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Celebrating Christmas in Provence

Celebrating Christmas in Provence

25 Dec 2012 BY Dominique's Villas

Sainte Barbe According to the Provençal Almanac, SainteBarbe lived during the 3rd century. She was the patron saint of miners and fire fighters, and her feast day is the 4th of December, the first celebration of the Christmas season. On the 4th of December, you scatter a few grains of wheat or lentils on moistened cotton or moss in a saucer or a bowl. You water the grains every day and if the grains germinate and sprout successfully by Christmas Day, the harvest will be a good one. If the grains rot, a poor harvest can be expected!

Christmas Crèche The origin of the Provencal crèche tradition dates back to the twelfth century when an Italian custom reached parts of Provence then under Italian control and gradually spread to the remainder. The French Revolution, which forbade the practising of religion, furthered the clandestine use of santons, hand painted figurines representing the various components of the stable where Jesus was born. ‘Crèche’ meant ‘manger’ but the real crèche is perhaps best thought of as an idealised representation of the Provençal village, where there is a place for each and every one, including the farm animals, which share the stable with the Holy Family.

Santons The santon is derived from the Provençal word "santoun", which means "little saint". Santons are made in moulds that represent the many different Provençal characters. Plaster moulds are most often used, but sometimes resin. An entire host of farm animals is also represented. In addition to the donkey and the ox, who watch over the baby, there are sheep and goats, dogs, chickens, and the camels which belong to the Three Kings. One animal is never seen: a cat. Legend has it that the cat was associated with witchcraft, and was banned from the crèche by St. Francis of Assisi.

Veillées Calendales The night before Christmas begins with a Roman rite which combines magic and religion: the “Cacho-fio”. It consists of the ritual lighting of the Yule log. Before the family sits down to supper, the oldest and the youngest members bring the log to the fireplace, and pour mulled wine over it three times, before placing it in the fireplace, and lighting it. The log must burn for 3 days. The “gros souper” or big supper which follows is actually a frugal meal to subdue the appetite until after Midnight Mass.

Midnight Mass The tradition of celebrating midnight Mass in Provence on 24 December goes back to the fifth century. Prior to the Mass itself is the "veillée", a time of song and music. Christmas songs, known as "Noëls", have the place of honour. The term "Noël" usually refers to a song or a canticle in the Provençal language, which expresses both the religious fervour and the local traditions. The presentation of the lamb at Midnight Mass is part of the ritual. This is called "le Pastrage", which comes from the word "patre" meaning the shepherd. The shepherds proceed slowly toward the altar, carrying the lamb and a candle, preceded by musicians with their instruments. In front of the altar, the lamb is offered to the priest, who takes it in his arms. The shepherd recounts the story of the journey he and his friends made to reach the baby Jesus. Some Midnight Masses, like the one in Séguret, has a living crèche throughout the entire Mass. After Mass, the family goes home and places the baby Jesus in the crèche. This is usually the youngest child's job, prior to opening his presents.

Pastoral Plays The first Pastoral play was staged in Toulon on 25 December 1333 under the title "The Youth of the Virgin Mary and the Birth of Jesus Christ". Since then, Provençal people have created many theatrical versions of the Nativity. The plays are written in five acts, and the dialogue, spoken in Provençal, is full of images and satire, often somewhat mocking of the local population. Ebullient jokesters make their appearance, such as "Pistachié", a worthy representative of boatmen's humour, guaranteed to raise a laugh. The most famous pastoral play was composed by Antoine Maurel in 1844. This pastoral play is often put on throughout the Vaucluse during the twelve days of Christmas.

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