Thursday, 15 December 2016

Guest Post - Joyeux Noël ~ Christmas in Provence by Patricia Sands

The magic of Christmas in Provence is unique. 

Sit back and enjoy this brief Yuletide tour. 

December 4th marks the beginning of “la Calendale” (Christmastide) which continues through to February 2nd, la Chandeleur (Candlemas).  Deeply rooted traditions are observed with light-hearted celebrations accompanied by delicious gastronomy.

On December 4th, la fête de la Sainte-Barbe, wheat germ is planted (on cotton wool) on three saucers. These are placed in the family crib (crèche) which is traditionally set up at this time. Later, the saucers will be transferred to the dinner table on Christmas Eve. If the stems grow straight and green, the coming year will be prosperous.

In towns and villages, sparkling strings of lights spell greetings of “Joyeux Noël” and “Joyeuses Fêtes”. Carousels are festively decorated and change their music to play Christmas carols.

Festively lit, open-air Christmas markets spring up in every village, town and city. Their quaint, alpine-style wooden huts offer assortments of food, arts and crafts, decorations and gift ideas. The air is filled with the cinnamon-infused smell of hot, mulled wine and the smokey, sweet aroma of roasting chestnuts. Ice-skating rinks and la grande roue, a large ferris wheel, are often set up along with games and stands serving sweet treats.

As families stroll the markets, they might purchase a new santon for their crèche. Passed down through generations, these beloved handmade clay figurines are brought out from storage and set up in homes and store windows to display the nativity scene and life in a classic Provençal village. Derived from the word “santoun” meaning little saint, craftsmen hold famous, well-attended santons markets beginning in November throughout France, but they are particularly popular in Provence. 

In some villages, it’s still possible to find a living crib with local inhabitants in costume and real animals, particularly on Christmas Eve. Participating in this is often a source of great pride and, sometimes, family tradition.

Since the early 1900’s, the Christmas tree or le sapin de Noël, has become a more popular part of the traditions in France. Chocolate treats wrapped in glittering foil are among the favorite decorations.

And now, no surprise here, let’s focus on the Christmas gastronomy. This could cause my post to go on for several pages, so I’ll try to be concise. When it comes to food in France … well, say no more! Oui?

On Christmas Eve, families and friends often visit with each other before returning home for le gros souper. 

Where there is a fireplace, le cacho fio, usually a log from an olive tree, is lit before the meal commences. This is accompanied by its own traditions. You may read about that here. 

This great supper with its thirteen desserts is a buffet traditionally served before midnight mass. Every dish has its own symbolism. Numbers are of the utmost importance: 3 white tablecloths on each table set with 3 candelabrum holding white candles. In some homes, the corners of the tablecloths are knotted - to prevent the devil from climbing up on to the table. 

The candles represent the loved ones of the past, loyalty to friends and family of the present, and hope for the future. Also, 3 saucers of sprouted wheat germs that were planted on St. Barbe’s Day grace the table. The number 3 represents the Holy Trinity.

The 7 lean (fish, no meat) supper courses represent the seven sufferings of Mary. The twelve apostles and Christ are represented by 13 breads and the 13 desserts. Often the desserts are served after mass and they remain on the table for 3 days. These traditional desserts never vary as their cultural importance is respected. 

Like the rest of the meal, the desserts are not rich: figs, grapes and raisins, almonds, walnuts, prunes, oranges, apples, pears, oranges, candied lemons, local cookies and a local specialty, nougat, along with the traditional pompe à huile, actually a local fougasse bread sweetened with orange flower water and olive oil.

Midnight Mass is celebrated with the singing of Provençal and religious carols and the procession of the shepherds. 

Some villages and towns still follow an ancient rural ritual called the pastrage. A lamb is placed in a little cart decorated with ribbons, branches and candles and drawn by a sheep or pulled by shepherds. Typically, it features a torchlight procession with fifes, drums and other sheep accompanied by their shepherds.

Before going to bed, children leave their shoes in front of the fireplace or other special place in the hopes Père Noël will fill them once they are asleep. Special treats and small gifts may also be hung on the Christmas tree.

In some families, a quiet Christmas day ends with a scrumptious feast, Le Réveillon, that features shellfish, foie gras and roasts. The eagerly anticipated dessert is the traditional log-shaped sponge cake, la Bûche de Noël, with cream filling and chocolate icing.

Are you feeling kind of full? I know I am, just writing about this! 

After New Year’s and several other feasts we won’t get into here, the season ends with Candlemas, or La Chandeleur (fête de la lumière), on 2 February. Candles are lit, the crèche/cribs and santons are packed away for another year and everyone feasts on crêpes! 

Happy holidays to you wherever you celebrate!

All of these Christmas traditions are celebrated by the characters in Promises To Keep, Book 2 of the Love In Provence series. I had great fun researching!

Find out more at Patricia’s Facebook Author Page, Amazon Author Page or her website where there are links to her books, social media, and monthly newsletter that has special giveaways and sneak peeks at her next book. She would love to hear from you!

Thank you so much Patricia for this fabulous look at Christmas in Provence. I can't wait to start reading your Love in Provence series. 


  1. Rachel, thanks so much for inviting me to stop by and blather on about one of my favourite topics! Any time! I was glad to see what a fabulous time you had on your vacation. Well deserved, after all that reading!

  2. Sounds like my kind of celebration, lots of food. I love when traditions are passed on generation after generation.


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