Christmas in Provence: our must!
Christmas in Provence is first and foremost an intimate, tender and fun family occasion, over owing with symbols and rituals. The celebrations kick off on December 4th (La Sainte- Barbe) and wind up with Candlemas on February 2 !
Christmas time in Provence-Alps-Cote d’Azur offers up a feast of festivities and traditions: Saint Barbara’s « wheat of hope », Saint Lucia’s lanterns, the crib scene decorated with « Santon » clay gurines, culinary rituals such as the « Gros Souper » meal and thirteen desserts on Christmas Eve, the « Pastrage » shepherds’ procession, « Pastorale » nativity play and, nally, the Epiphany and Candlemas… We hope you enjoy this detailed look at Christmas in Provence!
Sainte-Barbe (Saint Barbara)
The Provencal almanac tells that Saint Barbara, the patron saint of minors and artillerymen, lived in the 3rd century. Saint Barbara’s Day is celebrated on December 4th.
During the 20 days separating Saint Barbara’s Day and Christmas, the wheat germinates and grows to form pretty, green sprouts – the rst miracle of Christmas! – heralding future harvests.
On December 25th, if the wheat is healthy it is said that the harvest will be plentiful; if the wheat rots, a gloomy harvest is to be expected! The nest dish is placed on the Christmas table – the others are placed inside the crib scene, among the rocks and bushes. After Saint Barbara’s Day, it’s time to « put up the crib scene ». This is an important moment in family life in Provence – the traditional « santon » gurines used in the scene are handed down through the generations.
The crib scene
An ancient tradition, the crib scene is thought to have been invented by Saint Francis of Assisi, who created a crib scene in an abandoned stable using real people and animals. After the Revolution, it became customary to put up a crib scene in every home and this ne Provencal tradition soon extended to every region of France.
The decor is a two-part representation of every village life, including the village well, oven, water mill, snow, pine trees, olive trees and starry skies, together with a stable with the Baby Jesus, Virgin Mary, Joseph, the donkey and ox, and the Star of Bethlehem that guides the Three Kings and crowd come to worship them. The crib scene is taken down at Candlemas.
« Santon » figures
In Provence, the stars of the crib scene are the traditional « santon » gurines. Their name is derived from the Provencal word « santoun » meaning « little saint ». Most « santons » are based on original models portraying traditional Provencal characters. The santon maker creates his clay model, then leaves it to dry before varnishing it. He then makes a plaster mould (the mould is sometimes made of resin) into which fresh clay is pressed to reproduce the model. The base and contours of the « santon » are trimmed by hand-pressing it in the mould a second time. It is left to dry in the shade, then trimmed again and painted using poster paints. The palest colours are applied rst, such as the face, followed by the darker colours.
The « santon » figurine first originated from Marseille and the oldest known mould was produced by Lagnel. It is exhibited at the city’s « Musée du Vieux Marseille » museum (Maison Diamantée).
« Santons » come in several sizes, ranging from 1 to 20 cm. Some – generally the larger ones – are dressed. These various characters are placed around Jesus, Mary, Joseph and the Three Kings on January 6th.
Each santon maker creates his own special characters, inspired by folklore and tradition, such as the shepherd offering a sheep, or the woman carrying a black chicken, whose stock was said to fortify newborn babies… All of thesmall trades of the last century are represented.
Other characters include Bartomiou, the irredeemable drunkard with his long, cotton hat, presenting a at, dry salt cod to the Baby Jeses, the clumsy young Pistachié, driving along a donkey laden with sacks of wheat and Lou Ravi, raising his hands skywards in a gesture of admiration.
Plus a host of other colourful local personalities, such as the baker with his basket of « fougasses », the garlic seller, the shwife, the farm hand carrying a lantern, the shermen with his net on his shoulder, the kneeling worshippers, etc.
Christmas Eve celebrations
The « cacho-fio »
The Christmas Eve celebrations kick off with this half-religious, half-magical ritual – a lingering memory of Roman religious rituals. The grandfather chooses a lit candle and shows it to the rest of the family. If the ame bends down like an overly- heavy ear of wheat, the harvest will be plentiful, if it stays straight, the barn will remain empty…
The expression actually means « light the fire ». Some people also say « Bouta cacho- o », meaning « set the log on re ».
Before sitting down to eat, the eldest and youngest family members place the log in front of the re and sprinkle it three times with mulled wine before placing it in the re and lighting it, while singing (in Provencal dialect) « Rejoice! God has graced us with the « cacho o » celebration, all is well; May God give us grace to see the coming year, And if we are not more, may we not be less ».
Christmas Eve Dinner (Gros Souper)
The « Gros Souper », served just after the « cacho-fio » ritual, is a simple meal that nevertheless obeys the strictest protocols. The table – the centrepiece of the room – is decorated with little sprigs of holly, Saint Barbara’s wheat and, sometimes, roses of Jericho. The special Christmas bread (pain calendal) is placed at the centre of the table.
The table is laid with three « white tablecloths » placed one on top of the other and three candles, evoking the Holy Trinity. The 13 rolls refer to the Last Supper of Jesus and the 12 apostles, as do the 13 desserts, still very popular today.
The dishes may be served all at once along with the wine as a sign of abundance and to ll the table. As Christmas is also a celebration of charity, an extra place, referred to as the « poor man’s plate », is set for unexpected visitors. This place is said to be for the souls of the family’s departed, who are also invited to take part in the festivities.
Seven simple dishes are prepared in reminder of the « 7 wounds of Christ ». Christmas Eve demands abstinence from meat, so the meal is plain but plentiful. This abundance was considered as heralding a prosperous future. Apparently, every village had one or two of its own traditional dishes, so the Christmas meal could take many forms.
Fresh fish (eels, tuna, bream, cod, etc.) are obviously served in coastal towns and villages, while vegetables are given pride of place in inland areas of Provence (oven-cooked spinach with garlic and parsley in Apt, Swiss chard, raw celery with an anchovy dip, blanched leeks, oven-cooked pumpkin topped with cheese, etc.). Typical dishes in mountain areas include « crozets » (small pasta squares) and pasta strips.
The 13 desserts
Thirteen, like Christ and the 12 apostles. Although this tradition is generally associated with Provence and the « Calèna » Christmas custom that originated in the ancient County of Nice, it is now found throughout Occitania and even in Catalonia. The desserts are served at the end of the « Gros Souper » Christmas meal.
The « 4 beggars », representing the various Catholic religious orders having taken a vow of poverty, form the basis of the 13 desserts: walnuts and hazelnuts for the Augustinians, dried gs for the Franciscans, almonds for the Carmelites and raisins for the Dominicans.
According to the region, town or even individual family traditions, these 4 desserts are accompanied by « pompe à huile » ( at, sugared bread with olive oil), also called « fougasse » or « gibassier », black and white nougat from Provence, » verdaù » (green melon) and candied fruits (e.g. from Apt).
The Midnight Mass celebration on December 24th is said to date back to the 5th century in Provence. It goes without saying that this ancient tradition has now expanded worldwilde.
The « Noël » is sung in the form of a dialogue and is widely used in the « Pastorale » nativity play, the most famous of which was written by Avignon- born Nicolas Saboly (1614-1675), of which Provencal author Frédéric Mistral said « it would move a whole church to tears ».
In addition to hymns and « Noëls », midnight mass is traditionally associated with the « Pastrage » offering ceremony.
The « Pastrage » ceremony
Offering a lamb during Midnight Mass is part of the « Pastrage » ritual (« pâtre » meaning « shepherd »). Shepherds in long robes, bearing a candle, proceed slowly to the altar, preceded by pipe and tabor players. One of the shepherds carries a little lamb.
The lamb is offered to the prior, who takes it in his arms. The shepherd then relates the voyage he and his companions have just completed acrosshills and valleys, and the travellers are worshipped.
Other offerings may include delicious fruit, vege- tables, sh or « fougasse » according to the village and region, each offering their nest produce. All participants are dressed in traditional costume. This colourful and fervent procession then steps towards the altar, accompanied by folk groups.
The « Pastorale » nativity play
First and foremost, the « Pastorale » evokes the voyage to the stable and the pious celebration of the Baby Jesus. The subject matter varies little: it is the story of Saint Joseph seeking lodgings for the night near Bethlehem, going from house to house, until he is led to a grotto where his family can shelter.
The ceremony was later pushed outside the church walls. The most famous of these nativity plays, still acted out today, are the « Pastorale Maurel » (1844) and « Pastorale de Bellot ». The « Pastorale Maurel » portrays the march of the Three Kings, led by the Star of Bethlehem or « bello estello ». This improvised pilgrimage is in fact a race to discover the miracle. The text, both naïve and satirical, is read in Provencal dialect.
Epiphany means « apparition » and refers to the apparition of the Three Kings. The Christmas celebrations per se end on January 8th with the traditional « galette des rois » cake. Although this cake is often made with aky pastry, the traditional Provencal cake is a sort of brioche in the shape of a crown, decorated with candied fruit. In days gone by, bakers keen to make a good impression offered it as a gift to their best customers.
The last of the Christmas traditions takes place on February 2nd. This is when the crib scene is taken down. According to the liturgy, Candlemas celebrates the puri cation of the Virgin Mary. Since ancient times, the month of February (which comes from the Latin verb « februare » meaning « to purify ») has been associated with « new re » – the time when nature is puri ed before it emerges from winter. The days lengthen as hope of renewal heightens.
The church tied this pagan tradition in with the notion of penitence by choosing to bless green candles; the colour green being synonymous with the idea of puri cation. The Candlemas celebration in Marseille (Fête de la Chandeleur) remains an extremely popular and festive event.