Christmas Traditions in Provence
The Christmas festivities, called the ‘calendales’ (from the Provencal word for Christmas), begin on 4 December on Saint Barbara’s Day and end with the Epiphany on 6 January – a forty-day period that blends Christian and pagan traditions.
On this day, one sows wheat and lentil seeds in saucers covered with fresh moss – or cotton wool – moistened with a little water. When the grains germinate, they put out attractive green shoots, which symbolize the future harvest. If there are a large number of shoots on 25 December, the harvest will be good. If not, the crops will be poor.
The saucers decorate the Christmas table and the Christmas crib.
It is often about this time that the ‘santons’ (ornamental figures in a Christmas crib) wake up from their year-long sleep and take their place again on the decorated sideboard or table. Everyone helps set up the crib – a custom that goes back to St Francis of Assisi – and it will not be put away until Candlemas: a bridge here, a house there, brought to life by the colourful little ‘santons’. There is the nativity scene - except for the infant Jesus. There are personages, too: ‘Lou Ravi’, raising his arms to the sky in admiration, Mireille and Vincent, Lou Pistachié, who leads his donkey loaded with corn, Bartomio –the incorrigible drunk who offers Jesus a dried cod, the fisherman, the drummer and the angel Boufarrèu - with his trumpet - who announces the coming of the infant Jesus...
Tradition has it that one adds a new ‘santon’ to the crib each year.
This period before Christmas, also called Advent, begins on the 4th Sunday before Christmas. At this time, people in Provence like to stroll through the Christmas markets and the santon-makers’ fairs or go to the region’s many evening concerts -relating Joseph’s journey to find a shelter and the pious devotion of the new-born child.
On 24 December, people celebrate the ‘Cacho-Fio’, share the ‘Gros Souper’ (the Big Supper) and 13 desserts, and then attend the ‘Messe de Minuit ‘(Midnight Mass).
First, there is the candle ritual. The oldest member of the family chooses a candle from those lighting the house and offers it to all the family. If the flame bends, the harvest will be good; if it remains straight, the harvest will be poor.
Next, the oldest and youngest members of the family light the Yule Log, the ‘Cacho-Fio’, taken from a fruit tree and carefully chosen several weeks earlier. However, before giving this log up to the flames, they spread fortified wine over the log three times, while singing the Provencal blessing: “Alègre, Diou nous alègre Cacho fio ven, tout ben ven; Diou nous fagué la graci de veïre l’an que ven, Si sian pas mai que siguen pas men” – Good is coming. May God bless us in the coming year; if we are not more, may we not be fewer.
The burning log will light and heat the house where the family set about preparing the Gros Souper and the ‘Table Calendale’ (Christmas Table).
The ‘Table Calendale’
The ‘Table Calendale’ must have three tablecloths placed one on top of the other. There must also be three candleholders, to commemorate the Trinity, and an extra place setting for a poor person or deceased family member.
It is time to share the ‘Gros Souper’! In fact, it is a light meal of cauliflower, cardoons, celery and artichokes, served with pressed olive oil or anchovy sauce: no meat but some fish – dried or salted cod or shad from the Rhône.
The 13 desserts
The 13 desserts, which symbolize The Last Supper, finish the meal: light and dark nougat, fougasse – also called ‘Pompe à Huile’ (bread made with olive oil), crystallized fruit, dates, mandarins, the four ‘mendiants’ - walnuts, almonds, dried figs and hazelnuts, representing the four major religious orders – grapes, apples and prunes.
Now it is time to go to the ‘Messe de Minuit’, but first, tradition demands that one turns up the four corners of the tablecloths to stop the spirits from dirtying the table.
The "Messe de Minuit"
It dates from the 5th century. Beforehand, people spend the evening singing Provencal carols, the ‘Noëls’. The most famous were written in the 17th century by Nicolas Saboly, native of Avignon.
Before some masses, the ceremony of the pastrage or presentation of the lamb takes place. The shepherd presents a lamb to the prior, who takes it in his arms. The shepherd relates his journey to come and offer his adoration. In olden times, people then left an offering – fish, fruit and vegetables - everyone being keen to give their best produce.
The mass is celebrated with fervour. While it is said in French today, there are still some villages in Provence where it is also said in Provencal, such as in Brantes or Séguret.
Coming back to the house after the mass, one puts the infant Jesus in the crib and finishes the evening with the 13 desserts.
Then one must wait patiently until 6 January, the Epiphany, the day the three kings arrived. In Provence, people eat the ‘Royaume’ - a crown-shaped brioche with crystallized fruits - in other areas, a pastry filled with almond paste.
So the Christmas festivities draw to a close.