Christmas in Provence
By Susan Aiello
It’s just before midnight on Christmas Eve night. The sky is clear, and a thousand stars glimmer above. A procession of dozens of shepherds, some carrying candles, some playing fifes, led by a young lamb in a straw-filled cart decorated with red ribbons, who in turn is led by the lamb’s mother, walk up the hill to the church for Christmas Midnight Mass. The lamb is presented to the priest, who leads it to the creche, to keep company with Mary, Joseph, Baby Jesus, and all the santons (little saints). This is Christmas Eve night in Provence, France, where the two-month Christmas season is sparked with magic and laced with the enchantment of old, enduring traditions.
Before attending Midnight Mass, families gather for two ceremonies – “cacho-fio” (Yule log ritual) and then for Gros Souper, or Great Supper. Before the great dinner, the oldest and youngest members of the family cut a yule log from a fruit tree, then carry it around the dining table three times before blessing it with mulled wine and burning it in the hearth.
Gros Souper – Reveillion
Reveillion means “awakening” or “awake”, and a reveillion dinner is one that lasts long into the night, generally until the wee morning hours. At the Christmas Eve dinner, seven fish and seafood dishes are served, along with local vegetables and seven wines. Some say that seven represents the sufferings of Mary, and some say it signifies the wounds of Christ. Before all the dishes are put out on the table together, the table is set with three tablecloths, three candles and three bowls of wheat, signifying the Holy Trinity. The wheat – St. Barbe’s wheat – has been saved from December 4, which is when the Christmas season begins. An extra place has been set at the table, for a deceased ancestor, an angel, or a beggar who may drop by. When the meal is finished and the table cleared, some people pull up the top tablecloth and tie up the ends, leaving the crumbs inside, and then place this bundle outside their door, signifying their help for those who are hungry.
Les Treize Desserts
After Midnight Mass comes the second half of the Gros Souper – dessert. Not just one dessert, but 13, signifying Jesus and the 12 apostles at the Last Supper. There are four dishes signifying the four mendicants (religious orders that have taken a vow of poverty): Figs for the Franciscans, almonds for the Carmelites, raisins for the Dominicans and walnuts or hazelnuts for the Augustines. In addition, there are two nougats, one white and one black, signifying, some say, good and evil. Dates are included, because Jesus was from the Middle East. The remaining six desserts can be fresh or preserved cherries, pears, mandarins, apples, oranges or winter melon. And included in this dessert meal is a sweet bread made with olive oil and orange. Traditionally, any un-eaten desserts are left out for three days, for ancestors, angels, beggars, and, of course, for the family to much on!
Around 4am, when everyone has eaten their fill of desserts, opened their gifts, and filled their spirits with the warmth of celebrating with loved ones, it is time to sleep. And then, up again in the morning, to prepare Christmas lunch, which is usually from noon to 4pm. Lunch may be a chestnut-filled roast turkey with lots of side dishes, or a more simple meal.
People purchase all these wonderful foods at outdoor Christmas markets, which open up on December 4, the beginning of the season. These markets sell foods, gifts and santons, which are made of wood or clay, and are usually just a few inches tall. While a creche always has figurines of Mary, Joseph and Baby Jesus, the three wise men, some barn animals, and perhaps an angel or two, all the rest of the santons are townspeople – a baker, the town crier, a fisherman, and all the ordinary townspeople of 18th -19th century Provencal villages, bringing Baby Jesus their wares.
During the French Revolution, when churches were shut down and destroyed, and Christmas Midnight Mass and nativity scenes banned, the people in Provence began keeping creches in their homes, and the little santons became important in continuing Christmas traditions. Santonniers are in great demand, and the little saints can now be purchased online.
A public nativity scene may have up to 600 santons. In public displays and also in private homes, it is common to move the figurines around each day, to signify the progression of the characters as they travel to the manger. Baby Jesus is put out at midnight on Christmas Day, and the three wise men, the Kings from the Orient, arrive on Epiphany, January 6.
New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day
New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day bring another reveillion, with Gros Soupers on both days. There is much eating, much drinking of wine, and boisterous merriment all around the towns.
Epiphany is celebrated by serving Gateau des Rois (Kings’ Cake), which is made with candied fruit and sprinkled with sugar. Inside the cake is hidden either a santon or a bean. The person who gets the cake slice with the prize becomes the “servant”, and must perform songs and dances to entertain everyone.
Families and friends gather often between New Year’s Day and Candlemas, prolonging the season with dinners, lunches and wine parties. The Christmas season in Provence ends on Candlemas, on February 2. The Christmas decorations are taken down, and the santons are wrapped up carefully and tucked away for their 10-month sleep until next December 4, when they stir in their little paper wrappings, wake up, and are brought out to begin the next Christmas season.
Joyeux Noel! Joyeux Noel!
Merry Christmas and Happy New Year from LasVegasBuffetClub.Com
Table du gros souper de Noël avec ses trois nappes, reconstitution dans le hall de l’Hôtel de Ville d’Avignon – by Jean-Louis Zimermann originally published on Flickr http://www.flickr.com/photos/jeanlouis_zimmermann/3132570245/