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CHRISTMAS IN PROVENCE
Rich in terms of symbols, beliefs and predictions, Christmas traditions are well established in the hearts of the people of Provence and Christmas here has its own unique elements. A time for sharing, seeing family and friends as well as a succession of festivities, rituals and customs which regulates everyday life: santon fairs, Christmas markets, concerts and music, nativities and santons are a must in Provence.
This festive season starts on December 4th with Saint Barbara to begin the Christmas period, known locally as "Calendale", and ends at Candlemas (Feb 2nd).
The ceremony of lighting the Yule log (cacha: to light, fio: fire). The Yule log is traditionally made from fruit trees cut during the year (pear, cherry, olive) and soaked in mulled wine 3 times poured on by the eldest of the family before proceeding onto the blessing in Provençal. Then the eldest and the youngest in the family take the log and walk around the table 3 times before placing it in the hearth. Once the log has been lit, the Calendale vigil can begin with songs and hymns in Provençal as well as stories and music.
The 13 desserts are eaten after midnight mass and stay on the table for the next 3 days. 13 is a very symbolic number representing Christ and the 12 apostles at the Last Supper. The type of dishes served as these 13 desserts varies according to the regions as does the Gros Souper on Christmas Eve.
These traditional Christmas vigils are unmissable: they have a family and collective nature and prefigure the family occasion of Christmas Eve.
These vigils are the heart and soul of Christmas in Provence with the tempo set by stories, tales, songs and hymns, brought to life by traditional dance groups and the guardians of Provençal traditions. Get a sneak preview of the 13 Desserts and sometimes even the Gros Souper on Christmas Eve.
In amongst the hymns and the "Noëls" (Provençal songs, the most famous of which were composed by Saboly, Roumanille and Charloun Rieu) is the Pastoral play: a theatrical representation of the Nativity sung and recited in Provençal which can also be staged at the same time as midnight mass. It is part of the tradition and recalls the story of Joseph travelling to Bethlehem looking for a place for his family to stay for the night.
The most widespread Pastoral play is the Pastorale Maurel (1844) which has 5 acts in Provençal verse and is staged annually in the region of Aix en Provence.
MIDNIGHT MASS AND PASTRAGES
In certain villages the ceremony of the Pastrage* takes place during midnight mass. This is a very old pastoral custom, the winter solstice being at the same time as the lambing season.
"Lou bayle”, the patron of shepherds wearing his homespun cape, his hat decorated with ribbons and holding his pilgrim’s staff, is accompanied by other shepherds, a young herder, children carrying lambs and girls wearing Provençal costumes, with their arms filled with presents walking to the sound of galoubet pipes and tambourines towards the church in a procession after walking through hills and valleys. On their arrival, “Lou bayle” takes the lamb in his arms to offer it to the priest and, when making the offering, everyone comes to adore baby Jesus and to give their presents.
Some of the midnight masses with Pastrages are very well known, in particular in Saint Michel de Frigolet (Tarascon), Barbentane, Fontvieille, Saint Rémy de Provence, Les Baux de Provence, Eygalières and Allauch.
In the past, the procession of the crowd led by shepherds walked slowly through the night lit by paper lanterns and lanterns. Nowadays, Allauch is the last village to continue the lit shepherd’s procession.
THE WHEAT OF SAINT BARBARA
Every year in Provence when Christmas comes around, parents and children bustle about preparing for this joyous festival. From December 4th, Saint Barbara’s day, some wheat grains are put on a bed of damp cotton to sprout in three saucers to represent the Trinity. With careful watering they will become miniature fields to decorate the family crib and the table for the Gros Souper on Christmas Eve, an evening full of symbolism.
NATIVITY CRIB AND SANTONS
In Provence, a Christmas without a crib and its little santon models is unimaginable. You’ll find all the characters from Provençal village life in the crib, the Holy Family (biblical characters) and the Three Wise Men at Epiphany. This little group of painted clay figurines in shimmering colours stay in the house for forty days before going back in their box in the New Year.
Santons: Through the centuries the nativity’s actors, created to celebrate Christmas, have been seen in many different forms. The first were church decorations and often made of carved gold-plated wood or glass. These nativity characters were later joined by shepherd models. We would have to wait until the 19th century for the village characters to come on the scene.
In the 17th century, the santons were made of fabric covered pasteboard, cork and wire. You would see them in the houses of lords and the rich bourgeoisie in porcelain, spun glass and even breadcrumbs. The passion shines through no matter how they are made.
Public nativity cribs appeared in Provence at the end of the 18th century. These nativity scenes were brought to life with puppets and due to the interest shown in automatons, became mechanical with moving characters.
The Revolution’s suppression of midnight mass and closure of churches couldn’t dampen the people of Provence’s enthusiasm and they continued to make their own cribs using any material possible, which people could pay to view, From this time onwards, family cribs really started to become popular as did santons in the family home.
THE GROS SOUPER OR GROS SOUPA IN PROVENCAL
The Christmas Eve meal calls for the stage to be set and the food theatre to take place before mass. First of all the table is laid with three white tablecloths (from the largest to the smallest) which will stay there until the end of the Calendale festivities. Three white candles are lit near the three cups of sprouted wheat for Saint Barbara. The number 3 is essential to the season as it symbolises the Holy Trinity. Some holly with red berries and Christmas’ own roses of Jericho also adorn the table. This meal is brimming with symbols: the log of cacho-fio, fire, bread and water and the numbers themselves are all important.
This great supper is in fact a light meal excluding all types of meat as Christmas Eve is a day of abstinence (during Advent). Made up of seasonal vegetables and traditionally served dishes, the meal typically includes: fried cod with Raïto sauce (tomato, red wine and olive sauce), grey mullet with olives, snails served with cardoons, celery, poivrade sauce, artichoke etc. Frédéric Mistral says that "one by one traditional dishes appeared on the table…" Of course, each region in Provence has its own customs and dishes specific to the area as you can see when reading Gros Souper menus. Also, depending on local variations, you will find eel stew, octopus casserole, spinach or courgette gratin, lentils, artichoke omelette etc.