Winter in Provence is a well-kept secret: you can visit popular attractions and feel like you have the place to yourself, the skies are still blue and some days lunch can be eaten outside in the sun. And though it may feel unseasonal to eat Christmas lunch outside, Provence is decidedly festive over the winter months. The region is steeped in Christmas customs and traditions, making for a magical holiday.
Here are a few of our favourite things when we spend Christmas in Provence:
Yes, Provence has Christmas markets too, beautifully lit, with wooden chalets selling arts & crafts and Christmas gifts, with traditional carousels for the little ones and mulled wine for the grown-ups. Some even have a skating rink.
The bigger Provence Christmas markets can be found at:
Aix-en-Provence: mid-November to end December, Cours Mirabeau. Christmas village/market, children’s rides, carousels.
Carpentras: December, centre of town. Christmas market, free shows, lights, skating rink.
Marseille: mid-November to end December, on the old port. Including the 142nd local Santons Fair (Foire aux Santons de Marseille).
Monaco: December 2 – January 2, on the port. Christmas village/market, skating rink, activities.
Nice: December 3 – January 1, Jardin Albert 1er. Christmas village, skating rink, big wheel and carousels for children.
Saint-Remy-de-Provence: December, place de la Mairie.
Uzes: 17-19 December, places aux Herbes et de la Rochette.
Christmas is truffle season, and Provence is the centre of truffles for France. As much as 70-80% of France’s black truffles come from the Vaucluse department in Provence. Markets and festivals celebrating this delightful earthy lump are found across Provence while restaurants will often feature a special truffle menu.
Truffle markets, running from November to March:
Richerenches truffle market: Saturday morning, in avenue de la Rabasse. This is the French capital of truffles.
Carpentras truffle market: Friday mornings, in front of the tourist office. The oldest truffle market in France, dating back to 1155.
Riez truffle market: Wednesday morning.
Valreas truffle market: Wednesday morning.
Aups truffle market: Thursday.
Aups: 4th Sunday of January. With…a truffle market, truffle hunting demonstration, truffle dog competition, exhibitions and truffle-based menus at all the village’s restaurants
Menerbes: late December.
Le Rouret: mid-January.
Rognes: the Sunday before Christmas.
Pernes les Fontaines: late January.
Pelissanne: late January
Carpentras: early February
Santons are small clay figures with a romantic history – during the French Revolution church creches (cribs) were forbidden, but people still made small figures by hand for private creches at home – often from papier mache and dough. Santons evolved from the nativity scene to scenes of Provence life, so now there are santons covering every activity you can think of along with miniature buildings and Provence landscapes. In some places there are huge santon dioramas to visit in the Christmas period (usually in a church, town hall or tourism office). Santons are available to buy from Christmas markets and also on display in cribs across the region. Traditionally you add one santon each year to your collection, so it is important to get just the right one, and the choice is vast. One of the most well-known creches can be found in Avignon at the Eglise des Celestins, where 600 santon figures make up the crib, set among a traditional Provence landscape.
Where to see santons in Provence at Christmas:
Santons Fair in Marseille (Foire aux Santons): mid-November to end December, on the old port.
Santon-makers’ Exhibition in Arles: mid-November to mid-January, in St Trophime’s cloisters. Showing the work of local and international craftsmen, from manger scenes to contemporary.
Santon market, Carpentras: mid-December to Christmas Eve, Chapelle du college
Santon museums: in Les Baux de Provence and Fontaine de Vaucluse, open all year.
Baskets of oysters are freely available across Provence in winter, but head down to the coast and catch yourself a fresh sea urchin – ‘oursin’ – from the fishermen on the quayside who will open them for you. Tasting both bitter and sweet, of the sea, smoke, nut and honey, eat them in a waterside restaurant or as they come, with a crisp glass of white.
St Barbe’s wheat (le blé de la Sainte-Barbe)
The Christmas period in Provence is the ‘Calendale’, and begins on 4th December – St Barbe’s Day. On this day children across Provence will plant wheat in small saucers. If the resulting miniature wheat field stands straight and green, the coming year will be a prosperous one. Join in – you’ll find small packets of wheat sold across Provence at this time of year.
The trees are alive with chatter this time of year as the olives are harvested – traditionally after the first frost. Sometimes an entire family can be inside one tree, pulling off the olives with what look like giant plastic combs, to let them fall in to the nets below. The best known Provence olives are the Picholine – green, mild and nutty; the Lucques – bright green and crescent-shaped with a gentle flavour; and the Nicoise – a deep brown olive – wrinkly and chewy!
13 desserts of Christmas
Christmas dinner is served on 24th December, before heading to church for midnight mass (optionally). It traditionally consists of seven meagre dishes in memory of the sufferings of Mary, followed by 13 desserts that represent the Last Supper. In fact the meagre dishes are consigned to history, but the tradition of the 13 desserts has been maintained, proving that you can have your cake and eat it. You’ll find references to these 13 desserts all over Provence during the Christmas season. They include dried fruit, nougat, crystallised and fresh fruit, nuts, thin wafers and fougasse (a traditional flat bread). You can see why the main dishes used to be meagre!
Gateau des Rois
Originally the gateau des rois (the cake of the kings) was consumed on the 6th day of January, though thankfully you’ll find it in the bakeries for most of the Christmas season. In the form of either a puff pastry with frangipane filling, or more typically in Provence, a brioche, it is decorated with candied fruit (another Provence speciality) and sugar icing. The cake will always contain a ‘fève’ – traditionally a bean, but invariably a miniature figurine today. Whoever finds the fève gets to be king for the day (most bakeries will even provide a crown). This tradition started way back in Roman times to celebrate the winter solstice, and today it is a celebration of Epiphany.
Midnight mass and pastrage
All across Provence churches are full for Christmas midnight mass, often held in the old language of Provencal. Some churches also carry out a traditional ceremony called a ‘pastrage’. The pastrage is a ceremony that comes down the ages from shepherds honouring the birth of Jesus. Today it is a procession to the church in shepherds’ costumes, with drums and Provencal chants, with a lamb made as an offering (but don’t worry it’s not harmed in any way, and it gets a ride in a straw-lined cart!). In some villages the pastrage is still a part of the midnight mass on Christmas Eve: Allauch, Barbentane, Eygalieres, Fontvieille, Lamanon, Les Baux-de-Provence, Miramas, Rognonas, Saint-Michel-de-Frigolet and Senas, as well as in the city of Arles at St Trophime cathedral.
Provence is not only beach, vineyards and rolling hills, there are mountains and Alps too, and that means you can ski at Christmas in Provence.
Close to the Luberon region, you may be surprised to see the white top of Mont Ventoux: usually that is because of the chalky rock up there, but in winter it is often snow, because the Ventoux is the first foothill of the Alps. This tormentor of the Tour de France riders in summer becomes a mini ski resort when snow falls. With two ski stations offering blue and red runs, ski hire shops, and plenty of space dedicated to tobogganing, this makes for a wonderful day out. You can check if the top of Mont Ventoux has snow on the Mont Ventoux webcam.
Moving west a couple of hours to the Alps you have the more serious skiing of the Alpes de Haute-Provence, with resorts like Pra Loup and Val d’Allos. And in the Alpes-Maritime department there is notably the resort of Isola 2000, which is 90 minutes drive from the beach in Nice.
Did we mention the weather? Provence has 300 days of sunshine a year, so you’ll find blue skies and inspiring vistas in the winter too.
We offer hand-picked Provence vacation rentals, many of which are available for rent through the Christmas and New Year period.