Christmas in Provence is unique. France is a strongly Catholic country which treats Christmas as a religious holiday. The creche is more important than the Christmas tree. Christmas cards are a recent addition to the holiday season; even today most French people exchange New Year greetings rather than Christmas wishes. Gifts are exchanged, but no more so than on Easter Sunday.
The one feature of Christmas that makes it the biggest holiday in the year is the 12 hours of ceremony and feasting which span Christmas Eve and Christmas Day.
The entire time is not spent at the table. It starts with a light snack at 6 PM on Christmas Eve because nothing can be eaten after that if one plans to receive Communion at the Midnight Mass.
Regular attendance at Sunday Mass is not strictly adhered to most of the year, but practically every practicing Catholic goes to Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve. Many people receive Communion at that time.
The pomp and ceremony of the Mass in the large cathedrals is impressive, but much more touching is the re-enactment of the Nativity scene in small village churches.
These churches are austere. Often there are no pews ; rows of folding chairs are set up for Christmas Eve. Even in the relatively warm river valleys, it is cold at Christmas time. The village churches are of stone, built one or more centuries ago.
Central heating is unknown. A few electric heaters are brought in but do little to warm the cavernous space. Heavy coats, boots and scarves are worn by the congregation, which begins to assembly when the doors are opened at 10 PM. There is usually organ music, sometimes a choir. Mass is said, but no sermon is preached. Once the Mass is concluded the Nativity scene begins.
The church has been dimly lit during the Mass but now a spotlight is cast on what had appeared to be a group of statues. At a side altar is the classic manger scene, complete with straw, several sheep, and the family of Joseph, Mary and the Child. The animals are alive (drugged, perhaps - they have been so quiet during the Mass). The family is enacted by two teenagers and an infant. All of the characters in the tableau are children of the village.
First to arrive are the Three Kings, two walking and one riding a donkey. One of the Kings is sure to be of Arabic blood ; many Algerians live in Provence. Following the arrival of the Kings, other visitors arrive. Each bears a gift related to his or her role in life.
None of the characters wears a costume ; all are dressed in clothing that belonged to their ancestors. Their tools of trade came out of family attics as well. The chimney sweep has his rope, the dairy maid her wooden stool, the shoemaker his lathe. Farmers carry pitchforks with wooden tines, reapers have scythes with handles polished to a high gloss from generations of usage. An orchard man offers a small barrel of apples, a grandmotherly character carrying a spindle presents a length of homespun wool. Other gifts are clay jars of oil, a sack of charcoal, a basket of eggs.
The last to arrive is a ballerina. She twirls up the central aisle, leaps high into the air, prostrates herself before the crib : all she has to offer is her dance.
After the Mass, members of the congregation return to their homes. It is late, almost two o’clock in the morning. The house seems warm following the hours in the church. Sweaters are removed, neckties loosened. Everyone sits around the dining room table. The apéritif begins.
The dining room is the most used room in a French home. Every visitor is offered something to drink : coffee, a glass of wine, or an apéritif depending on the time of day. It is always served at the dining room table.
On Christmas Eve the apéritif is copious. A range of bottles appears on the buffet, the table is covered with dishes of olives, bowls of nuts, plates of sliced sausage, salty crackers, potato chips, dry toast spread with pâté.
Each person is given a small saucer for the debris - sausage rinds, olive pits and pistachio shells accumulate as people eat and drink. Every now and then someone passes the poubelle, a decorative ceramic or stoneware jar with a lid. The contents of the saucers are emptied into this.
Sometime after the second or third drink, people began to move into the kitchen. Christmas Eve is always for immediate and extended family ; everyone helps with the meal preparations. It is the job of the men to open oysters and decant wine, women put final touches on other dishes, children are allowed to clear and then dress the table. The drinking continues, people moving between the kitchen and the dining room.
Once the oysters are opened and arranged on serving trays (roughly a dozen per person), the meal begins. There will be a dry white wine with the oysters, a Muscadet or a Bourgogne. A hot dish follows the oysters, perhaps boudin blanc, a very delicate soft sausage impregnated with morsels of truffle.
Provence is the home of the black truffle and, if you or your neighbors are truffle hunters, this second dish may be eggs lightly scrambled with cream and fresh truffles. A rosé is called for here, a Tavel or a Rosé de Provence.
A pause after this, a time to relax the stomach with more rosé or a light red such as a Beaujolais. A time to clear the table, to bring out the bread. Up to this point the only breadstuff served has been the aperitif crackers, rye rounds with the oysters, dry toast with the scrambled eggs. Now the main course is imminent and that calls for bread : baguette or bâtard or flûte, some form of the French loaf will appear in huge quantities on the table, not cut into thin half-inch slices but presented as solid two- or thee-inch pieces.
The main course which follows can be one of several classic Christmas dishes. Roast turkey or ham is a possibility, but in Provence it is more likely to be a leg of lamb or confit d’oie, a very rich dish of goose which has been boned and preserved in its own fat. There will be potatoes with this more often than not, cooked in the fat of the goose, perhaps haricots verts as well. Perhaps. The emphasis is on the meat; vegetables are strictly secondary. The wine is still a red, something a bit heavier than the Beaujolais. Something local, one of the Côtes du Rhône.
Another pause, this time a salad. Simple greens with a vinaigrette of olive oil and wine vinegar. A time for the children to go outdoors for a breath of fresh air. A time for mothers to check sleeping babies. This is not a good time for wine, not with the vinegar on the salad. There are bottles of mineral water on the table, very good to cleanse the kidneys.
Another change of plates and knives, another change of glasses. More bread. The cheese course : a bleu and a brie, chèvre and gruyère, tomme de vache and crotte de brebis, le Picodon de Valréas and la Brousse de la Vésubie, a Brillat-Savarin, the richest of all, 74% butterfat. Nothing with cranberries or dried tomatoes in it, nothing soaked in wine or cognac, just a half-dozen or so of the 365 classic cheeses produced in France. And a good wine to wash it all down : a Chateauneuf du Pape, a Bordeaux supérieur.
People are drinking less, the wines are heavier. The cheeses are eaten slowly, starting with the soft and mild ones, progressing to the stronger, harsher flavored. This is how cheese is eaten in France, savoring the goût. With a good wine.
It is 4:30 now, almost 5 AM. The conversation slows, yawns are heard. There is still the dessert course and the champagne, then the coffee and digestif. The men and some of the younger women step outside for a short walk, a view of the night sky.
When they return the table has been cleared and then laid with dessert plates, fresh silverware, and champagne glasses. Everyone is seated, the lights are dimmed. It is time for the Bûche de Noël. The champagne buckets are brought in, corks popped, wine poured. The bûche arrives and is saluted with champagne, then sliced and served. A Bûche de Noël is a thin sheet of white or chocolate cake which has been spread with a cream filling, rolled into a cylinder five or six inches in diameter, and frosted to resemble a log. This is the classic Christmas dessert served throughout France.
In Provence there is a second dessert following the bûche, Les Treize Desserts. It is exactly that, thirteen sweet products of Provence, varying slightly from one Département to the next, but always thirteen in number.
There are almonds from Alpes de Haute-Provence, nougat from Montélimar in the Drome, apples and dried figs from Vaucluse, candied fruits from Var, sablé from Bouches du Rhône, tangerines from Alpes Maritimes, and walnuts from Haute-Alpes. There are hazelnuts, a heavy dark bread to eat with the walnuts, dates imported from Algeria through the port of Marseille, candied orange peel, glacé cherries and, finally, a plate of chocolate truffles.
The children have fallen asleep after the bûche. Tthe adults finish the champagne, nibble at the Treize Desserts. It is almost 6 AM, time for the coffee, perhaps a marc. Then a nap. The children will be awake soon, looking for their presents. It is le Jour de Noël.
« La Cuisine Provençale et Niçoise » , Dominique Compans, 1995. Éditions Jean-Paul Gisserot
Personal Christmas memories