Christmas time in Provence and the south of France is full of traditions and, as with most good traditions, food is usually involved.
Miniature wheat fields
Preparations for the Christmas holiday meals begin on the 4th of December, St. Barbara’s day, with the planting of wheat (in the kitchen, that is).
Wheat germ is placed in small bowls lined with damp cotton. These dishes will later be placed on the Christmas Eve dinner table or in the Nativity crèche. If the little green shoots grow tall and strong, the inhabitants can expect a good and prosperous year. If not…well let’s just say, you better make sure that you water your wheat sprouts!
Christmas Eve dinner by the numbers
The “gros souper” (big dinner) eaten on Christmas Eve is rich in religious symbolism. Even if some of the religious aspects have been forgotten, the traditions remain.
The holiday table is covered by three white tablecloths and holds three candelabras and three dishes of wheat sprouts. After dinner, the desserts stay on the table for three days. The number three represents the trinity.
The meal is made up of seven meatless dishes. Normally a fish plate is served along with six vegetable dishes. The number seven represents the seven wounds of Jesus.
The dinner is accompanied by thirteen bread rolls and then followed by thirteen desserts. The number thirteen represents Jesus and his twelve disciples.
Yes, you read that correctly, there are THIRTEEN desserts after dinner. This is definitely my kind of meal! And everyone is required to taste each one of them! It is no surprise that the different types of dessert are also symbolic.
To help with the task of assembling all of these desserts, there are holiday markets specialising in the required ingredients.
The Yule Log
On Christmas day there is normally another large meal featuring turkey. After that the traditional “bûche de noel” (Yule log) cake is added to the other thirteen desserts. Yes, another dessert!
Originally, the “bûche de noel” was a real log. The burning of the Christmas log is an ancient custom which is now practiced only by those in possession of a big fireplace. In the olden days, people would search for the biggest log they could find. It would ideally come from the trunk of a fruit or olive tree and was meant to burn for a long time, at least three days or even for a week, until the first of January. Wine or olive oil would be poured over it before it was lighted by the oldest member of the family amid wishes for a year of prosperity and happiness.
Since many modern homes and apartments are not equipped for burning tree trunks, what can be done? Well, the obvious solution is to make a cake that looks like a log. Its frosting is wavy to resemble tree bark and often little almond paste mushrooms and other decorations are added to it. This yummy log cake can count as one of the thirteen Christmas Eve desserts or it can be introduced the next day, after Christmas lunch (as dessert number fourteen).
No one knows exactly when eating cake took the place of burning a tree trunk but in my opinion it was a really good idea.
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*To learn more about Christmas in southern France and other French celebrations, see my book: French Holidays & Traditions.