Celebrating Christmas in Provence Print E-mail
Arts and Traditions - Traditions

The wheat of Saint Barbara (le blé de la Sainte Barbe)Stand by for a long Christmas season - known locally as La Calendale - in Provence. People here love to celebrate, and for as long as possible, and the Calendale runs almost two months. It embraces a host of vibrant and curious traditions, of which these are the most popular. Click here for a list of the best individual markets, fairs, processions and other Christmas events in Provence this winter.

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The Wheat of Saint Barbara

It all begins on 4 December with the Feast of Saint Barbara, when wheat (or sometimes lentil) seeds are planted on damp cotton wool in three small saucers, representing the Holy Trinity.

Packets of these seeds are on sale in bakeries, pharmacies and certain banks in aid of the Marseille-based charity Le Blé de l'Espérance (The Wheat of Hope) which aids handicapped and hospitalised children.

Locals rally round to support this excellent cause which, in 2011-2012, raised over 320,000 €uros and sent six young athletes to the 2012 London Paralympics. And, in the run-up to Christmas, little pots of the wheat of Saint Barbara, or le blé de la Sainte Barbe, pictured top left, will be sprouting on shop counters and sunny window sills all over Provence.

The higher and faster it grows, the more prosperous a year is in prospect (the proverb runs, in provençal, "Quand lou blad vèn bèn, tout vèn bèn", or, "When the wheat goes well, everything goes well"). Certainly, it ought to germinate by Christmas Eve, when the saucers are decorated with red ribbons and placed on the table to accompany the Great Supper.

Recycling is the name of the game with these miniature crops. After the Great Supper, they may be used to adorn the crib, representing fields of wheat. In the New Year, it's traditional for peasants to transplant the seedlings into their real fields before they become root-bound in order to assure a good harvest.

The daughter of a Greek pagan living in the 3rd century, Saint Barbara converted to Christianity and was beheaded by her father, who was then himself struck dead by lightning.

Provencal santon - le ravi

Today (though it's uncertain what this has to do with growing wheat) she is the patron saint of artillerymen, miners and anyone who works with explosives. In some areas of Provence, a pinch of dried Saint Barbara's wheat is thrown in the fire during thunderstorms to protect against lightning.

Santons and the Christmas Crib

The 4 December is also the date when provençal families set up their Christmas cribs. Some families adjust the crib day by day, moving the Holy Family, Three Kings and other santons, or Christmas crib figurines, to illustrate the progress of the story. Pictured: the ravi, the village simpleton (or seer) who features prominently in many provençal cribs.

Click here for a detailled article about cribs and santons and here for a survey of some funny and surprising santons.

If you are interested in buying santons, our affilliate partner, A Touch of Provence, offers a range of charming Christmas crib figures .


The Great Supper and the 13 Desserts

The evening of the 24 December, or Réveillon, is the occasion for the Great Supper or Gros Souper, followed by the 13 Desserts. Click here to read more about Christmas meals in Provence.

The Christmas Log

This meal may sometimes be preceded by the lighting of the Christmas Log, or Bûche de Noël. According to this ancient tradition, a log, preferably from a fruit tree, is selected and anointed three times with mulled wine by the oldest member of the family, who then, along with the youngest, consigns it to the flames. It should burn for three days and the ashes kept a a remedy for illness or to bring good fortune. This tradition is called lou cacho fio in provençal.

The Pastrage

Some villages and towns still follow an ancient rural ritual called the pastrage, a word derived from the provençal word for shepherd and originating in the fact that Christmas in Provence coincides with the lambing season.

The pastrageA suckling lamb is placed in a little cart decorated with ribbons, branches and candles and drawn by a ewe, the lamb's mother. It leads a procession of shepherds to Midnight Mass (which may well in in provençal) on 24 December. The lamb is offered to the priest but is not sacrificed.

The pastrage can be seen today at a number of locations which - though this may vary from year to year - typically include Saint Rémy de Provence, Eygalières, Allauch and Les Baux de Provence. Typically, it features a torchlight procession with fifes, drums and sheep accompanied by their shepherds. Arrive early if you want to watch any of these events.

The Pastorale

The pastorale is a nativity play with a particular local spin. Very many variants exist, but the best-known version was written by a Marseillais named Antoine Maurel in 1844. A five-act opus, it's usually performed by amateur dramatics societies in provençal, except for the rarely-performed fourth act, about King Herod, which is in French.

Even without that, the pastorale can last for hours and the tone ranges from broadly comic, at least in the opening acts, to spiritual and uplifting.

Rather than focussing on Biblical characters, its dramatis personae are mainly regional types, such as the village drunkard or simpleton. These same characters also figure as santons in provençal cribs: note tA pastorale, or nativity play in Provencehe ravi, or "delighted one," to the left of the group (pictured right), whose distinctive pose with upstretched arms mirrors that of the santon (pictured above).

The pastorale may be performed at Midnight Mass or as a standalone event in its own right.  Many cities such as Marseille and Aix en Provence continue to stage productions of the pastorale well into January and February.

The Epiphany Cake

The 6 January marks Epiphany, when the brioche des rois, a brightly-coloured cake, is shared among friends. The cake contains a fève - sometimes a broad bean but today more often a porcelain or plastic figure. Whoever ends up with the fève is the king (or queen) for the day.

Picking the king is known in French as tirer les rois. To prevent cheating, the eldest member of the party cuts off slices one by one while the youngest member of the party hides under the table and nominates who is to receive them.


The season ends with Candlemas, or Chandeleur, on 2 February, when the cribs are finally packed away for another year.

The Black Virgin of Saint Victor Abbey, Marseille

The place to celebrate Candlemas in public in Provence is Saint Victor Abbey in Marseille, where the church's Black Virgin, a small statue made of walnut wood and dating from the 12th century (pictured left), is taken out in a ceremonial procession accompanied by pilgrims bearing long green candles symbolising the eagerly awaited green shoots of spring.

Afterwards, everyone goes to a nearby bakery to buy navettes, long thin biscuits flavoured with orange water and intended to resemble the boat, or navette, that brought Lazarus, Mary Magdelene and other saints to Saintes Maries de la Mer in Provence.

According to another very old tradition, families would get a candle blessed at church on this day, then bring it back while still alight (if the candle went out before they got home, this was a very bad omen).

Once back, the mistress of the house would make the sign of the cross with the candle in front of each window and door to protect the house. Then pancakes (crêpes) would be made.

The first pancake would be tossed while holding a coin in one hand; the coin would be wrapped up in the pancake, which was kept until the following year. Then at the next Candlemas ceremony the old pancake would be discarded and the coin given to charity.

Many provençal families today still eat pancakes on 2 February, even if they don't observe this ancient custom.



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