You won’t get carol singers but Provence has its own intriguing Christmas traditions and rituals that reach far back in time. Christmas in Provence starts on 4th December on Saint Barbara’s day, and goes through all the way to Candlemas on February 2nd, when you should take your Christmas lights down. That whole Christmas period is known as la calendale.
St Barbara’s day
Traditionally on St Barbara’s day (la Fête de la Sainte Barbe) you should put a handful of wheat on some damp cotton wool on a saucer. Many bakers sell little sachets of wheat for germinating. Keep the cotton wool damp and if, when it germinates, it is bright green and upright, the following year will be a prosperous one. You then keep the saucer of germinated wheat to decorate your crèche. If you happen to be a farmer, after Christmas you would plant the wheat in your field to ensure a good harvest.
Provence Christmas crèche
The crèche (nativity scene or crib) is a big part of a traditional Provençal Christmas. Today’s crèche has its roots in the Middle Ages when religious plays were performed portraying the birth of Christ. During the French Revolution, religious festivals were banned and crèches took up their place in the home. But the crèche really took off in the 19th century when all the inhabitants of an idealised Provençal village paying homage to the baby Jesus began to be represented. So the Provence crèche is not just the nativity scene, it is a representation of a village with its houses, shops, the bar, the well, the bread oven, the windmill, etc. as well as all the characters of the village. And the manger is at the centre of it.
The Provence Christmas crèche is also put up on December 4th. Sometimes the crèche will be peopled little by little, like opening the windows on an advent calendar, to follow the progression of the nativity story.
The handmade terracotta figures in a Provençal crèche are called santons (from santoun in Provençal, meaning little saint). They are very precise in their representations with distinct characteristics and indications of social class. Here are a few of the santons you might find in a crèche: the mayor, the doctor, the baker, a shepherd, a fish seller, a bandit, an angler, a lawyer, a monk, a miller, a gypsy (with or without a bear), women holding all sorts of things from a chicken to a baby or a cabbage and a bunch of garlic, men holding anything from a goose to a bundle of firewood, a water diviner, men and women playing musical instruments or praying, a hunter, a woman knitting… and then there are the animals… sheep, cows, goats, donkeys, elephants, camels, wild boar, chickens and many more.
Terracotta santons range in size from a tiny 2.5 cm to a large 15 cm version. However, they come at a price. In the medium size (7cm) range, expect to pay around 18€ for each of the principal Biblical figures and the same for the simple Provençal subjects. However, a man making aioli will set you back over 30€ and an elephant (brought by the Kings?) costs a princely 54€. Being handmade, each santon is unique, as you will see if you go to one of the many Foires aux Santons (Santon markets) held throughout Provence in December. The biggest of which is the Foire aux Santons in Marseille which has been going since 1803. It started then with only three santon makers but nowadays you’ll find about thirty.
If you are in Provence for Christmas and you want a truly magical (semi-religious) experience, try to find a ‘living crèche’ (une crèche vivante). If you can’t find one of these near you, you can visit one of the impressive crèches in villages or towns. Grignan (near Valréas) in the Drôme boasts the biggest crèche in the world, composed of 1000 santons and covering 400m2/4,300 sq ft. Avignon, Les Saintes Maries de la Mer and Les Baux de Provence all have splendid crèches but some small villages have astonishing ones too. Keep your eyes open, they can be enchanting.
Christmas markets in Provence
Christmas markets have also become a big feature in Provence in recent years. They are usually orientated around crafts and gastronomy. The normal format is the centre of a town is given over to a number of wooden chalets selling all sorts of gifty items, as well as food and mulled wine (vin chaud). The Christmas market is also the place to stock up on the figures (santons) for the Provence crèche. The bigger Christmas markets of Provence will also have attractions and rides for children.
In many villages the Christmas market is only for one day or over a weekend. These are the Provence Christmas markets that run through December: Aix-en-Provence, Carpentras, Vaison la Romaine, Marseille, Cassis, Aigues-Mortes, Digne-les-Bains, Nice, Monaco. The bigger the town, the bigger the market.
Christmas Eve dinner
No Christmas would be complete without its culinary traditions and Provence is no exception. Traditionally dinner on the 24th December is served before midnight mass and so no meat is eaten. The meal is called the gros souper (big supper) and composed of seven different dishes that might include spinach with salt cod, garlic soup, shellfish, vegetable gratins and an anchoÏade (an anchovy-based dip) served with cardoons, celery and cauliflower. The thirteen desserts that follow are eaten after midnight mass. Traditionally they consist of dried fruits and nuts, dates, soft and hard nougat, a soft sweet olive oil based bread called la pompe à l’huile and quince paste or crystallized fruits along with fresh fruit. However, many people don’t go to midnight mass any more and dinner on 24th and/or lunch on 25th December have become much more elaborate including things like goose, capon, foie gras, crayfish tails, oysters, smoked salmon and so on.
At your Christmas Eve dinner you should set an extra place, which is called le couvert du pauvre (the poor person’s place). This is in case a beggar comes to the door, and also it could be for the ghost of an ancestor. For the latter, it is traditional not to clear up before the morning, so they can discretely enjoy dinner without freaking everyone out.
You will see in every bakery and supermarket in Provence a plethora of Christmas logs (buche de Noel) – with either cream or ice cream. These are absolutely a requirement of a Provence Christmas. They come from the burning of a real log at Christmas, which should come from a fruit tree and is put in the fireplace just before dinner on Christmas Eve. The log is anointed with wine by the family elder and put in the fireplace by the youngest family member. It is supposed to burn for three days (fruit tree wood does burn slowly but still…). The purpose is to get the ashes, which will remedy illness or misfortune during the year ahead.
Galette des Rois
Something you will see filling the baker’s shelves at this time of year is the galette des rois (cake of kings). This is supposed to be consumed on the day of Epiphany, January 6th, but the galette des rois is available all through the Christmas period. There are two types of galette, one is made with puff pastry and almond cream, the other is a brioche with candied fruit (the latter is strictly speaking called a gateau des rois). Epiphany is the day that the three wise men, kings from the east, saw the baby Jesus. The galette contains a bean (fève), but nobody knows where it is hidden. The cake is sliced up and each person given a slice, the one who gets the fève is made king or queen and wears a cardboard crown. The fève these days is a little figure rather than a bean, and there are usually two to a galette now. There is one galette des rois in all of France that does not have a fève, and that, in a staunchly anti-monarchist country, is the President’s.
Provence Christmas lights
The pagan winter festival was associated with lights and many Provençal villages and houses will be decked with strings of lights in December; lamp posts sprout illuminated candles, snowflakes or other motifs and trees in village squares are often wrapped round with fairy lights or have presents or stars hanging from the branches. Look for backyards too, some people spend a fortune on animated illuminations complete with music. Everywhere the message is Bonnes fêtes – HAPPY HOLIDAYS!