Christmas in Provence

It’s almost that time of year… Christmas is on the horizon and I for one can’t wait! It’s a wonderful time to visit Provence with plenty of things to see and do.

An almost palpable sense of excitement can be felt as people take time out to visit the numerous Christmas markets and partake in uniquely Provencal Christmas traditions. If you’d like to really soak up the spirit of Christmas then a visit during December is a must!

Starting the festivities

The Christmas period in Provence is called ‘La Calendale’ and starts on the 4th December which is the day of the patron Sainte Barbe (St. Barbara). Traditionally wheat seeds are sewn in three saucers of moist cotton wool (a popular school project!). Legend gives that if the seeds successfully germinate then the harvest the following year will be good – just how good depends on how high the seedlings have grown by the 25th December. You’ll see these dishes of (hopefully) green shoots decorating displays and homes throughout the region and are traditional adornments for the Provencal Christmas Eve dinner table.

Christmas markets

The French are experts at markets and Christmas markets certainly don’t disappoint! You won’t have to travel far to find a large market decked out with all things Christmassy to enjoy. From Aix-en-Povence, through to Marseille, most major towns and cities (as well as many smaller ones) revel in the opportunity to host a Christmas market where you’ll find some great gifts and plenty of fantastic food and drink to sample.

As well as markets, there is also a plethora of activities and events that the whole family can enjoy. Fancy a spot of ice skating? Then head to Cassis, a picturesque town on the South Coast of Provence which turns its town square into an ice rink (Patinoire) for the duration of the cold weather. Further up the coast in Arles the week before Christmas is celebrated with a ‘funny’ Christmas festival – the Drôles de Noëls which sees circus performers, puppeteers, magicians and much more turn out onto the city’s streets along with scheduled fireworks displays. Entry to performances and displays are free making this a lively alternative to traditional Christmas markets.

Santons

A significant Provencal Christmas tradition centres around ‘Santons’. These are small painted clay figurines which are skilfully sculpted by ‘Santonniers’ and are used to decorate Christmas Nativity crèches. Often exquisitely detailed, they normally depict characters from everyday walks of life in 19th Century Provence including bakers, fishermen, nurses, gypsies and even the village fool ‘Le Ravi’! And of course let’s not forget the baby Jesus, Virgin Mary, Joseph and the three Wise Men who without no Christmas Nativity would be complete.

Households build their collection by adding new pieces year on year which are laid out in a traditional village setting which can include cottages, the church, a bridge and so on. Moss and other greenery helps bring these scenes to life and many look absolutely spectacular! The vast majority of Santon makers are to be found around Marseille and ever since 1803 an enormous fair, le Foire aux Santons is held around the port in Marseille with thousands of Santons on sale. Well worth a visit!

Christmas food and drink

Christmas is definitely a time for indulging on the food and drink front and there are several tasty traditions that make Christmas in Provence rather special. Unlike some countries which celebrate Christmas with a main meal on the 25th, people across Provence traditionally celebrate with their special meal on the 24th December with ‘le Gros Souper’ (the big supper!). As the name suggests this is a feast worthy of the time of year! The table is laid with three tablecloths, one on top of the other before 3 candles are placed and lit alongside three saucers of wheat seedlings. The first part of the meal is eaten before Midnight Mass and consists of simple Provencal dishes that reflect the season… 7 of them are served, normally as a buffet and, being France, each dish is accompanied by a different wine. Things get really interesting after Midnight Mass when the family return to enjoy ’13 Desserts’; quite literally, thirteen different desserts which consist of nuts, fruits and sweetmeats local to the area like nougat or a Calissons d’Aix, an almond shaped sweet which is made from ground almonds and topped with bright Royal Icing. Other treats often included in the 13 Desserts are Chocolate Truffles, Milk Shortbread, Dates stuffed with marzipan, Bugnes which are little orange blossom infused doughnuts and a selection of stunning Candied Fruits.

The 13 Desserts are normally accompanied by a glass of Vin Cuit. This lovely dessert wine is sweet and strong and the perfect accompaniment to the desserts. It is made by cooking grape juice in an oak caldron over the course of ten or so days. During this time, the juice is reduced in volume by round 50% before being left to ferment. Once fermentation is complete it is left to age in oak barrels for two years. At 14% alcohol it’s quite strong but definitely delicious!

The Christmas festivities officially draw to a close at Candlemas on the 2nd February which commemorates the arrival of Mary Magdalene over 2,000 years ago in Provence at Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer on this date.

It is celebrated with the baking of boat shaped biscuits called Navettes – a sweet cylindrical pastry that have a ‘fleur d’oranger’ flavour, they are a tasty way of bringing this wonderful time of year to a close.

A Provencal Christmas is something to be experienced… the magic that Christmas once invoked in us all as children seems to live on in this part of the world. Wherever you end up celebrating your Christmas this year may I wish you all a Joyeux Noël!

Su Stephens is Owner of Olives & Vines.

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