Christmas Traditions in Provence

Provence shares many Christmas traditions with the rest of France, like sapins de Noël (Christmas trees) and Pére Noël (Father Christmas.) But it also has some unique ones of its own.

One is the santons, those cute little figurines sold all over Provence. They depict characters from village life such as the baker, the fishwife and the scissor grinder. They are popular with tourists, kind of like Hummel figurines but with a French twist. And their origin goes back to the French Revolution.

Crèches (nativity scenes) had long been popular in France but were banned by the fiercely anti-clerical leaders of the Revolution. What to do? An artist from Marseille came up with a clever solution. He invented santons and turned the crèche into a “village scene,” using his little figurines in place of the usual Biblical characters. This passed muster with the anti-religious zealots, who somehow missed the fact that santon means “little saint,” and a new tradition was born.

Another Provencal Christmas specialty is le gros souper (the big dinner) eaten before midnight Mass on Christmas Eve. It is full of religious symbolism, like the three white tablecloths representing the holy trinity and the seven dishes representing Mary’s sorrows. It also requires a great deal of preparation, so fewer families today have this big dinner than in years past.

Perhaps the most famous Provence Christmas tradition is the treize (thirteen) desserts. Wait, thirteen? Yes!

These are eaten after midnight Mass, which means in the wee hours of Christmas—what a great way to start the day! Like the gros souper, the treize desserts are full of religious symbolism. Thirteen, for example, represents the number of people at the Last Supper.

Each family can decide what to serve but the desserts usually include fruits and nuts, candies and some sort of sweetened bread. My favorites are the two kinds of nougat, one white and one black, symbolizing good and evil.

Like the gros souper, fewer families prepare the treize desserts today than in the past but they maintain a loyal following. Some people just skip the dinner and the Mass and go straight to the desserts!

So at your Christmas dinner this year, when you are debating whether to have another slice of pie—go for it! Just tell your family that you are taking part in an ancient and noble French tradition.

 

My new book is out! Are We French Yet? is available at Amazon!

5 Favorite Foods of Nice

Nice is one of the most beautiful cities in France, nestled by the sparkling waters of the Mediterranean Sea. Founded by the Greeks long ago, it has changed hands many times since—for centuries it was part of the Duchy of Savoy, then part of France, then part of the Kingdom of Sardinia in Italy, before finally joining France again in 1860. The city’s cuisine reflects its French and Italian origins, especially those of the nearby regions of Provence and Liguria.

One of the highlights of any visit to Nice is the chance to enjoy some of its delicious dishes. Read about five of my favorites at The Good Life France.

France vs USA: Sandwiches

The US and France are temperamentally different countries, one brash and exuberant and the other the epitome of sophistication. You can see this in American movies—think of all those American car chases and explosions. And in French books—is there anything more elegant than Proust and his madeleines? The differences even show up in sandwiches—Americans are unruly while the French are refined. Let’s look at a few of these deli duels.

Read all about it at Frenchly!

A Bite Too Far

My wife Val and I spend part of each year in Provence and it’s allowed us to learn the language and appreciate French culture. We knew before we moved there that food and wine are a big part of French life but we didn’t realize quite how big until our neighbor Fabienne gave us a “taste” of real French life. She invited us to her birthday party, which went on and on and on…

Read my funny story about a real French birthday party at A French Collection.

A Great Restaurant Discovery In Provence

“Every day my cooking has to be great.”

That’s Emmanuel Billaud, the owner and chef at Le Clos Saint Roch in Maussane-les-Alpilles, a charming town near St-Rémy. He once won the award for “best-value” restaurant in Paris and has now opened a delightful place in Provence.

If you want a great meal at a great price, be sure to check it out! You can read all about it at Perfectly Provence.

Gluten-Free: France vs USA

I was diagnosed two years ago with celiac disease, which is a severe gluten intolerance. No more croissants, baguettes and pain au chocolat — bummer! But life goes on and there are still plenty of wonderful things to eat.

Having become experts on eating gluten-free in both France and the US, my wife Val and I were interviewed recently by The Celiac Project. We talked about shopping for food, eating in restaurants, and tips on things to look for and things to avoid. If you know someone with a gluten problem, they might find the interview helpful. It’s 30 minutes long and you can listen to it here.

I’ve also written an article about eating gluten-free in France, which you can find here.

Bon appétit !