Marché au santon et à la céramique d'hiver - OTI AubagneMarché au santon et à la céramique d'hiver - OTI Aubagne
©Marché au santon et à la céramique d'hiver - OTI Aubagne


The Christmas Traditions in the Pays d’Aubagne et de l’Étoile,
are magical moments, filled with enchantments, smiles and Provençal traditions

Christmas holidays are moments of joy, opportunities for family gatherings, for offering gifts, waiting for an old man in red with a white beard…

In Provence, it’s much more than that!
The Christmas period is an opportunity to celebrate the traditions, festivals and customs that rythm the life of Provençals for two months: the Calendales Festivals.

Advent Holidays

Four weeks to prepare for christmas !

Saint Barbara Day


“Quand lou  blad  vèn  bèn,tout  vèn  bèn!”, “When the wheat goes well, everything goes well!” A prediction of prosperity for the coming year:

It all starts on December 4th, the day of Saint Barbara, patron of firemen, miners, and artillerymen.
That day we place a few seeds of wheat, lentils and/or chickpeas in three “sietoun” (saucer).
These seeds will give birth to stems that will be placed on the table on Christmas Eve.
For the Provençal people, the better the growth of the sprouts with beautiful, straight, green stalks, the more prosperous the year will be, as wheat is a sign of wealth throughout the year for the family.
Today, it is obviously one of the strongest Calendal traditions in households of the Pays d’Aubagne et de l’Étoile.

But forget about wheat for now, and let’s plan the next part of our Christmas party…



This time of the year is the right moment to decorate our homes.
Besides the traditional Christmas tree, the “Crèche”, i.e., the crib, or Nativity Scene, with santons, is a must in Provence.
Placing the Nativity Scene, whether on some furniture, in the corner of a shelf or in a dedicated scenery, is a great way to spend some enjoyable time with your family.
Some people stick to traditions, others try to innovate, and include more contemporary characters, such as Playmobil, Lego or other heroic figurines that the children vainly try to hide in the Nativity Crib…
In the Provençal Crèche, there are the Nativity Scene, the shepherd and his sheep, the Three Wise Men, but it is mainly a reflection of the village population where all social classes and trades are represented: the drummer, the miller, the fishmonger, the mayor, the grinder, Grasset and Grassette, the boule players, the delighted man, and many others, bring life to this scenery made of moss, bark, and branches of thyme…
Each year, the whole family decides which santon will be added to this array of characters.
The locals and visitors of the Pays d’Aubagne et de l’Étoile and the region would gather around the Santon and Winter Market to stroll through the stalls of santon and creche makers, who display their new products together with their classic santons and accessories.

The Aubagne Santon Market is also an opportunity to enjoy the Christmas lights, to visit the funfair with the kiddies and to head for shopping at the Christmas Market where you can get all you need for the Provençal Big Dinner and the Thirteen Desserts. Gastronomy, crafts, decorations, and gift ideas are waiting for you there, near the skating rink and Santa Claus’ house.

The Tasting Time

On Christmas Eve, we first lay out three white tablecloths, the wheat “sietouns”, the myrtle, the Holly, and The Rose of Jericho, before the dishes of the Big Dinner can be placed on the table.
Most often including seven lean dishes, without meat, according to the social class and each family’s habits, according to availability, to the terroirs and productions, Christmas menus are all different across Provence.
Nevertheless, the best produces will be kept, and the table will be set with snails, cod, mullet, cardoons, celery, vegetable gratin, carding, aioli, omelet, brandade…

After the Big Dinner, it’s time for midnight mass, often celebrated in Provençal language.
The mass is highlighted by a living Nativity scene and Provençal Christmas carols, assited by flutes and tambourines.
This service brings together churchgoers and non-churchgoers, but also anyone who is sensitive to the traditional and folkloric aspect of the worship.
You will experience the ritual of the “Pastrage” (or Shepherding), during which a procession of cherubs, little shepherds, young girls, and drummers will escort a lamb brought “as an Offering” by the shepherds, the lamb will not be sacrificed, but will receive a blessing. At the end of the mass, it will be time to put Baby Jesus in the crib, but mostly time to taste the thirteen desserts, the only abundant moment in the Advent period.

The Thirteen Desserts, that’s a controversial topic for Provençals, because the list of these thirteen desserts changes and evolves according to the regions of Provence, although some of them are unavoidable.
For instance, the people of Aix will prefer the Calissons to the Navettes of Marseille, others will choose the Gibassier (crispy pastry spiced with anis, orange blossom) rather than the Pompe à l’huile (olive oil-based bread), or the Fougasse with orange blossom in the region of Nice.
There are over fifty different desserts throughout Provence, but some of them are essential:

The Pompe à l’huile, hand broken and served with cooked wine,
the “four beggars”: dried figs, raisins, almonds and hazelnuts,
black and white Nougats,
dates and fruits such as apples, pears, melons and fresh grapes.

To these, may be added: calissons, navettes, quince or fruit paste, mandarins, oranges.
I personally can’t think of a list of thirteen desserts without some homemade Bugnes and Oreillettes!


Until Candlemas


Comedy scenes and traditions

In January, you may attend La Pastorale, where sacred and profane are mixed.
The Pastorale is a pilgrimage, a gospel of miracles where the santons come to life on a theater stage.

There are many different Pastorales, either written by great authors, like the Pastorale Maurel, or by villagers themselves.
Mostly performed and sung in Provençal language, the Pastorale recalls a pilgrimage of shepherds, and shows the everyday life of a typical Provençal village with funny and entertaining scenes.

Shepherd, Miller, Grinder, Pistachio, Farmhand, Roustide, Jourdan, Margarido, Grasset, Grassette and many others wake up over the acts to reach the Crib.
It is a play, which blends the Nativity scene with the daily life of 19th century Provence.

At the beginning of the new year, young people welcome the “étrennes”, the time when the elderly hand them out a few coins.
This tradition is a heritage from the Roman Empire, when gifts were offered for New Year to friends, family acquaintances, but also to the Emperor.

This tradition evolved, and gifts began to be given to tradesmen who served the community with insufficient remuneration. Nowadays, these gifts are still offered to firemen, sanitation workers, postmen during the calendar distribution campaign… and mostly to children in the family.

Melchior, Balthazar et Gaspar

During this season when the Three Kings are celebrated, bakeries will decorate their windows with beautiful golden crowns, for it is now time for Epiphany: on January 6, Melchior, Balthazar and Gaspar completed their long journey to reach the Nativity.

Unlike a large part of France where Epiphany is celebrated with the “Galette des Rois” filled with almond paste, the “Gâteau des Rois” is served for dessert in Provence!
Usually flavored with orange blossom, this cake is proudly topped with candied fruits, standing for the precious stones that the Three Wise Men offered!

We “find the Kings”! Hidden under the table, the youngest child will pass out the pieces of cake, to crown whoever finds the bean in it, and his subject. The one who inherits the “subject” (a tiny santon) will have to offer the next Kings’ cake.

This tradition goes on until Candlemas, as there are many opportunities to enjoy this cake-wreath with friends, family or at work.

On the second Sunday of the month, you will come across Balthazar, Melchior, and Gaspar during the Walk of Kings. They will parade through the streets in the villages of Provence to reach the church and the Pastorale playing “La Marcho di Rèi”, a tune celebrating the arrival of the Three Kings and Epiphany.

A Final Celebration Time…

As a conclusion to the “Calendales” festivities, it’s time for Candlemas, early February.
A moment for a last family gathering, sharing different dishes and for packing the Crib and putting away the santons in their little boxes in the attic.

Do you know why pancakes prevail on French tables during Candlemas?
There’s a belief that, since the Middle Ages, people would eat wheat-based dishes to help attract Spring. Subsequently, years of famine and starvation brought out this fine wheat lace that is we now call “crêpe”.

On the 2nd of February, in Provence, in addition to pancakes, we enjoy “bugnes” (Angel Wings), “oreillettes”(fritters) and especially “navettes” (orange blossom boat-shaped cookies), which shape of a rowboat, suggests the docking of a statue of Black Madonna on the shores of Provence.

The Final Word

J’aurais pu également vous parler de la bûche de noël, « Lou Cachio Fiò », une bûche que l’on brûle le soir de Noël.
J’aurais pu détailler le pastrage, l’an nouveau, la période des lotos, la Sainte Luce, la Saint-Sylvestre et bien d’autres traditions Provençales …

Mais, vous voilà déjà bien renseignés pour venir passer un week-end ou plus, en Pays d’Aubagne et de l’Étoile durant la période des Fêtes Calendales!

I could also have mentioned the Christmas log, “Lou Cachio Fiò”, a log that burns on Christmas Eve.
I could have described in more details the pastrage, New Year celebrations, the lotto season, Saint Luce, New Year’s Eve and many other Provençal traditions…

But you are now well informed enough to come and spend a weekend or longer in the Pays d’Aubagne et de l’Étoile during the Calendal holiday period!

Noël en Pays d’Aubagne et de l’Étoile