Christmas in Provence
Provence is not exactly the winter wonderland that comes to mind when we evoke Christmas, but the local traditions for the French “Noel” are just as magical.
Christmas in Provence, influenced strongly by its Catholic traditions, begin their festivities with the Saint Barbara on December 4th. According to this tradition, on Saint Barbara’s day grains of wheat or lentils are placed to sprout in three different saucers, covered by wet cotton. If the stalks grow straight and green it is a signal that the coming year will be prosperous.
It is typical for French families, communities, or churches to display nativity scenes, but in Provence, the nativity scene is much more. Provencal artists make ”santons”, or little saints. They are small hand crafted figurines made of clay.
They can be found in the Christmas manger scenes where they are part of our Provençal traditions and reflect the life of the inhabitants and families of Provence. At the beginning, the family crèche represented only the characters of the Nativity: Mary, Joseph, the baby Jesus and the three Kings. To create their santons, the “santonniers” of Provence are also inspired by the old traditional activities or the characters that appear in Christmas plays called “Pastorales”. The result is a whole nativity town. By visiting the different exhibited scenes, one can learn a lot about French and Provence culture. Christmas, the santons are coming to town!
There are many occasions to find the santons for your nativity. Throughout the month of December, each town has its own Christmas market, giving everyone the opportunity to prepare for Christmas in the most pleasant way. Gastronomy, arts and crafts, decorations and gift ideas are displayed in a warm friendly atmosphere. The open-air markets are an occasion to drink mulled wine with spices. You can find all you need to prepare the traditional Christmas meal or the Provencal “great supper” and the traditional 13 desserts.
The “great supper” is served before the midnight mass. The “great supper” is paradoxically made up of 7 lean dishes traditionally Provençal. The dishes often served are chard stalks and celery, cauliflower, spinach and cod, omelette, snails, garlic soup & but never any meat, simply fish, shellfish, gratins, vegetables, soups and anchoïade (anchovy paste). The only abundance is that of the thirteen desserts. The thirteen desserts are eaten after Midnight mass:
– the 4 mendicants: dry figs, almonds, raisins, and hazelnuts
– fougasse: a flat loaf made using olive oil,
– quince cheese or crystallized fruit,
– “oreillettes”: light thin waffles,
– fresh fruit: mandarin oranges, oranges, pears, raisins and winter melons preserved for the occasion.
The Provencal Christmas mass has a living nativity scene and Pastorales where the figures will act out a play.
The next day the traditional French Christmas meal is served. A hearty meal with foie gras, shell fish, turkey, and the traditional “buche”, a delicious cake made to look like a log. The best of France, good food, good company, good times!