Christmas in France is a time for sharing, family and great food and making everything look as pretty as can be. Every region has its own unique traditions.
Feast Day of Saint Barbara
In Provence there’s the feast day of Saint Barbara and the ‘wheat of hope.’ Saint Barbara is the patron saint of miners and explosive specialists. The feast day is celebrated on 4th December, when locals plant a few seeds of wheat and lentils on a fine bed of watered moss in several different saucers. In the 20 days between Saint Barbara and Christmas, these seeds sprout, creating little tufts of green – the first hint of future harvests and the first sign of the festivities to come.
On 25 December, if the seeds have sprouted the harvest will be good, but if the seeds have turned rotten, families can expect disappointing crops! The most impressive of the saucers is placed on the Christmas dinner table, while the others are included in the nativity scene, tucked away among the rocks and bushes.
Candles & Desserts
Provence also has the feast day of Saint Lucy on which candles and lanterns are lit to keep out evil winter spirits and curses.
And there is the tradition of the 13 desserts in Provence. Yes – 13 desserts! The tradition of Les Treize Desserts de Noël as it’s known in French, goes back several centuries and it’s said that the roots of this custom lie in religion and represent Jesus and his twelve apostles at the Last Supper.
The ingredients of the 13 desserts varies from village to village, and even from home to home. But it always includes pretty dishes of nuts, fruit and sweets plus an orange flavoured cake. The desserts are spread out on a table in dishes at the same time, and everyone is invited to take a little from each dish.
It’s a tradition to lay the desserts out on Christmas Eve and leave them there for three days.
Saints, Sweets & Sapin de Noël
Meanwhile, in the northeast, in Alsace they celebrate Saint Nicholas day on December 6! There they also say that Father Christmas has a helper -Père Fouettard (which translates as The Whipping Father). He dispenses lumps of coal and has a stick to give spankings to the naughty children!
All over France you’ll see crèches filled with santons (little Saints), these are displayed in churches and many homes. The santons these days may be less religious than in the past, it’s not unusual to see Lady Gaga or Harry Potter standing outside the stable where Jesus was born these days!
And in Pas de Calais it’s traditional to fill wooden clogs with sweets, including sugar baby Jesus’ and Saint Nicolas biscuits, to pop under the Christmas tree!
And talking of Christmas trees – they are featured all over France but first appeared in Alsace in the 14th century and traditional decorations included apples, paper flowers, and ribbons.
But there is one thing that is traditional across all of France – beautifully prepared tables, wonderfully wrapped gifts, vases of flowers and gorgeous candles.