The patron of miners and fireworks, celebrated on 4 December, has little to do with the tradition of seeds sprouting in Provence. But it’s on the day of St Barbara that wheat and other seeds are planted in three cups lined with damp cotton.
Watered daily, these give rise to thick green shoots by 24 December. They stand for prosperity, as in the pagan rites where their germination predicted abundant harvests. Today it’s also a great way to keep children happy until Christmas Eve.
Celebrating the santon
The tradition of santons, small clay figurines developed by a Marseillais, started in 1803 when a fair was dedicated to them for the first time in Marseille. It wasn’t long before the ‘little saints’ were adorning Nativity scenes all over Provence.
The Virgin and Saint Joseph, the donkey and the ox, the shepherd and his sheep, the fishmonger: these Christian figures represent rural crafts in Provence, alongside characters like the Boufareu angel who guides the population towards the stable.
The expertise of the ‘santonniers’ of Aubagne and elsewhere is on display at Christmas markets everywhere – though Marseille remains the capital of this age-old tradition.
The crib or miniature Provence
Moss freshly picked to represent the scrubland, twigs of thyme for the olive trees, aluminium foil to make the river... as Christmas approaches, each family has its own secrets to design their crib, the miniature decoration in Provence where the Nativity is staged with santons. The little Jesus is positioned in the stable after midnight on Christmas Eve, while the Three Kings appear on Epiphany, – 6 January – with their gifts.
Tradition dictates that the crib be dismantled at Candlemas on 2 February, the day of Jesus’ presentation at the Temple of Jerusalem. Even if the region doesn’t have a monopoly on the crib tradition, it remains an unavoidable element of Christmas in Provence.
The Great Supper on Christmas Eve
Would this Christmas dinner get a bad name as it’s traditionally composed of lean dishes, without meat? It’s still a big meal though, with either three, six or seven dishes according to sources. Snails, cod, mullet, artichokes and celery are usually on the menu of the most traditional. There are rules about table dressing: three white tablecloths echoing the Holy Trinity, cups containing the Sainte-Barbe wheat and the presence of 13 desserts from the start of the meal.
The series of 13 desserts
What would a Christmas in Provence be without these 13 puddings, in reference to Christ and his 12 apostles? There’s no fixed list, but they typically include the four ‘mendiants’ (beggars) who evoke the religious orders having vowed of poverty (figs and raisins, almonds and walnuts), dates, black and white nougat and ‘gibassier’ (olive oil bread). Alongside these are often calissons from Aix-en-Provence and ‘navettes’ from Marseille, fresh fruit such as grapes or mandarins, candied fruit, quince cheese...
The shepherds’ offering
In the most rural or traditional regions, the ‘pastrage’ ceremony continues to form part of midnight mass. In the midst of lambing, a procession of shepherds comes to present the newborn lamb to the officiant and assembly, to the sound of the galoubet and drum. The lamb is then transported in a small cart lit by candles. This celebration is sometimes postponed to January, as in Saint-Martin-de-Crau.
The Pastorale or Christmas theatre
A ‘Pastorale’ sometimes accompanies midnight mass and remains synonymous with a Christmas in traditional Provence. It’s a theatrical performance of the Nativity, sung and spoken in Provençal. A little as though the santons of the crib had come to life.