The festive season in Provence, the Calendale, starts on 4 December, St. Barbe’s Day, and finishes in February on pancake day, La Chandeleur.
On St Barbe’s day wheat and lentil seeds are planted in small dishes and covered with damp cotton wool. The resulting shoots, decorated with ribbons, are a symbol of good harvest and prosperity for the coming year.
The Christmas crib is filled with santon figurines, meaning little saint, small painted clay and wood figurines representing traditional professions and biblical characters and found in the santon markets across the region.
Throughout December most towns and villages have their own Christmas market with food stalls, mulled wine, arts and crafts, gift ideas and decorations. For Christmas markets taking place on the French Riviera, see our Events Guide.
The main Christmas meal, Le Gros Souper, takes place on Christmas Eve with an importance to each dish and symbolism in numbers. The table is laid with three white cloths of decreasing size, for the three members of the Trinity, adorned with three white candles and the sprouted wheat and lentils from St Barbe’s Day. The menu consists of seven lean dishes of vegetables and regional fish specialities representing the sorrows of Mary, served with thirteen bread rolls. Meat and shellfish are definitely banned.
The main course is followed by midnight mass and only then are the famous thirteen desserts produced, remaining on the table until 27 December. These include dry figs, almonds, raisins and hazelnuts, symbolising the Franciscans, Carmelites, Augustinians and Dominicans, dates as a symbol of Christ, black and white nougat for the penitents or purity and goodness, impurity and forces of evil, the fougasse, a flat loaf made with olive oil which must be broken by hand to ensure good fortune for the coming year, quince cheese or crystallised fruit in some regions, thin waffles called oreillettes and fresh fruit.
Midnight mass can be celebrated in Provençal and is sometimes accompanied by a living crib with characters represented by local inhabitants.
Happy Christmas to all, whatever traditions you have chosen to follow!