The nativity scene, the ‘santons’, the 13 desserts, but also the ‘gros soupa’, the Feast Day of Saint Barbara or even Saint Lucy- welcome to Christmas in Provence!
Here, the festivities begin on the 4th December and finish with Candlemad on the 2nd February.
It’s an opportunity to revive tradition, these events and traditions passed down between generations of Provençal people.
Christmas in Provence is for everyone who wants to look at the world through a child’s eyes.
The 1st Sunday of advent marks the beginning of the Roman calendar, a period of reflection to prepare for Christmas. On the 4th of December, on the Feast Day of Saint Barbara, people sow wheat in three ‘seitouns’ (saucers), which are placed on the Christmas table. From the Feast Day of Saint Lucy (13th December), the days slowly get longer. Windows are lit with candles are lit every evening.
On the 24th December, the nativity scene is prepared, the ‘Gros Soupa’ is eaten, and we patiently stay awake (or party!) until Midnight Mass. On the way back, we put baby Jesus in his cradle, open presents and enjoy the 13 desserts and mulled wine. On Christmas night, the living crèche takes place in the church. The other nativity figures (shepherds, sheep, donkeys) parade in the streets of the village in traditional costume. On the 25th December, Christmas Day, was the day for the stuffed turkey. After the meal, we visit family or have people to visit. On the 26th December, which used to be a bank holiday, we eat aïoli with our families.
On the 31st December, we stay up until midnight. On the 1st January, nobody works, and absolutely nobody does the dishes! On the 6th January, we celebrate Epiphany, when the 3 Kings arrive, presented to the village with pipes and tambourines. In their honour, we eat a brioche crown with crystallised fruit, and a ‘fève’ is placed amongst the mixture. On the 2nd February, Candlemas marks the end of the Roman calendar, 40 days after Christmas, and the nativity scene is taken down.
This is a Provençal tradition that began in the 15th century. It’s a real show that takes place in the streets from the middle of December to the end of January, outside the churches which trace the birth of the ‘baby Jesus’ in a village in Provence, with funny and larger-than-life characters.
‘La pastorale’ is a type of operetta that includes numerous sung sections, texts in Provençal (even if they’re increasingly read in French so that the majority can understand) and, according to custom, the whole show is improvised. The most famous ‘pasotrale’, created in 1844 and continues to this day, is by Antoine Maurel. It should be noted that according to a study by Paul Nougier, the first ‘Mystery’, (a precursor to the ‘pastorale’), was performed in Draguignan in 1433. The most-performed ‘pastorales’ in the Var are by Maurel, Audibert, and Bellot, and are shown in the villages of Adrets, Estérel, Arcs-sur-Argens, Besse-sur-Issole, Brignoles, Cavalaire, Draguignan, Hyères, Luc, La Motte, Muy, Ollioules, Ramatuelle, Saint Maximin, Saint-Tropez and Val.
On the 24th December, children run into the hills and woods to collect greenery – box, thyme, olive, pine, moss, holly, laurestine – as well as pebbles, pine cones and pieces of park… in order to ‘build’ the nativity scene.
It can’t be done too early, because the greenery and moss needs to be fresh and survive until the 2nd February, because tradition dictates that the nativity scene needs to remain until Candlemas. These materials are used to create the background: Provence, a geographically well-located area, a typical Varoise village. Ultimately, the nativity scene has to include the countryside. A real nativity scene is not just a stable to house the Holy Family!
Year on year, the festival grows its population of santons by going back to the santon shops or travelling salesmen that walk through the towns and countryside before Christmas. Before, the santon-makers would go from door-to-door and would make santons in exchange for bed and lodging.
The 4 elements are represented in the nativity scene: earth, with the moss, water with stream, air with a windmill and fire with a candle. The santons are placed in this Provençal setting, with the Holy Family, the traditional characters (the Ravi, the Arlésienne, the miller, Roustide, Pistachié, le Boumian, the angel Boufaréu…), the animals and the Three Kings. Laurestine is placed for decoration on the table so that it stays green throughout the year, replacing the Christmas tree of other traditions.
There are 13 desserts, which can vary depending on the location: figs, almonds, walnuts, hazelnuts, grapes, melons, apples, pears, nougat, quince jelly, olive oil ‘pompe’ and oreillettes. The 13 desserts are accompanied by mulled wine.
The 13 desserts stay on the table for 3 days, much to the delight of the children!
The ‘Gros soupa’ is a dinner that traditionally takes place on the evening of the 24th December and finishes before midnight, to go to midnight mass.
The table has to be beautiful and the crockery remains for 3 days. Firstly, three white tablecloths of different sizes are laid so that they can all be seen (the biggest, then the middle-one then the smallest). The first tablecloth is used for the ‘Gros Soupa’, the second one for Christmas Day and the 3rd for Boxing Day.
On the table are laid 3 saucers of wheat, three candles and the best service, not to mention an extra place at the table (the now-symbolic ‘pauper’ place), open to a poor person on Christmas Eve. Next, into the kitchen to prepare the ‘Gros Soupa’ (certain parts of which have been prepared beforehand, sometimes several weeks in advance!).
The 7-course menu uses local, seasonal produce, and varies throughout the region, but there are some staples: chard, snails, cod, mullet, celery, chickpeas and cheese.
There are 7 wines (if possible), with mulled wine being an absolute staple.
The advent bread is also a little different – a round loaf shaped into a cross. At the beginning of the meal, it is divided into 3: one part for the poor, one for the meal, and one for miracles.
You can also add 12 small loaves, and a bigger one, decorated with branches of holly.
The meal ends with the 13 desserts.
Before the ‘Gros Soupa’, when the table is laid and the fire is lit in the fireplace, the oldest and youngest members of the family take a log from a fruit tree.
They have to go around the table 3 times before putting it in the fire to set it alight. When the log has been lit, the old person or child (with adult supervision!) puts it out with a glass of mulled wine, saying:
“Alégre, Alégre ! Diéu nous alègre, Eme calendo tout bén ven. Diéu nous fague la graci de véire l’an que ven, E se noun sian pas mai, que noun fuguen pas mens !”,
“Joy! May God bring us happiness! Everything is good at Christmas. God has blessed us to see the next year, and if we are not more, may we not be fewer.’
After oldest and youngest members of the family, the entire family drinks fragrant mulled wine, and everyone sits down.