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Discover Christmas and its French Traditions in Provence.

Updated: 7 days ago

The Sainte Barbara

Christmas in Provence begins on December 4: the day of Sainte-Barbara.

Sainte-Barbara is the patron saint of miners, fireworks and firefighters.

According to history, Barbara was a young virgin martyred in Asia Minor in the 3rd century.

This is the only proven point in the history of Sainte Barbara.

For the rest, there are several versions.

The most popular legend says that Saint Barbara was passionately loved by her father who built her a tower.

She lived there far away from men.

During his father's absence, Barbara converted to the Christian religion and had his tower pierced with a window in the shape of a cross.

Barbara endured long and excruciating tortures, but she still refused to deny her faith.

Dioscorus, his father then decided to execute him by cutting off his head at the top of the mountain.

A thunderstorm broke out and Dioscorus was struck dead by lightning.

Since then, Provençal tradition has been to germinate wheat seeds in three saucers covered with damp cotton.

The saucers are placed on the fireplace or in the crib.

If the stems grew straight and green, the ancients said the year would be prosperous.

These small miniature fields will then take place in the family nursery.

The cacho-fio or "Light the fire"

In Provence, Christmas evening begins with the ancient pagan custom of cacho fio.

Cacho-fio is a ritual for lighting the Yule log (calendau, in Provencal) on the evening of December 24.

The youngest and the oldest of the family together carry the log of a fruit tree.

They go around the table three times, covered with 3 tablecloths.

The log is then drizzled 3 times with cooked wine with words that change from one family to another

Then it is lit: the log must burn for 3 days and 3 nights.

Crib and santons

Numerous santon fairs are organized throughout Provence from mid-November to prepare the crib.

The santons are small colorful clay figurines.

The real Provencal santon "Santoun" (little saint) is created by hand and with love.

Some santons in the Christmas crib represent the Nativity scene: Jesus, the Virgin Mary, Joseph.

Others represent the inhabitants of the village going to the crèche: pétanque players, fish merchants, doctors, bakers, shepherds ...

Everyone brings a gift for the baby Jesus.

The authentic crib is in fact an ideal representation of the Provençal village and its small world.

This tradition is present in every department of Provence but stronger in the Bouches du Rhône.

There is a museum of santons in Baix de Provence, which we visited two years ago with my husband, Alex.

The big dinner and the 13 desserts

My favourite time at Christmas!

The big supper is served before midnight mass.

This is a frugal meal.

Its staging and the symbolism of the figures are important.

The number 3 refers to the Trinity. Therefore, there are 3 tablecloths on the table.

The number 7 refers to the seven pains of the Virgin Mary.

The number 13 refers to the Last Supper.

The composition is when the 13 desserts are served, depending on the city where you live in Provence.

Some eat it before midnight mass, others after.

Among the products offered during the 13 desserts, you will find:

o the 4 beggars who represent the different religious orders who have taken a vow of poverty

o dried figs for the Franciscans

o almonds for Carmelites

o raisins for Dominicans

o and nuts and hazelnuts for the Augustins

o dates which symbolize Christ from the East

o nougats (black and white): white nougat for good and black nougat for bad

o the fougasse in olive oil (the pump): flattened round pancake in olive oil

o quince jelly or candied fruit in the Apt or Carpentras region

o the atria

o fresh fruit: mandarins, oranges, pears, grapes and winter melons preserved for this occasion.

Midnight mass

In some villages, you will hear Provençal songs and mass can even be said in Provencal.

A pastoral can also accompany the mass.

The pastoral is a theatrical representation of the Nativity, sung and spoken in Provencal by characters costumed in Provencal clothes.

The most widespread Pastorale is the Pastorale Maurel, but there are 250 different versions which tell stories of villages and Christmas traditions.

In the more rural or traditionally steeped regions, the pastry-making ceremony continues to enchant the midnight mass.

A procession of shepherds comes to present the newborn lamb to the assembly to the sound of the tambourine.

The young sheep is transported in a small cart lit by candles.

These traditions are passed down from generation to generation.

Yet they are experienced and organized in the villages before the Christmas holidays.

In this way, families in Provence can celebrate Christmas in a classic way as in the rest of France.

Quand vous viendrez chez moi pour un séjour d’immersion en Provence, je me ferai un plaisir de vous faire découvrir les différents aspects de la Provence comme ceux-là mais aussi les paysages et les senteurs, la gastronomie… tout en vous aidant à améliorer votre français.

À bientôt en Provence !

Virginie In Provence

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