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 than a hundred santon-makers in Provence.

At the Provençal Christmas markets and fairs one finds specialities of the region: local olives, goat cheese, bread, and wine, fine liqueurs, candied fruit, charcuterie. Musicians dressed in local costume play flutes and tambourines, the main instruments in Provençal music.

In Provence Christmas Eve is more eventful than Christmas Day, and much of the busyness is centered on preparing the evening meal. Just setting the table is no simple matter. Three white tablecloths are laid one on top of the other; on top of those, three tall candle holders and three white candles—everything in threes to represent the Trinity. Le gros souper (“the big meal”) is served before midnight. Seven dishes are served in memory of the seven sorrows of Mary. Traditionally, they are all without meat. One of the dishes commonly served is l’aigo boulido (Provençal for “boiled water”), a simple garlic and herb soup. The other dishes will usually include cod, lots of vegetables, cheese, and bread.

At around eleven o’clock, the feast stops temporarily so that families can attend midnight Mass. Many village churches still observe Pastoral, a performance of musical theater in the Provençal language; villagers dressed in Provençal costumes sing and act out their own version of the Nativity story. In Pastrage, another Provençal custom, shepherds follow musicians up to the altar and offer a live lamb to the priest (the lamb is not harmed).

At the end of midnight Mass everyone wishes each other Joyeux Noël and returns home for the Les Treize desserts. Why thirteen? The number is said to represent Jesus and the twelve apostles at the Last Supper. The desserts come from the different regions of Provence and include fruits and nuts, white and black nougat, quince jelly, fruit sweets, and fondants. There is also the traditional pompe à l’huile, a brioche made with olive oil flavored with orange flower water. Whatever delicacies are chosen, there must be no more than thirteen in number, and they must all be placed on the dining table at the same time. For good luck, everyone tastes at least a little of each dessert.

On Christmas Day, the first of the original three tablecloths is removed, and the festivities continue. But this time meat is included in the menu, as well as the famous bûche de Noël, a log-shaped sponge roll served only at Christmas. And then there is the log itself. Cut from an olive or fruit tree, it is placed in the hearth and lit by the oldest member of the family just before the meal begins on Christmas Eve. In the past, the logs had to burn slowly for a week. Today, many people in the South of France burn a single log from Christmas to New Year—a symbolic farewell to a dying year, even as we celebrate Christ’s birth.

Alice Alech is a freelance writer based in the South of France.
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Published in the 2009-12-18 issue: View Contents
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