Noël Provençal

Christmas in Provence is a spectacular affair. Lights and decorations go up as early as the end of November for the saision des fêtes. In December, vendors at the outdoor markets bring out their Christmas specials, while musicians and artists start practicing for the Midnight Mass theater.

The real festivities get started on December 4, St. Barbe’s Day, when grains of wheat and lentils are carefully placed in a saucer near the fireplace, to be watered and tended every day until Christmas Eve. Everyone wants the seedlings to thrive, since the sprouts will tell what the next harvest will be like: if they’re tall, green, and straight by Christmas Eve, the coming harvest will be a good one.

It’s impossible to imagine Christmas in Provence without the crèches that are displayed in homes, churches, and town halls. The santons that populate the crèches faithfully represent village life. Santons—a Provençal word that means “little saints”—are handmade figurines used in crèches and nativity plays. They are made of clay, wood, or pastry and are carefully dressed or painted. At first, the only figures were the infant Jesus, Mary, Joseph, the Magi, and the shepherds. Today there are santons of bakers, wine merchants, fishmongers, priests, and mayors. The people of Provence started making their own crèches at home during the French revolution, when the government closed Catholic churches and forbade the public display of statues and crèche scenes. Today there are more...

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About the Author

Alice Alech is a freelance writer based in the South of France.