Wherever you turn the lights are blinking and the shoppers are strolling. In many a village square, school, and country barn there is a Christmas fair to tempt the generous. You can find all the classic Provençal items: pottery, honey, tapenade, olive oil, wine(s), salt mixtures, table linens, santons, ... Some are for the foodie-centric: foie gras, truffled foie gras, smoked duck breast, magret fumé, smoked salmon - both home-smoked (something Erick does brilliantly) and imported from organic producers in Ireland - eaux de vie flavored with pears, raspberries and more, vins de noix et d'orange - a classic apéritif in this world of social gatherings made by many a housewife with some sugar, fresh walnuts or bitter oranges, wine and alcohol.
The main squares of Avignon and Arles have been transformed to accommodate wooden shelters for the seasonal vendors and artisans. Chocolatiers are creating magnificent center pieces for a Christmas table, bûches de Noël in many flavors (though hazelnut cream is a local favorite), and tiny squares filled with many a flavored ganâche, caramel or almond praliné. Feast and be merry. Taste the winter cheeses imported from the Haute Savoie, the Massif Central and Normandie, made with the richer milk of the late season, aged for a month or more, these will stick to your ribs and help you get through the cold winter months!
Christmas and New Year's season is a time to prepare meals, to contemplate menus, to pre-order special items, to browse the market stands, to go through family favorites and special edition food magazines for ideas. Will this be an elegant, all-white themed party? Shall we go scrounging in the woods for greenery and make a natural garland to drape about the house? Will the weather cooperate and permit us to forage for mushrooms or truffles ourselves and add these to our festin?
At the Steiner/Waldorf school the Advent Wreath, la couronne d'Avent, is a yearly tradition. We mothers gather together at one house or another and façon then decorate these small rounds to be topped with four candles that our children know already how and when to light from class. (as an aside, the Manhattan Waldorf school [amongst others I believe] also has menoras and encourages its Jewish student body to share their songs and prayers through this winter month). But, the wreath is a Northern import (Waldorf schools being much linked to the German and Swiss worlds) and is not typically found in Provence, nor did the Christmas tree, le sapin de Noël, used to be so ubiquitous. Mistle-toe however, le gui, is a common vine in the trees that is sold in large branches on the market to hang in your foyer. Holly, le houx, is brought down from the Cévennes where it grows to large heights in that moist and somewhat higher altitude.
What you find in nearly every Provence home at Christmas is the Crêche. The Crêche focuses on the Nativity scene of Mary, Joseph, baby Jesus, the ox and ass, the stable and the arrival of the three kings. There's generally an angel hovering above as well. For many, this is all you might see, but in Provence the tradition of the Santons, or little saints, is widespread. I've put a link to a fun blog that has many many photos to give you an idea. There are artist santon-makers, a guild of santon-makers, families who've made them over multiple generations, each with their own variation of what is still a very unified style and code. In all cases you will find a wide cast of common local characters: the shepherd, the blind man, the baker, the wood gatherer, the fishwoman, the local crazy man (he who has his hands in the air), the hunter, the mayor, the curate, the elegant Arlesienne, the gypsy woman, and on and on. The full cast of a local village is recreated in miniature to people a table, a shelf, and thus host and share in the birth of baby Jesus. To fill out the scene we have bridges, fountains, stables, trees, schrubs, gazebos, hills, paths... whatever's necessary to animate a village.
If you come to Provence via the Marseille Airport you can see a wonderful display of santons in the Air France departures' lounge (upstairs). Grandmothers store their collections -- gathered over their lives -- preciously, pulling them out each year and bringing in the kids to help set up the magical little world. As I mentioned in an earlier post, Jesus is not there till Christmas day (makes sense) and the three kings are placed at a distance, to slowly make their way to the stable for Kings' Day, January 6th.
Though the pastry shops have their selection of yule logs, bûches de Noël, in fact these too are imports from the North. Our local tradition is the thirteen desserts:
• the four mendiants, referring to the religious orders who took oaths of poverty:
- the Augustinians symbolized by walnuts or hazelnuts,
- the Franciscans symbolized by dried figs,
- the Dominicans symbolized by raisins, and
- the Carmes symbolized by almonds
• the locally produced honey almond nougat (both dark and light),
• fresh oranges or clementines (remember, Provence has always traded with other countries on the Mediterranean, so getting these from Corsica or Morrocco is an ancient custom)
• and depending upon your village and custom: quince paste, pâte de coing, candied fruit and almond paste calissons d'Aix, a melon carefully stored from September, apples or pears, and a variety of late ripening green grapes.
Voila for a touch of Provençal Christmas...