The Lou Messugo Blog - life in the south of France from a British/Australian TCK's perspective, bringing you French culture, travel on the Côte d'Azur and beyond, expat issues and a little bit of je ne sais quoi all mixed up with a hefty dose of photography.

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Christmas Traditions in Provence

Posted by on in French Culture & Traditions

Christmas in Provence is full of traditions both ancient and new, religious and secular, making it a fascinating and fun time to visit this part of France.  Provence is such a popular summertime destination that it might come as a surprise to find out that it’s also wonderful in winter.  With mild temperatures, plenty of sunshine and so much going on, spending Christmas in Provence is truly memorable.

Here are some of the traditions you’ll find at Christmas in Provence.

Christmas Traditions in Provence
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Today marks the beginning of Calendale in Provence, the Christmas festive period that runs from 4th December to Chandeleur on 2nd February.  Christmas celebrations last almost two months here, aren't we lucky?  But I don't mean cheesy piped music in shopping centres and Santa's grottoes or even pretty sparkly lights, I mean traditional stuff, with a history, and this makes me feel I can officially start getting into the festive spirit.  I feel justified that I'm not just pandering to the rampant commercial circus that Christmas has become in many parts of the world but celebrating something more significant that doesn't revolve around spending money. The word Calendale comes from the Provençal word Calèndo meaning Christmas and today is the feast day of Saint Barbe (St Barbara).

Blé de Ste Barbe Calendale décembre Provence

So how is Ste-Barbe celebrated?  By planting wheat or lentils in little saucers on a bed of cotton wool. This symbolises the future harvest so if the wheat grows straight and green by the 25th, the coming year will be a prosperous one.  If it flops or turns yellow things aren't looking so good! There's a saying in Provençal "quand lou blad vèn bèn, tout vèn bèn" when the wheat grows well, everything goes well.  The germinated wheat is then tied up with a red ribbon and used to decorate the table for the Gros Souper on Christmas Eve.

This will be our sixth Christmas in Provence and every year my boys have come out of school bearing saucers of healthy-looking lentil shoots on the last day of school term.  I must admit to having no idea at all what they were for the first time round, having cress sandwiches in mind rather than seasonal celebrations but I'm more culturally aware now.  I hope this year's crop is upright and healthy and that our good fortune continues, and with that in mind I think I'll go and put on some cheesy Christmas music to celebrate the start of Calendale!

***UPDATE 2015*** We are now about to celebrate our 9th Christmas in Provence and all is stilll well!  Do you have any unusual traditions relating to the start of the festive season where you are? Please share them in the comments.

 

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Christmas traditions in Provence Ste Barbe

 

 

A Green and Rosie Life

 

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One of the things I love most about living in my little town is the diversity of its inhabitants.  This is not a rural backwater where I’m the only foreigner; far from it.  There are 11 nationalities in little son’s class in the local primary school and big son’s best friends are Maltese, Danish and Canadian.  But nothing highlights this better than the annual Christmas event “Noëls du Monde”.

NdM NLEvery year the foreigners of Roquefort les Pins put together a display of the Christmas traditions, particularly culinary, from their countries.  Over the years there have been stands from Haiti, Poland, Italy, New Zealand, Croatia, South Africa, Ireland, Lebanon, Sweden, Denmark, Holland, the Philippines, Australia, Colombia, Romania, Peru, USA and Great Britain.   There are also stands from different regions of France, which is where I first came across the tradition of the 13 desserts in Provence.

Originally Noëls du Monde was aimed at school children and it took place during the week with classes visiting with their teachers to find out about Christmas traditions around the world, but it has become so popular that it is now on the weekend.  I’ve helped out on the British and Australian stands and have spent very enjoyable days eating my way around the world, sipping Polish vodka, Dutch hot chocolate with rum and green ginger wine while trying to explain Christmas barbies on the beach mid summer in Australia to confused kids. 

                  NdM Aust

I remember one year there was a large roast chicken standing in for a turkey on the British stand covered in hairspray to make it look glossy!  We had to spend the day making sure no one ate it.  There have been rowdy Kiwis doing the haka and jolly Irish girls singing and dancing their Irish jigs, Aussies trying to play the didgeridoo and Swedish gingerbread house workshops.   This year you’ll be able to try your hand at chocolate-making under the professional guidance of a Chef from the culinary Lycée in Nice and workshops in creating angels out of merino wool.  If you’re in the area, pop in.  It’s fun, you get to eat and drink some delicious and often unusual delicacies, perhaps learn something new and it’s free.  It’s only small, very low key but who’d have thought such a small town would have such rich and diverse international connections.  

 

Photos from the Roquefort les Pins website where you can find all the details for this year's event.

 

 

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Thirteen desserts: Christmas in Provence

Posted by on in Food & Drink

Christmas is a time for traditions and while France probably doesn’t spring to mind immediately when thinking about the festive period and its traditions, there are plenty here.  And even more so, plenty in the south which surprised me when I first moved to the Alpes-Maritimes.  I don’t know why it should be so surprising, this is after all a Catholic country but I associate Christmas traditions much more with northern Europe, particularly Scandinavia, UK and Germany.

13 Christmas dessertsLet me tell you about one of the main ones which I discovered thanks to the local Christmas Fair, Noëls du Monde, a few years ago.  Provence celebrates Christmas with a special meal on the 24th of December known as  “le gros souper” or the big supper.  It is a meatless meal, considered a “repas maigre” (light meal) often beginning with a garlic soup, followed by a simple fish dish.  But the focus is the dessert, or all thirteen desserts to be precise. 

The table is set with three tablecloths and three candlesticks to represent the Holy Trinity and most of the dishes are steeped in symbolism.  Numbers have become important, thirteen being representative of the Last Supper with Jesus Christ and his 12 Apostles. But surprisingly it was not always the way with the first reference to thirteen specifically seen around about a hundred years ago.  The food itself, however, dates back to Pagan times and has taken on Christian symbolism over time.  Each dish is innately Provencal; simple, unadorned, fresh and seasonal and you’ll see that each “dish” is for the most part in fact really just one type of fruit or nut.

The first courses of the gros souper are eaten before Midnight Mass but the celebratory 13 desserts come afterwards, late at night.  They begin with walnuts, almonds, raisins and dried figs representing the four monastic orders Augustine, Carmelite, Dominican and Franciscan respectively.  Dates, symbolising Christ, are important and are the only food not grown in Provence.  As for the eight other dishes you’ll find regional differences but most will include a selection of dried and fresh fruit:  apples, pears, oranges, clementines and grapes.  Two types of nougat are served, White Nougat symbolising good and Black Nougat symbolising evil, and there is usually some candied fruit too such as quince jelly.  A delicious light flatbread called pompe à l’huile (also called Fougasse) made of olive oil and orange flower water is eaten as an accompaniment and must be torn not sliced, otherwise financial ruin is predicted for the coming year.  Other specialities may include marrons glacés, calissons, bugnes and oreillettes but these are all recent additions being too expensive for the  ordinary people among whom this tradition began.

The meal is accompanied by vin cuit (fortified wine), all the dishes are served at the same time and everyone must try at least a little of everything on offer.  Finally the crumbs are left on the table which is not cleared away for three days in order to feed the souls of deceased family members.  

So, what do you think?  The idea of thirteen desserts sounds enormous but if you stick to the traditional ingredients it is in fact a reasonably light and healthy option during what is usually a time of rich over-indulgence.  Bon appétit et bonnes fêtes!

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