Christmas in Provence traditionally last 40 days, from Saint Barbara’s Day (La Sainte-Barbe on December 4th) to Candlemas (La Chandeleur, February 2nd). The region’s time-honoured celebrations come into full swing as the year draws to a close and the local towns and villages roll out ancient customs and picturesque crib scenes. Families gather round the “Gros Souper” supper: a humble but copious meal served on Christmas Eve, ending with the legendary Thirteen Desserts. The crib scene is finally taken down at Candlemas, honouring the purification of the Virgin Mary and “new fire” – the time when nature is purified before it emerges from winter. Christmas is also a very special time for foodies, with gastronomic feasts galore and cookery classes held in exceptional locations. Spending Christmas in Provence is a great way to delve deeper into the authenticity of this unique and beautiful destination and its welcoming locals.
The “cacho-fio” is the customary lighting of the Yule log, traditionally pear, cherry or olive wood. The expression actually means “light the fire“. Some people also say “Bouta cacho-fio“, meaning “set the log on fire“.
The Christmas Eve celebrations kick off with this half-religious, half-magical ceremony – a lingering memory of Roman religious rituals. The grandfather chooses a lit candle and shows it to the rest of the family. If the flame bends down like an overly-heavy ear of wheat, the harvest will be plentiful, if it stays straight, the barn will remain empty…
Before sitting down to eat, the eldest and youngest family members place the log in front of the fire and sprinkle it three times with mulled wine before placing it in the fire and lighting it, while singing (in Provencal dialect) “Rejoice! God has graced us with the “cacho-fio” celebration, all is well. May God give us grace to see the coming year. And if we are not more, may we not be less”.
“GROS SOUPER” SUPPER
The “Gros Souper“, served just after the “cacho-fio” ritual, is a simple meal that nevertheless obeys the strictest protocols. The table – the centrepiece of the room – is decorated with little sprigs of holly, Saint Barbara’s wheat and, sometimes, roses of Jericho. Special Christmas bread (pain calendal) is placed at the centre of the table.
The table is laid with three “white tablecloths” placed one on top of the other and three candles, evoking the Holy Trinity. The 13 rolls of bread served with the meal refer to the Last Supper of Jesus and the 12 apostles, as do the 13 desserts, still very popular today.
The dishes may be served all at once along with wine as a sign of abundance and to fill the table. As Christmas is also a celebration of charity, an extra place, referred to as the “poor man’s plate”, is set for unexpected visitors. This place is said to be for the souls of the family’s departed, who are also invited to take part in the festivities.
Seven simple dishes are prepared in reminder of the “7 wounds of Christ“. Christmas Eve demands abstinence from meat, so the meal is plain but plentiful. This abundance is considered as heralding a prosperous future. As each village has one or two of its own traditional dishes, the Christmas meal can take many forms.
Although there isn’t a “set” menu, you will find common themes according to the region. Generally, the Christmas Eve supper honours local produce, hence you’ll find a combination of land and sea dishes in Provence.
Fresh seafood (eels, tuna, bream, cod, etc.) is obviously served in coastal towns and villages, while vegetables are given pride of place in inland areas of Provence (baked spinach with garlic and parsley in Apt, chard, raw celery with an anchovy dip, blanched leeks, baked pumpkin topped with cheese, etc.). Typical dishes in mountain areas include “crozets” (small pasta squares) and pasta strips, also referred to as “crouiches” or “crouizes”.
This abundance of food contrasts sharply with everyday eating habits in Provence, although the dishes remain essentially fuss-free.
Thirteen, like Christ and the 12 apostles. Although this tradition is generally associated with Provence and the “Calèna” Christmas custom that originated in the ancient County of Nice, it is now found throughout Occitania and even in Catalonia. The desserts are served at the end of the “Gros Souper” Christmas Eve supper.
The “4 beggars”, representing the various Catholic religious orders having taken a vow of poverty, form the basis of the 13 desserts:
• walnuts and hazelnuts for the Augustinians
• dried figs for the Franciscans
• almonds for the Carmelites
• raisins for the Dominicans
According to the region, town or even individual family traditions, these 4 desserts are accompanied by:
• “pompe à huile” (brioche made with olive oil), also called “fougasse” or “gibassier”
• black and white Provence nougat (from Allauch or Sault, with lavender honey and roasted almonds)
• apples and pears
• plums (Brignoles)
• “verdaù” (green melon stored in wheat)
• oranges (a symbol of wealth), tangerines and clementines
• Christmas melon
• white grapes
• candied fruit (e.g. from Apt).
• quince jelly or paste
• “calisson” candies from Aix
• “bugnes” (little doughnuts made with orange flower water)
• milk biscuit
• almond cake
• dates (sometimes stuffed with marzipan)
According to tradition, the guests must eat a small portion of each dessert, accompanied by mulled wine, to seal good fortune throughout the year.
The Midnight Mass celebration on December 24th is said to date back to the 5th century in Provence. It goes without saying that this ancient tradition has now expanded worldwide.
Before mass itself comes the “veillée” – a moment of prayer and contemplation accompanied by “Les Noëls” (Provencal songs or hymns evoking both religious fervour and local traditions). “Les Noëls” are sung in the form of a dialogue and are widely used in the “Pastorale” nativity play, the most famous of which was written by Avignon-born Nicolas Saboly (1614-1675), of which Provencal author Frédéric Mistral said “it would move a whole church to tears”.
In addition to hymns and “Noëls“, midnight mass is traditionally associated with the “Pastrage” offering ceremony.
Offering a lamb during Midnight Mass is part of the “Pastrage” ritual (from “pâtre” meaning “shepherd”). Shepherds in long robes, bearing a candle, proceed slowly to the altar, preceded by pipe and tabor players. One of the shepherds carries a little lamb.
The lamb is offered to the prior, who takes it in his arms. The shepherd then relates the voyage he and his companions have just completed across hills and valleys…
Other offerings may include delicious fruit, vegetables, fish or “fougasse” brioche according to the village and region, each offering their finest produce. All participants are dressed in traditional costume. This colourful and fervent procession then steps towards the altar in turn, accompanied by folk groups.
“PASTORALE” NATIVITY PLAY
First and foremost, the “Pastorale” evokes the voyage to the stable and pious celebration of the Baby Jesus. The subject matter varies little: it is the story of Saint Joseph seeking lodgings for the night near Bethlehem, going from house to house, until he is led to a grotto where his family can shelter.
A genuine oddity in the history of medieval plays, the “Pastorale” was originally played out inside the church itself as part of midnight mass. The ceremony was later pushed outside the church walls. The most famous of these nativity plays, still acted out today, are the “Pastorale Maurel” (1844) and “Pastorale de Bellot“. The “Pastorale Maurel” portrays the march of the Three Kings, guided by the Star of Bethlehem or “bello estello”. This improvised pilgrimage is in fact a race to discover the miracle. The text, both naïve and satirical, is read in Provencal dialect.
Fundamentally humoristic in nature, the story revolves around the character of Pistachié and his stammering stooge Jiget. The audience guffaws at their mishaps, before shedding a tear over the fate of the blind man and his son. Boumian is the baddie, while Rémoulaïre has rather too much of a taste for wine…
Epiphany means “apparition” and refers to the arrival of the Three Kings. The Christmas celebrations per se end on January 8th with the traditional “Galette des Rois” cake. Although this cake is often made with flaky pastry, the traditional Provencal version is a sort of brioche in the shape of a crown, decorated with candied fruit symbolizing the jewels of the Three Kings. In days gone by, bakers keen to make a good impression offered it as a gift to their best customers.
The last of the Christmas traditions takes place on February 2nd. This is when the crib scene is taken down. According to the liturgy, Candlemas celebrates the purification of the Virgin Mary. Since ancient times, the month of February (which comes from the Latin verb “februare” (meaning “to purify”) has been associated with “new fire” – the time when nature is purified before it emerges from winter. The church tied this pagan tradition in with the notion of penitence by choosing to bless green candles; the colour green being synonymous with the idea of purification. The Candlemas celebration in Marseille (Fête de la Chandeleur) remains an extremely popular and festive event, as witnessed by the traditional blessing of “navettes” – boat-shaped biscuits celebrating the arrival of the Saints in Provence.