Christmas in Provence and the 13 Desserts
“Les treize desserts” is an old Christmas tradition in Provence. Thirteen desserts are enjoyed after Christmas Eve dinner, traditionally representing Jesus and his twelve Apostles. Each guest must eat all thirteen desserts to guarantee good luck for the year to come. There must be a minimum of 13 desserts, but we have decided to add an extra for you! Check out our 14 desserts here and for the Maison Mirabeau photos.
Holiday Traditions in Provence
The holiday period in Provence is loaded with symbolism. The traditional festivities begin on December 4th with the feast of Saint Barbara (Sainte Barbe). On this day, families “plant” little packets of wheat on cotton or paper towels to germinate for the Christmas table.
Families gather on Christmas Eve for le Gros Souper (the big dinner) in Provence. The typical December 24th meal is meatless, with seven fish and vegetable dishes. Although, on the lighter side, these dishes are not insignificant. These seven plates might include omelettes, salted cod and potatoes – brandade de morue, ratatouille, and a local garlic soup. The number of dishes represents Mary’s seven sorrows.
Following midnight mass, it is time for the 13 desserts. The amount represents the number of participants at the Last Supper; Jesus and his 12 apostles. Although the exact make-up of les treize desserts is not prescriptive, there are a few rules. The assortment of sweets generally falls into four categories. These are dried fruit and nuts, fresh seasonal fruit, fruit preserved in sugar syrup and sweetened bread. Typically the 13 desserts are enjoyed after mass. However, the selection remains in reach for the next three days until December 27th.
The Sweet 13
The Four Beggars: Four monastic religious orders are represented by dried fruit (figs, raisins, apricots) and nuts (walnuts, almonds, hazelnuts).
Almonds = Carmelites
Dried Figs = Franciscans
Raisins = Dominicans
Walnuts or Hazelnuts = Augustines
Good and Evil: There are always two kinds of nougat representing good (white) and evil (black).
Fresh fruit: the citrus is in season at this time of the year with juicy clementines from Corsica.
Pompe à l’huile: a sweet bread made with olive oil and orange blossom. It is customary that pieces are broken by hand, never with a knife.
Navettes: these dry biscuits are the culinary representation of the modest boat believed to have transported St Lazarus and the two “Marys,” Saint Mary Magdalene and Saint Martha to Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer some 2000 years ago. Traditional navettes from Marseille are 7+ cm (2.5+ inches) long, tapered at both ends, and flavoured with l’eau de fleur d’ oranger (orange flower water).
Dates: symbolise the arrival of Christ from the Middle East.
Chocolate: this shouldn’t need an explanation.
Enjoy the festivities!