Strings of twinkling lights decorating the bare trees swung precariously back and forth. Dried, brown leaves flew in every direction. Wisps of black clouds raced across a full moon. The Mistral had arrived.
It was the La Nuit des 13 Desserts (night of 13 desserts) in Rasteau, an ancient town in Provence’s Vaucluse. Although the wicked wind gave no respite for the festivities in this village known for its wine, it did not dampen the spirits of some 800 souls who came to wander through the town’s cobbled streets, stopping at stands to savor the Christmas treats as they sipped local wines.
Thirteen desserts served after the réveillon (Christmas Eve dinner) are a holiday tradition in Provence adhered to by even the staunchest Scrooge. The desserts symbolize Christ and the 12 apostles. Dates, figs, raisins, hazelnuts, almonds, nougat, fresh and crystallized fruit and fougasse (a type of flat bread) are among the selection.
Nine booths were set up along Rasteau’s alleys and paths leading to the hilltop church of St. Didier, each one offering a different dessert, as well as local wines. Some of the weathered houses along the route were festively decorated with lights. Torches and candles illuminated the path to the church.
At some stands, barrels with roaring fires provided warmth. Hot wine was offered with roasted chestnuts at one stand. The nougat stand offered both black and white chunks of the candy which was so hard one had to wonder if it had not been supplied by the local dentist hoping for more business. Interspersed with the dessert stands was entertainment – story tellers, a concert at a chapel, folk songs, an organ grinder, even a mini theatrical production.
“We’ve doubled the size of the town tonight, “ said Robert Aimé, the mayor of Rasteau (population 700) announced proudly. The jolly evening came to an end about 11 p.m. when most of the fest goers headed home just in time to avoid the torrential rain which replaced the wind. That was two years ago. Unfortunatley, due to the precarious weather in December, Rasteau no longer hosts the Night of 13 Desserts.
Thirteen desserts is just one of many special Christmas traditions in Provence where the holiday season officially gets underway on December 4, the feast of Sainte Barbe, the patron of miners and fire fighters who lived in the third century. On this day it’s the custom to scatter grains of wheat in a saucer covered with moistened cotton. The grains are diligently watered everyday. By Christmas Day they should have sprouted, producing a dish of lush green shoots which foretell a bounteous harvest for the coming year. Beware – if the grains rot the harvest will be poor.
The mini wheat field becomes an essential part of the Christmas crèche. In Provence, the crèche is de rigueur. But not just any crèche. Provençal crèche figures are special: santons from the Provençal word santoun meaning “little saint.” The Italians were thought to be the originators of the Christmas crèche. In Provence the custom was copied beginning in the 12th century when parts of it were ruled by Italy. Back then it was mainly the churches that set up a nativity scene. When the churches were closed during the French Revolution, citizens secretly made their own crèche figures of papier-mâché or bread crumbs and created a manger scene at home.
Through the years the scenes in Provence crèches became more elaborate, the figures more numerous. In addition to the baby Jesus, Mary, Joseph, shepherds, the Three Kings, and animals, a santon crèche can be a mini reconstruction of a Provençal village with a baker, butcher, fish monger, doctor, even boule (Provence bowling) players, in addition to houses, barns, shops and streams. An animal missing is the cat. According to legend the cat is associated with witchcraft and was banned from the crèche by St. Francis of Assisi.
At the Santon Museum in Fontaine de Vaucluse some 2,000 santons and 60 crèche and Provenç al scenes are on display. The smallest features 39 tiny santons in a walnut shell. The collection includes santons made of terra cotta, wood, wax and bread crumbs. Some of the figures move – a baker shoving bread into an oven, a woman spinning yarn, another doing laundry..
During the Christmas season, many towns and villages in Provence host santon markets with vendors offering all sizes of the figures and an extensive range of different village characters in a wide range of prices. Santon collections are a part of the décor in many a Provence home, with the figures displayed year round.
Be it in Paris or Provence, food plays a star role at Christmas. For many in France, the Christmas Eve meal outranks that served on Christmas Day. In Provence it’s known as the gros souper or big supper served before Midnight Mass. The dinner table is covered with three white tablecloths to symbolize the Trinity. There may also be three white candles, but never any mistletoe in the Provence home as it is said to bring bad luck.
An ancient tradition may precede the meal, the Cacho-fio or lighting of the Yule log which should be from a fruit tree. The youngest and oldest members of the family bring the log to the fireplace and pour mulled wine over it three times before it is lit. It then must burn for three days. This custom is said to be the inspiration for the Büche de Noel, the Christmas log which these days is a cream-filled cake in the shape of a log that pastry shops sell during the holidays.
I won’t be making a Buche de Noel this Christmas, but this morning I made my special Holiday Fruitcakes. See the recipe in the far column.
Joyeux Noel, Merry Christmas!
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