Books on ProvenceLifestyle: Art & CultureMary Jane Deeb

Book Review: A Provençal Christmas Story

Accomplished Author

In 2011, Susan Kiernan-Lewis published a book entitled “How to Succeed as an Indie Author,” which, for some reason, is no longer available on the market. She then followed her advice and today has become one of the most prolific Indie authors in the US. The numbers speak for themselves: in 2018, she published six books. In 2017, she had eight books published, in 2016 six books, and between 2014 and 2015, she published 17 books!

Book Review

A Provençal Christmas Story

by
Susan Kiernan-Lewis
San Marco Press, 2016 

The reason for my review here is that among her many books, Kiernan-Lewis also writes the “Maggie Newberry Mysteries” series, set in Provence. A Provençal Christmas Story is part of that series. It first came out in 2016 as a single publication, and then was re-published in 2019 together with two other novellas, one of which is part of another series.

Book Provençal Christmas Story Susan Kiernan Lewis

Having myself written A Christmas Mystery in Provence that took many hours of research into the Christmas customs and practices in Provence, I was curious to read this story. And sure enough, Kiernan-Lewis had a new twist to the traditional tale: Christmas celebrated not on Christmas Eve, or Christmas Day, but on December 5th, at least the gift-giving part of it. December 5th is St. Nicholas Day in Europe, and St. Nicholas is the bringer of gifts. In the Netherlands, for example, gifts are exchanged on December 5th on Sinterklaas evening, while in Luxembourg, gift-giving occurs on the morning of December 6th.

Christmas Traditions in Provence

So, on this occasion, the reader enters the home of Maggie Newberry as she is wrapping the toys that her children will receive on St. Nicholas’ Day. Her husband, Laurent, is preparing a special dinner for the guests they have invited to join them that evening. It is the first time that she is celebrating Christmas in her little Provençal village of St. Buvard, instead of spending it with her family in Atlanta, Georgia, because her parents have decided to spend their holidays in Mexico. On the other hand, her French husband, who has always accompanied her to Atlanta, seems very happy to be celebrating Christmas in his own home in St. Buvard. Maggie decides that she should be enjoying her Christmas in France instead of griping, and looking at her children and husband whom she loves very much, she realizes that this is where her happiness lies.

That evening the first guests arrive two elderly friends Danielle and Jean-Luc Alexandre, followed by friends and neighbours, who are greeted with champagne and crème de menthe and wishes of Joyeux Noel. The children have already had their dinner and Danielle and Maggie take the children up to their beds. Danielle gives them their gift: an old Advent calendar that belonged to Jean-Luc’s family.

What is an Advent calendar?

The children ask, “It’s a way of getting ready for Christmas,” Maggie tells them.

That calendar becomes the focus of the story, as every day seems to hold a new revelation about the true spirit of Christmas. With a background of mouth-watering meals, prepared by her cordon-bleu husband for friends and neighbours, the Advent calendar begins revealing its secrets. In one case, Mila, Maggie’s little four-year-old, sees an older man rummaging in a trash receptacle, and rushes to him to give him a small clementine she had in her pocket. She explains to her mother that the man is poor and hungry, and like the poor man in her Advent calendar, should be fed.

Book Provençal Christmas Story Susan Kiernan Lewis book cover

On another occasion, Maggie hosts the St. Buvard Guild, an organization that includes many old ladies who look upon Maggie with grave suspicion because she is a foreigner. Overcoming her anxiety, Maggie is hospitable and welcomes them in her home, while Laurent cooks for them a delicious five-course dinner. Later that night, Maggie looks at the Advent calendar and finds a picture for that date “of a group of people holding hands across a dinner table” and realizes that her efforts that evening were rewarded by a greater acceptance of her presence in the community.

On Christmas Eve, while the family is preparing for the “reveillon” dinner, the chief of police, a family friend, brings a Syrian refugee couple, who is expecting a baby, and asks Maggie and Laurent if they can put them up in their house. They have no place to stay, he says, and it is snowing outside and they have eaten nothing the whole day. And Maggie realizes that this is the picture in the Advent calendar showing the Holy Family seeking a place to sleep, and being turned away wherever they go.

Worth a Read

A Provençal Christmas Story, a lovely Christmas tale, reminding us that the true spirit of Christmas is one of giving and not acquiring more material goods and that the most precious gift is the gift of love. The book ends with some of Laurent’s delicious dishes: Coquilles St. Jacques, Aioli, Garlic Soup, Pot-au-feu, and more.


More Christmas in Provence

For more Christmas reading, here is my review of The Christmas Kalends of Provence.

Discover our long list of books about Provence and create your reading list, book club suggestions or armchair travel selection.

Christmas in Provence would not be the same without the santons. This ritual is an old tradition of representing the nativity scene with tiny characters. The custom started in churches during the 13th-century, thanks to Saint Francis of Assisi, which earned him the patronage of animals, merchants, and santonniers (the makers of santons).

Cooking inspiration for the holidays, here are five menus for the Christmas season. Choose between these multi-course meals of seafood, poultry, meat or a vegetarian option. Note: please click on the links for the complete menus and recipes.

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Mary Jane Deeb

Mary Jane Deeb

Mary Jane is multilingual and decidedly multicultural. Born in Alexandria, Egypt to Slovenian-Levantine parents, Mary Jane grew up speaking French at home. Her studies and travels took her from an Irish school run by nuns to Washington, D.C., where she has lived since 1983 with her family.

This mother and now a grandmother is one accomplished lady with a doctorate in International Relations from the Johns Hopkins University. She is currently the Chief of the African and Middle Eastern Division at the Library of Congress.

Her career has included positions as the Editor of The Middle East Journal, Director of the Omani Program at The American University in Washington D.C. and Director of the Algeria Working Group at The Corporate Council on Africa.

Mary Jane taught at both Georgetown University and The George Washington University. She worked tirelessly for the United Nations Economic Commission for Western Asia, United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF), America-Mideast and Educational and Training Services, Inc. (AMIDEAST), and the US Agency for International Development in Lebanon during the civil war.

In her spare time, Mary Jane has published four mysteries: Cocktails and Murder on the Potomac which is set in Washington DC, and three others that are set in Grasse, Cannes and Nice: Murder on the Riviera, A Christmas Mystery in Provence and Death of a Harlequin. You can find Mary Jane's books here.

The beauty of Provence continues to inspire Mary Jane’s writing.

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