In Provence and the rest of France, Christmas is a long festive season lasting over two months with many holiday traditions. While there are commercial aspects to the holidays in France, many historical customs continue annually. At this time of year, there is vin chaud, little saints (santons), thirteen desserts, charming holiday markets, and tiny pots of wheat. Let’s dive into this festive guide to the Christmas traditions in Provence.

Christmas Traditions in Provence Transhumance Les Baux

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Key Festive Dates

While some holiday markets begin in late November, and public decorations are often installed before the beginning of December, the official Christmas period starts on December 4, Saint Barbara’s Day. The big supper (le grand souper) occurs on the evening of December 24. Epiphany (Epiphanie) always lands on January 6, the date that, according to the Christian faith, is when the three Wise Men arrive in Bethlehem bearing gifts. It’s also a day when you can eat cake – galette des rois – almost guilt-free. The holiday calendar officially closes on February 2, 40 days after Christmas, with Candlemas and a chance to eat pancakes or crepes.

Season’s Greetings

Meilleurs vœux is a phrase that is often said in French. Whether you are closing out a letter or wishing someone a speedy recovery. However in December, les meilleurs voeux pour la saison des fêtes means happy holidays or season’s greetings. In North America and the United Kingdom, the custom (before e-cards) was to send holiday cards, often with family photos and an update on the past year. The tradition in France is to send cards at the beginning of the year in January and wish everyone tous nos meilleurs vœux de bonne et heureuse année !

Christmas Traditions in Provence

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Holiday Markets

The Christmas markets in Provence may not have the notoriety of the enormous holiday markets in Alsace, such as Strasbourg, Colmar, and Eguisheim. However, at this time of the year, Provence experiences reasonably mild weather, so the Christmas markets are usually held in the open air. Associated with the celebration of Christmas, you can find everything related to holiday celebrations and Saint-Nicolas. The stalls often have wooden facades, making the Christmas markets look like authentic little villages. Strolling through the alleys and letting yourself be guided by the smells and colours represent an absolute pleasure for tourists and locals.

More on Festive Christmas Markets in Provence

The holiday markets are a chance to buy gifts and enjoy a glass or two of vin chaud. Merchants share their chocolat chaud and pain d’épices and wrap our purchases with extra decorative ribbons, whether they are gifts or not. There is something so undeniably charming about les marchés de Noël, even the tiny ones in unfamous villages.

Christmas Traditions in Provence Les Halles in Avignon

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Sainte Barbe’s Wheat

Saint Barbara (Sainte Barbe) is the patron saint of miners, fireworks and firefighters. The Christmas in period Provence officially begins on December 4, the feast day of Saint Barbara. Several legends surround the story of this Saint, and while we are unsure of the correct version, this is the day to “plant” wheat by germinating the seeds in three saucers covered with damp cotton. The saucers are placed on the fireplace or in the crib. The elders say the next year will be prosperous if the stems grow straight and green. These small miniature fields are placed in the family’s creche.

Quand lou blad vèn bèn, tout vèn bèn ! (old Provencal)
Quand le blé va bien, tout va bien !
When the wheat goes well, all is good! (rough translation)

Sainte Barbe Wheat Christmas in Provence

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Santons are little clay figurines depicting the biblical characters – baby Jesus, Mary, Joseph and the Wisemen. Anyone expecting the “typical” nativity scenario might be surprised by the Provencal version with figures representing the butcher, baker, fishmonger, sheep herder and many other village residents. Traditionally, the figures were handcrafted, and while some artisans still carry on the work, many santons are mass-produced today.

In 1797, Jean-Louis Lagnel created the first figure from a clay mould, opening the door to large-scale production. The word santon was established in 1826, several years after his death. Thérèse Louis Neveu, a woman from the village of Aubagne near Marseille, improved upon the clay figurine by introducing kiln firing as a step in the process. This process significantly improved the lifecycle of the figures.

Today, although modern techniques reduce the production time for the santons, it remains an artisanal trade, and visiting artists’ (santonnièrs) studios is possible. During the holidays in Provence, you will see these nativity scenes when you visit churches or private homes. Since 1803, the annual Foire des Santonniers occurs in Marseille during the Christmas period with many artisan santonnièrs—any time of the year, head to Aubagne to see the artisans at work in their ateliers.

Aix Santons Market Christmas

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Where to find Santons

Order Online from Remember Provence

Musée du Santon et des Traditions de Provence
Place de la colonne,
84800 Fontaine de Vaucluse

Musée des Santons
Les Baux de Provence

Le Village des Santons
With 3000+ santons and 19 village scenes
16 avenue Antide Boyer
13400 Aubagne

Le Village Provençal Miniature
The display has over 1000 figures and 70 Provençal scenes.
La Petite Tuilière, 26230 Grignan

Nativity Play

If you are in Provence in December, there is a possibility that you might encounter a life-sized nativity scene with humans acting as biblical figures. La Pastorale is a nativity play with Mary, Joseph, shepherds, angels, and baby Jesus. The word pastorale means “shepherd’s song” and refers to the Biblical Christmas story where the shepherds are the first to hear the good news. Early pastorales told only the Biblical narrative of the birth of Jesus, but in the mid-1800s, Antoine Maurel, a Provençal poet, added some local flavour. His pastorale was among the first to incorporate the Provence villagers and add a bit of Provençal humour.

La pastorale Nativity Scene Christmas in Provence

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More on Santons and the Creche

Christmas Eve Dinner

In France, Christmas Eve is when Provençal dinner tables are set with three white tablecloths for the gros souper (translation: big supper). The symbolism surrounding the table preparation is deliberate. The three layers of white fabric represent the holy trinity. The table decorations are not elaborate but simply acknowledge the fruits of agricultural labour each year – sprouted wheat from the Fête of Sainte Barbara and carafes of sweet wine (vin cuit) from the fall harvest.

Provence’s typical Christmas Eve meal is meatless, with seven fish and vegetable dishes on the lighter side but not insignificant. These plates might include omelettes, salted cod, potatoes – brandade de morue, ratatouille, and a local garlic soup. The number of dishes represents Mary’s seven sorrows.

Salt Cod Brandade
Salting fish was a process that began some 500+ years ago to preserve the cod, that was caught off the coast of Newfoundland in Canada. Salt is still used (although not as extensively) as a preservative for cod, the fish is essentially dried and dehydrated. The longest part of this recipe is soaking the salt-cod to fully remove the salt.
Check out this recipe
Salt-Cod Brandade Recipe Provence
Cod Fish Steamed in Spinach Leaves and Ratatouille
This is a quick and easy way to enjoy cod, a light white fish that is made for pairing with colourful vegetables! Enjoy it with rice, pasta, or zucchini noodles for a lighter version. The white wine cream sauce is so full of flavour, you'll be sure to bookmark the page to make it again!
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Cod Fish Steamed in Spinach Leaves, Basil Ratatouille, White Wine Cream Sauce

13 Desserts

Following midnight mass, it is time to partake in the 13 desserts. The amount has nothing to do with a baker’s dozen but is equal to the number of participants around the table at the Last Supper: Jesus and his 12 apostles. The exact make-up of les treize desserts is not prescriptive. However, the sweets generally fall into four categories: dried fruit and nuts, fresh seasonal fruit, fruit preserved in sugar syrup and sweetened bread. While the 13 desserts are enjoyed after mass, the selection remains within reach until December 27.

13 desserts Christmas Traditions

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The Four Beggars: Four monastic religious orders (Augustin, Carmelites, Dominicans and Franciscans) 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).

Candied Clementines (Clementines Confits) with Moroccan spices
This dessert can be made all year! When I am in France, I buy clementines from Corsica. I can find clementines (sometimes known as Cuties in the U.S.) throughout the year in Los Angeles. It’s a simple dessert that can be served by itself or cut in julienne strips and served on top of ice cream, yogurt or a pound cake (The French version of a pound cake is Quatre Quart)! Please note that the clementines will be a burnt orange colour once they are candied because of the Moroccan spices.
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Candied Clementines Clementines Confit Moroccan Spices
Calissons d'Aix
A truly enjoyable treat to make and connect with bakers long ago. Patience will be your reward if you can let them sit overnight to set. And while this is a traditional recipe, it is by no means easy to master. So even if it doesn’t look perfect, it will taste just as delicious. Served alongside afternoon tea or at the end of a delicious evening meal, these sweet delicate Calissons will be a welcome addition to your baking repertoire.
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Calisson d'Aix Recipe
Quince Paste - Pâte de Fruit de Coings from Provence
Quince resembles large, tough pears. The cooking time for this recipe will vary depending on the fruit. Serve quince paste (pâte de fruit de coings) with a selection of hard cheeses for an appetizer or an alternative to a sweet dessert.
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Quince Paste Recipe By Chef Tasha Pâte aux Coings
Christmas Traditions in Provence

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Epiphany and Cake

This religious feast is celebrated on January 6, but Epiphany is not a holiday. It can be celebrated on the second Sunday after Christmas. The French celebrate Epiphany throughout January. Throughout this period, magnificent Galettes des Rois adorn bakery windows.

Galette des Rois (Epiphany cake)
Here is what Phoebe has to say: Making your own Galette des Rois is very simple, assuming you can get hold of ready-made puff pastry. In France, we’re spoilt with excellent quality puff pastry that comes ready-rolled with its own baking paper, available in every supermarket.  And even better than that, during the festive period, roughly December and January, kits of puff pastry with a crown and figurine are sold too!
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Galette des rois Epiphny Cake @FibiTee

Cette fête est une fête religieuse. Elle est célébrée le 6 janvier. L’Epiphanie n’est pas un jour férié. Elle peut se fêter le deuxième dimanche après Noël. En réalité, les Français célèbrent l’Epiphanie tout au long du mois de janvier. Pendant toute cette période, de magnifiques galettes des rois ornent les vitrines des boulangeries et pâtisseries pour le grand plaisir des petits et des grands.

Make Galette des Rois

©Francois de Melogue

Galette des Rois (King's Cake)
A delicious cake filled with almond cream. Try this recipe for your next dinner party!
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Make Galette des Rois

Not only is Galette des Rois or King’s Cake delicious, but there’s a surprise. A small figurine is hidden in the pastry, sandwiched among the rum-scented layers of frangipane (almond cream) and puff pastry. The figurine, known as a fève, was historically a tiny bean but changed to a ceramic figurine in the late 1800s. Whoever finds the fève (if they haven’t broken a tooth) gets to wear a crown and be king or queen for the day!

Galette des Rois
A classic Christmas cake made from puff pastry, filled with frangipane and a small treasure or feve hidden inside.
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Galette des Rois Kings Cake Provence @CocoaandLavender

Candlemas – La Chandeleur

A Christian holiday and festival of lights, Candlemas, occurs on February 2, forty (40) days after the birth of Jesus Christ. Also known as the Feast of the Presentation of Jesus Christ, the word Candlemas comes from “candela” in Latin. During pagan times, February signalled the return to the fields and the beginning of the new growing season. In 472, Pope Gelase I established Candlemas to celebrate lighting candles to ward off evil, sickness and poor weather conditions. Pancakes or crepes are traditionally served on February 2 to represent the sun and the pending end of winter.

Happy Holidays! Meilleurs vœux !