valleys and a blessing is bestowed on them.