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Christmas in Provence, France, The Complete Guide

editorial & artculture & photo…

6 December 2021

We all need warmth and conviviality, but above  we all need magic ... The celebration of the Nativity is a long parenthesis rich in emotions. Here, the "Christmas time" plays extra time. 60 days of festivities, a magical parenthesis punctuated by many events that begin on Sainte-Barbe, on December 4 and end on Candlemas, on February 2. A return to the roots between myth and reality, the opportunity to immerse yourself in the purest Provençal tradition, its many rituals and highlights: midnight mass, pastoral, living crèche ... and to savor the culinary traditions around three meal. According to custom, the "big supper", and its round of thirteen desserts, is followed by the "lean meal" after mass, on the evening of December 24th. It will continue with the family on the 25th, around a hearty lunch. A very special time for food lovers, Christmas time is also an opportunity to taste the flavors and products of the region and to discover local know-how.Know-how made in the south

The moment to find the unique piece or the reinvented object

The artisans and producers of Provence-Alpes-Côte d´Azur work with respect for the environment and a job well done. Santons, pottery and crockery, table linens and blankets, essential oils, regional wines, tasty olive oils, toys and wooden furniture ... Discover the regional must-haves.


Not to be confused with that of Father Christmas... In Provence, the Sainte-Barbe gives the start of the festivities and preparation for Christmas. On December 4, the day of Sainte-Barbe, it is traditional to plant, in three cups, grains of wheat from the previous harvest, reserved for the sowing of the next season and to germinate them. According to the Provencal Almanac, Sainte-Barbe or Barbara, her real name, lived in the 3rd century AD. Preferring to devote herself to God than to men, she was denied and murdered by her father, to become the greenest of martyrs. Symbol of the renewal of nature, it is celebrated to announce good harvests and abundant harvests. The people of Provence celebrate it on December 4 by planting the "wheat of hope".Wheat from Sainte-Barbe, instructions for useVery easy to do. A few wheat seeds, sprinkled on wet cotton in three white cups, symbol of the Trinity and voila. Just water every now and then and the seeds quickly turn into pretty green plants. On December 25, if the grains have germinated well, the harvest will be good. If the grains have rotted, expect a sad harvest ... The most beautiful saucer will be placed on the Christmas table, as a sign of prosperity. La Sainte Barbe announces the beginning of the festivities.Sainte-Barbe, the starting point for shopping ... Provence-Alpes-Côte d'Azur maintains a long tradition of old know-how, constantly revisited: glassware, earthenware, pottery and mythical santons, wooden toys and furniture Queyras, or sublime natural ocher pigments to cover santons ... without forgetting the essential perfumes and cosmetics with sunny and subtle fragrances.


Another key figure in the Genesis of Calendale traditions, Saint Francis of Assisi is said to have invented the crib in the 12th century. His talent made him imagine in an abandoned stable, the game of the Nativity, animated by characters and living animals. In the Middle Ages, the Franciscans spread this tradition throughout Western Christianity. With the French Revolution in the 18th century, each household improvised its crèche, a ritual which spreads to all regions of France. Provence has taken advantage of stories and legends to highlight the life of a Provençal village and its habits and customs.Imagine the birth of Jesus in the heart of a Provencal village, an original scenography. The decor, a mix between a beautiful hilltop village in Provence and the place of the Nativity in the land of Palestine. A puzzling staging that plunges us into life and the ways and customs here. The nativity scene plays on contrasts and gives life to a gathering of Provençal villagers around the stable where Mary and Joseph in draped outfits, and the Child Jesus resting on the straw, are the central characters. The Three Kings on camels add to the originality of the decor. Beyond fiction, the crèche is above all a dive into the very lively local life of Provençaux. It proposes to highlight the daily life, the know-how and the fiery characters of the inhabitants during the living cribs. A decor rich in traditions, and a historical heritage larger than life: church, house, bread oven, mill, farm, bridges set in a wild and soothing environment, hills of pines and olive trees ... A small magical world that ends on the 2nd February, day of Candlemas, when the santons return to boxes and granaries until the following year.

The Nativity

The little Provence nursery in Paradou 400 m² of exhibition space, 32 models, more than 400 figurines, for one of the largest nurseries in the world. In the heart of Provence, in the small village of Paradou, the crèche can be visited all year round with the Musée de la Petite Provence.


Who says crib, says santon. Among the figures of the Nativity, there are Jesus, Mary, Joseph, the Three Kings but also a multitude of Provencal characters: the shepherd, the Ravi, the mayor, the drummer, the fisherman, the fishmonger, the baker ... 'Arlésienne, typical of our region. Without forgetting of course the angels and a whole host of animals: the donkey, the ox, the sheep, the camels and even the cats ... These small clay figurines are the great happiness of children, and their parents. . The Christmas markets in the four corners of Provence, offer to make us discover them.
The DNA of Provencal Santon is clay. Entirely made by hand, santons are among the most recognized know-how in Provence. The different stages of creation and manufacture are successively: the modeling of a clay figurine, the plaster mold, which will itself be used to make molds; stamping, retouching, deburring and firing. The decoration of the santon is the final step in bringing these personalized subjects to life. The first clay figurine is of Marseille origin. It was created by Lagnel in the 6th century AD, the previous ones were made of white bread, plaster, wax or wood.
There are several sizes of santons ranging from 1 to 20 cm. Some of them can be dressed in fabric. In Provence, the santons also make their cinema "avé" the accent. In the markets and in the nurseries, come parade the characters of the trilogy of the famous Marcel Pagnol. The scenes of the card game or the game of pétanque are very remarkable.

Fouque House
Each year, the santonniers create one or more novelties. One of the latest creations from Maison Fouque: The bearded doctor, a subject of the occasion and the country nurse.

The long-awaited moment is approaching, the magic of Christmas and its succession of meals and delicacies from here. In Provence, the traditions linked to the Christmas feast are the most deeply rooted, a concentrate of everything that Provence makes tastier. With the crèche set up, we move on to preparing the Christmas dinner, a real ritual to share with the family. According to custom, the big supper or "lean meal" opens the festivities on the evening of December 24, as a preamble to the midnight mass. We move on to the "fatty meal" or "New Year's Eve". The next day, Christmas lunch concludes the celebration of the Nativity.

Party of sharing par excellence

Christmas is punctuated by a succession of convivial moments around the table. Originally, the "big supper" was served on December 24th before midnight mass. Called the "lean meal", it is composed of seven dishes in memory of the seven pains of the Virgin Mary including traditional vegetables served either in pressed olive oil or in white sauce accompanied by an anchovy. The table, the main element of the room, is adorned with small holly with red berries, sometimes with roses from Jericho, and of course wheat from Sainte-Barbe. Calendal bread occupies the center. The "three tablecloths" which cover the table and the three candles which are placed evoke the Trinity. The thirteen loaves of bread that accompany the meal recall the Last Supper with the twelve apostles and Jesus, like the "thirteen desserts" still very popular today on the Christmas table. The fatty or New Year's Eve meal that follows midnight mass has an abundance of dishes: game, roasts, fish and all kinds of wines from Provence ...


For 4 people - 5 min preparation Ingredients: 3 anchovies, 2 teaspoons of vinegar, 6 tablespoons of olive oil, 2 cloves of garlic. Crush the garlic. Melt the anchovy in the hot vinegar. Add the oil. Anchovy goes very well with carder or celery and many other raw vegetables.
Do you want to continue the festivities with the family? See you on December 25 at noon around the "Christmas Meal". Richly garnished, it includes dishes served in abundance, a sign of prosperity, turkey, the famous 13 desserts and many other Provencal specialties made from local products: the famous bottarga from Martigues, the tasty cheeses of the Alps, the digestive liqueurs based on plants or regional fruits ... No good meal without wine. Christmas is conducive to discovering the best regional vintages with nuances of rosé, red, white. They come from the greatest terroirs between Provence, the Rhône Valley and the Alps. Served in the evening, the garlic soup (aigo boulido), will be very beneficial to recover from its excesses and facilitate digestion.
Aïoli A classic of Provençal cuisine. This emulsion-based garlic sauce and olive oil is made with two essential ingredients of the cuisine here. Consumed all year round, it accompanies fish, shellfish and vegetables and comes to the Christmas table every year.
Aïoli, a great classic of Provençal cuisine.

This sauce made from garlic and olive oil emulsion is made with two essential ingredients of local cuisine. Consumed all year round, it accompanies fish, shellfish and vegetables and comes to the Christmas table every year.
Land of vineyards and spirits ... The leading rosé producing region in the world, Provence-Alpes-Côte d'Azur offers eclectic and tasty wines, but not only. You can also taste anise drinks and delicious liqueurs.


Thirteen, like Christ and the twelve apostles. If they are generally associated with Provence and the Calèna tradition of the County of Nice, they are found today throughout Occitania and even in Catalonia. Indispensable in calendal specialties, the Yule log is a rolled cookie served as a souvenir of Cacho Fio, "put on fire". This ancient ceremony consisted of placing a large log of a fruit tree in the fireplace as a ritual of passage towards the new year.

No Christmas party without them

Inspired by religious orders, the four beggars are walnuts and hazelnuts for the Augustinians, dried figs for the Franciscans, almonds for the Carmelites, raisins for the Dominicans. With these four nuts and fruits, one finds according to the regions, the cities or even according to the families other specialties to supplement the thirteen desserts: the oil pump, flat brioche sweetened with olive oil, also called fougasse or game, black nougat and white nougat from Provence, verdaù (green melon), candied fruits, mandarins or pears .... At the top of Christmas products, nougat has become a must in Provence. In Antiquity, it was already manufactured in the Mediterranean basin. The Romans called it nux gatum ("nut cake"). It didn't have much to do with the nougat we know, since it was mostly made from nuts and honey. Later, the almond of Provence came to replace the nuts.

Sweet Tour

Candied fruits, jams, lavender honey, but also cookies, nougats, chocolates, not to mention the famous calissons and berlingots ... Let's go on a journey to the heart of traditions and know-how that will delight gourmets in search of new ones flavors.


More than a religious celebration, the midnight mass celebrated on the evening of December 24 is a moment of emotion and sharing. A true institution in Provence, it is punctuated by the "pastrage" ceremony. Procession of shepherds, fishermen or farmers in old costumes bring their products from the land or the sea as offerings, an old rite today perpetuated in small towns. The "Christmases" songs or hymns in the Provençal language by which the poets translate both religious fervor and local traditions take center stage.
The hymns are sung in the form of a dialogue. They lend themselves to the scenic games found in the pastoral. The most famous are those of the Avignon resident Nicolas Saboly (17th century), of whom Frédéric Mistral, a famous Provencal poet (19th century) said "that they would make a whole church cry with emotion". The ceremonial of the midnight mass also includes a particular animation at the time of the offering: the shepherd (shepherd: the shepherd). The shepherds, candle in hand, one of them carrying a little suckling lamb, slowly advance towards the high altar, preceded by the galoubet and the tambourine, Provençal musical instruments. In front of the altar, the lamb is offered. The shepherd tells the story of the journey, through hills and valleys, before worship. On this occasion, the villagers bring their offerings: beautiful fruits, vegetables, fish, a fougasse ...

La Couronne House

Maison La Couronne was born more than 30 years ago. This Marseille workshop, in the heart of the antique district, has since built up one of the finest French collections of baptismal medals and traditional jewelry.


Ceremonial and very popular theatrical moment during the Christmas period, the pastoral evokes walking in the stable and devotion to the newborn. Bethlehem is exceptionally located in Provence for the purposes of the story. The subject is universal: the story of Saint-Joseph seeking a home for the night, who finds a cave as a shelter for his family. This scene revisited by the people of Provence where the announcement of the Nativity is made to the shepherd, "pastre", contributes to the maintenance of a popular tradition which is still very much alive. The dialogue is naive and satirical, of course in the Provencal language.
A purely religious piece of the Nativity, sung and spoken in Provençal, the Pastorale is interpreted by by troops of amateurs, often the villagers themselves. This improvised pilgrimage is in fact a race for a miracle. This pastoral includes 5 acts in Provençal verse, with the exception of the 4th, rarely performed, in which the characters (Herod and the Three Kings) speak French. The santons of the crib come to life around a prowled or improvised scenography. The first act of the Pastoral tells of the awakening of the shepherds by the angel Gabriel, announcer of the good news. The second act, the descent of the shepherds and the awakening of the villagers. The third act has two scenes: one takes place in front of the farm where everyone meets before leaving for Bethlehem, and the second around the well where some are surprised by the character of the gypsy ... The last act is dedicated to the adoration of the Magi and shepherds in front of the Nativity stable.

Scene from the past The most famous Pastoral is that of Antoine Maurel, created in 1844 in Marseille. A classic that is played every year throughout Provence and which stages the march of the star. Actors in period costumes claim their Provençal roots loud and clear.
Rocher Mistral, the spectacular history of Provence Immerse yourself in the Provence of yesteryear in the heart of the medieval castle of La Barben, near Aix-en-Provence. This new theme park dedicated to the history and tradition of Provence offers: shows in period costumes, sounds and lights, markets, catering.
Allauch and les Baux-de-Provence, theaters of pastrage Pastrage and living crèche come out the big game. Each year, the villages of Provence-Alpes-Côte d'Azur come alive around midnight mass, in the purest tradition . The opportunity to go and discover them.


The Oil Pump With the good taste of orange blossom, the oil or game pump is an essential Christmas dessert that is unique in Provence.

Another good reason to extend the holidays ... the celebration of Epiphany marks a new stage in the Christmas celebrations. It means "apparition", that of the Three Kings who are placed in the manger on January 6. A highlight that is celebrated with the family, around the creamy brioche of the kings, garnished with candied fruit. A unique specialty in Provence, here we do nothing like elsewhere ...

The Christmas story is not over yet.

After the procession of the shepherds towards the stable for the offerings, it is the turn of the Three Kings to enter the manger with precious gifts. The Provencal people are celebrating the event on January 6 with a very special dessert, a brioche with a dense pastry in the shape of a crown, topped with candied fruit. The brioche is accompanied by muscat wine, and various confectionery: "calissons d'Aix", almonds, and candied chestnuts. The custom is that whoever finds the bean hidden in the brioche offers the cake and wins the crown ... He becomes king and will have to offer the next brioche.

King of the brioche, the candied fruit Candied fruit appeared at the beginning of the 16th century AD. At the time, the fruits grew in abundance but, failing to know how to preserve them, part of the harvests was wasted. A know-how perpetuated by passionate confectioners from the city of Apt. Pushing open the doors of their workshops is a real treat for the taste buds.


The last holiday of Christmas time, La Chandeleur is celebrated on February 2. The feast of candles commemorates the presentation of the Child Jesus in the Temple of Jerusalem and the purification of the Blessed Virgin. The moment to put the santons back in the boxes, but above all to taste the pancakes and taste the famous Marseille shuttles. Immerse yourself in the traditions of a secular myth revised in the Provençal way.

In the footsteps of Marie-Madeleine

Between hiking and pilgrimage, set off on foot in the footsteps of the legend of Marie Madeleine by following the spiritual route in Provence, from Saintes-Maries-de-laMer to Saint-Maximin - La Sainte-Baume. A 222 km route in ten stages to discover places and major sites of Christianity as well as the exceptional landscapes that the Saint crossed during her preaching in Provence.

A tradition reminiscent of a fertility rite

From the end of the 5th century AD. JC, annual processions are organized, during which blessed candles are lit. It was during one of these processions that the traditional sharing of candlelight pancakes was born. There is still today a whole symbolism linked to their making. It consists of sautéing the pancakes with the right hand while holding a gold coin in the left hand in order to experience prosperity throughout the year. This is to ensure that the pancake lands properly in the pan. In Marseille, it is customary to taste orange blossom cookies for Candlemas. These cookies would represent the boat on which Marie-Madeleine and the Black Madonna, washed up in the 13th century in the Phocaean city. The Marseillais get early in the morning and flock to the neighborhood, on the occasion of a procession of the Black Virgin which begins on February 2 at 5 a.m. from the Old Port.

Unmissable, the Four des Navettes

This Marseille bakery with an 18th century oven specializes in traditional orange blossom shuttles, the delicious scent of which fills the entire Saint-Victor district in the morning.
And other delicacies ... It's time to discover and savor delicacies. To enhance your pancakes: lavender honey, fig jam, fruit juice from the orchards of the Alps ... 

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