Did you know that celebrating Christmas has a lot of meaning in Provence? The typical traditions of our region are kept alive with literally sacred seriousness and great attention to detail. Like the “13 desserts” for example, which are served at Bistro de Montcaud for Christmas. Find out what it’s all about – and how a new tradition has emerged at the Château.
Christmas “à la provençale” is something you have to experience once in your life, with traditions inspired by Christianity. It all starts with the celebrations of “Santa Barbara” on 4th December, which mark the beginning of a multitude of symbolic traditions: on this day, lentils and wheat seeds are sown on exactly three plates, symbolizing the Holy Trinity. These should grow as tall as possible throughout December as it is believed that the higher they grow, the more prosperous the family will be in the coming year. The three plates are usually placed on the table at Christmas dinner, but some people also place them in the spectacular nativity scene that is set up on Christmas Eve.
A crowded nativity scene
The nativity scene stands until 2nd February and is decorated with lots of figures and greenery such as moss and leaves. More and more often, it is set up before Christmas Eve, something traditionalists don’t approve of – after all, it should stay fresh for over a month!
Setting it up takes preparation and time. On the one hand, the natural materials have to be collected: it is the occasion for a family trip through the forest or the garrigue. But above all, it is the installation itself that can be quite laborious and requires a bit of space. Indeed, in addition to the decoration and the usual protagonists of a nativity scene, you will also encounter countless other characters from traditional everyday village life: artisans, shopkeepers, the schoolteacher, the baker, the butcher, the blacksmith, the priest and so on find their place in a traditional Provençal Christmas crèche.
The characters who should never be missed from this crèche are the mayor, “Lou Ravi” (a man in awe in front of the Christmas miracle), the old blind man and his son, the “bohemian couple”, the tambourine player, the “Arlésienne” and the petanque player. Imagination knows no boundaries: from the fisherman to the man on his donkey to the garlic seller, anything is possible and available in the relevant stores.
The figurines are called santons, after the Provencal word “santoun”, meaning “little saints”. They are usually made of clay or terracotta, painted directly, and often measure 7 cm in height. This makes the collection expandable at will – after all, collecting nativity figures in this region can be a lifetime project or even a generational one as it is quite common to pass them down from generation to generation. But larger nativity figures are not uncommon either, up to man-sized figures with real clothes and accessories.
The big supper
“Le gros souper”, the big dinner on Christmas Eve, is also characterized by many traditions and symbols. The table decorations are very important and contain numerous references, especially to the Holy Trinity: for example, three white tablecloths are used, which are to stay on the table for three days. The same goes for three candles, and of course the most beautiful tableware – not forgetting the three plates with the – hopefully tall – lentils and wheat grasses. An extra seat is saved for “the poor”, in case someone knocks on the door. Animals are not forgotten either: on that day, they receive a double portion of food.
The dishes served for the big supper, however, are simple, without meat and served in seven courses. This symbolizes Mary’s seven pains. The dishes are followed by the “13 desserts”, which vary somewhat from village to village, but often include: “La Pompe à l’huile”, a sort of brioche flavored with orange blossom, white and black nougat, dried fruits representing the mendicant orders (dried figs for the Franciscans, raisins for the Augustinians, almonds for the Dominicans and walnuts for the Carmelites). Then there are dates, representing Jesus’ Eastern origins, and a few other fruits – fresh and candied. There are also cakes and pies to suit every taste. These 13 desserts represent Jesus and the 12 apostles. Traditionally, everything is placed on the table and each guest should eat a little of everything.
This big Christmas Eve dinner is not the only traditional holiday meal: on Christmas day, the traditional turkey is eaten for lunch, followed in the evening by a simple garlic soup called “Aigo Boulido”.
The fire ceremony
Another tradition, which is in danger of being lost, is “Le Cacho-Fio” or fire ceremony. For this one, you need a fireplace and perform the following ceremony: the oldest and youngest members of the family carry a log around the table three times, pour some Vin Cuit (a bit similar to mulled wine) or oil over and recite: “with Christmas all things come good, God gives us the grace to see the coming year, and if we are not more, then let us not be less.” This is followed by the lighting of the log, which must have come from a fruit tree and represents Christ, while the fire symbolizes light and happiness. It should burn until the Epiphany and its ashes and charcoal were once used to heal sick animals.
January and February
On 6th January we celebrate Epiphany. Again, on that day, it’s all about food: in our region, the “Gâteau des Rois” is served – a sweet couronne brioche stuffed with confied fruits- quite similar to other pastries common in Europe on this day. In the rest of France, on the other hand, we serve the “galette des rois”, a puff pastry tart filled with almond cream. In both cases, a lucky charm is hidden in this dessert and makes the finder the crowned head of the day.
Finally, on 2nd February, 40 days after Christmas, the holiday season comes to an end with “La Chandeleur”: the crèche can be taken down until the next year… leaving space for another – typically French- celebration: mountains of sweet and savory crêpes!
New traditions are welcome
At Château de Montcaud, we have also established our own Christmas tradition. Every first Tuesday in December, we open the gates for the school’s Christmas market. Schupfnudeln is served, a dish made of sauerkraut and long gnocchi. This dish, unknown in our region, didn’t generate much interest at first but has now become a must-have over the years.