French Tradition: Le Noël Provençal

Each region has its own Christmas traditions, but none in France is as rich in colourful traditions as that of Provence in December. Here is a brief overview of some of the celebrations that make Provence arguably the best place to spend Christmas in France …

Christmas Traditions in Provence

It all begins on the 4th December with the Jour de la Sainte Barbe, this is the beginning of the «Calendale» period, that lasts up until the Candlemas on the 2nd February.

Between these two dates an abundance of traditional parties and customs take place in the villages and the family homes of Provence.

Le blé de la Sainte Barbe On the 4th December seeds of wheat are germinated in three saucers and covered with wet cotton. Small bags of wheat seeds are sold in the local bakeries and all the profits go to charity. This tradition is based on the belief that if the wheat goes well, all goes well. Therefore well-sprouted wheat where the stems grow straight and green guarantees that the year will be a prosperous one.

La crèche et les santons In Provence “santons” are in fact small figurines made from clay that are use to make up the Provencal nativity scene. These “santons” are therefore specific to Provence and they are often made to represent the locals of the village, whether it be a pétanque player, a fishmonger, a baker or the local doctor, the nativity scene is made to represent the town with a cast of local characters rendered in clay around the nativity manger.

Les marchés de Noël – throughout the whole of the month of December, Christmas markets appear in each town. Here you can find food, decorations and many ideas for Christmas presents in a warm and festive atmosphere. The outdoor markets also offer mulled wine to warm you up from the winter cold.

La veillée de Noël: les gros souper et les 13 desserts – Le gros souper, or what many would call Christmas dinner, is served in the evening on Christmas Day, before Midnight Mass. This meal is very important in Provence as each dish is symbolic and holds a particular meaning. The table is covered in 3 white tablecloths, representing the Holy Trinity. There should be 3 white candelabras and 3 saucers full of the germinated seeds of the Sainte Barbe. The Christmas dinner comprises 7 small dishes representing Mary’s 7 sorrows, it is accompanied by 13 breads and followed by 13 desserts like that of the Last Supper with Jesus and the 12 apostles. The 13 desserts are eaten after midnight mass and they stay on the table for the following three days until the 27th December. These desserts consist of dried fruits, raisins, nuts and dates, nougat, an olive oil fougasse, waffles and a mixture of seasonal fruits. Each gros souper is subtly different between one area in Provence and another and therefore holds not only religious symbolism but also local significance.

«Bon bout d’an!» Bon bout d’an is a typically Marseillaise expression and is said only in the period between Christmas and New Years Day. This phrase wishes continued success for this year and all the best for the future. It is usually complemented by the words ‘à l’an qué vèn‘ meaning ‘to next year’. In Provence nobody says ‘bonne année’ before the 1st January.

So … ‘bon bout d’an et à l’an qué vèn!

(Enjoy the rest of this year and see you in 2017!)