Slender, conical cypress trees are everywhere in Provence: they line roads, outline fields, decorate cemeteries, and adorn houses. These sturdy, practical trees protect crops and homes from the fierce mistral wind that whips through this area, but there is more to them than meets the eye. These ubiquitous trees may have a hidden meaning depending on where and how they are planted. Let’s investigate the secret language of the cypress.
Since ancient times, the cypress has been a symbol of eternal life: it stays green year round, its wood is resistant to decay, it’s always bearing fruit, it’s fire resistant, and its shape seems to point toward the heavens. For these reasons it is often planted in cemeteries. In days gone by, a solitary tree would be planted in a cemetery for a child, and two trees for a couple. The expression, Dormir sous un cyprès, or “to sleep under a cypress” means to be dead.
Around the House
On a happier note, Provençal farmhouses, called mas, often have three cypress trees, planted in a triangular shape, near the entry to the property. Traditionally, this is a symbol of hospitality. When long-ago travelers passed by and saw three trees, they knew they could rest their weary bones there for the night. Two trees, and they could fill their belly and wet their whistle. But if there was only one tree, it meant “don’t even think about stopping here.”
Since this is a very old tradition, many people may not be aware of it. So, it’s probably best not to stop in at a house with three cypresses and ask for a meal and a bed – unless you are very well acquainted with the owners.
Good Luck Charm
Another “old tradition,” which is actually a new one, declares that cypress trees near a Provençal mas bring good luck. This legend conveniently took root in the 1980s, when it was becoming fashionable for Parisians to have a second home in Provence. They would arrive keen to buy a property, but when they spotted cypress trees near the door of their prospective holiday home, they would be reminded of cemeteries and get cold feet.
That wasn’t good for the real estate market, so the notaires (who supervise real estate transactions in France) and the Office of Tourism got together and invented the “old Provençal tradition” that cypress trees near the entry of a home bring good luck. That made the Parisians feel better and they snapped up those “lucky” farmhouses.
There is one more thought about why these trees are planted by farmhouse entrances, and it’s a very practical one. Some say that if you plant a few cypress trees when the house is built, you will have replacement beams at hand should the original ones ever rot or break.
Well, that’s all very sensible, but it really muddles things up. What if you see a house with only one tree? Can you safely assume they needed to replace a beam or two? Should you still ask for a meal and a bed?
*More about Provence – You can find more about Provence traditions in my book, Curious Histories of Provence: Tales from the South of France, coming summer 2017.
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