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French holiday traditions

Want to add a little French touch to your Christmas? Here are 3 simple ways to "frenchify" your holidays. With so many lovely traditions, you can celebrate your French heritage, or just add that sophisticated touch that reminds you of a country you love.

Provençal Traditions

I have a special place in my heart for Provence. Not just the Nice - Cote d'Azur Provence, but the olive grove - lavender field - chalky cliff - charming villages - Provence. The place where santonniers handcraft miniatures of each townsperson and animal to bear witness at the birth of baby Jesus in the crèche (nativity scene).

Create your crèche

“Provençaux, faisons donc la crèche: c’est la plus belle de nos traditions provençales” - R. P. Vial

The tradition of la crèche in Provence, and particularly in Marseille, dates back to the 17th century. There are “church” nativity scenes as well as the ones families put in their homes. The oldest known and still preserved today is in Saint Maximin.

There are no hard and fast rules to creating la crèche - let your creativity flow! They are made up of 3 parts: the Sainte Famille and the stable, the countryside filled with townspeople and animals, and the backdrop - usually featuring a star and the night sky or the countryside in the distance. It has become a collectors paradise to add new features every year. I started my collection about 20 years ago from a santonnier in the small village of Séguret. There are stalls and stalls of different santons from which to choose at the Christmas market in Aix-en-Provence. I have to say it is a joy every year to unwrap each townsperson, goat, fountain and lavender tree, and reassemble the scene for the season. Over the years I have gotten more creative with my display, adding some elevation (clay underneath my runner) and scattering a mossy mixture I found at Michael's craft store.

The next time you are in Provence, be inspired at one of the Santon museums in Les Baux-de-Provence, Fontaine de Vaucluse or Marseille. There are also many shops and ateliers where you can start your own collection

If you do start your own collection in France, be sure to note the size of your figurines. They can vary from 4-5 cm to 10-12 cm! Your 8cm baker may feel a bit sheepish around a 12 cm farmer!

Paysage de crèche

La crèche, si modest, est l’image du ciel.

Le loup n’y trouble point la paix des bergeries;

Et les aïeuls, courbés sous leurs vertus fleuries,

Dans leurs coeurs résignés et doux, n’ont pas de fiel.

Et qu’y voit-on? La ferme et ses ruches à miel,

Le puits ou le soleil met des joailleries,

Le pont, sur l’eau d’argent, qui couple les prairies,

Des amoureux conduits par l’ange Gabriel.

Là, le pêcheur toujours est content de sa pêche,

Et le poisson qu’il prend, il le rend à l’eau fraîche .

Là, le chasseur tue un gibier qui ne meurt pas.

Fouillez rues et faubourgs et la colline entière,

Cherchez partout, l’oeil grand ouvert, à menus pas,

Vous ne découvririez jamais un cimetière.


Les 13 Desserts de Provence

The holidays mean visitors, and it is a tradition to have lots of treats on hand for those who pop in during the weeks before Christmas. I have this special buffet ready at all times!

Why have one dessert when you can have THIRTEEN?? This custom is one of the most cherished traditions in Provence. The Christmas Eve dinner (le gros souper) before Midnight Mass has 13 desserts, honoring the number of people around the table at the Last Supper - Jesus and his 12 Disciples. These desserts, really small bites, are placed at the table on Christmas Eve and remain there for 3 days so guests have a chance to sample each one.

As with any tradition, there will be some variations between towns and families. Here is the basic list (but you can improvise with what you have):

The first four are known as the “four beggars” (les quatre mediants), representing the four monastic orders.

  1. Raisins (Dominicans)

  2. Walnuts or Hazelnuts (Augustinians)

  3. Dried Figs (Franciscans)

  4. Almonds (Carmelites)

  5. Dates (representing the region where Christ lived)

  6. Calissons d’Aix - a candy made with almond paste and melon

  7. Nougat Blanc (white nougat with pistachios, honey and almonds) representing “good”

  8. Nougat Noir (black nougat) representing “evil”

  9. Pompe a l’huile - a brioche-like bread with orange water and olive oil

  10. Oranges (clementines or tangerines)

  11. Quince paste

  12. Winter Melon (or other fruit)

  13. bûche de Noël (Yule log ) or Oreillettes (thin, light waffles)

Calissons - Leonard Parli are the best!

Although it may be hard to find some of these items in the US, I did adopt this tradition a few years ago. I figure if the French can’t all agree on the list, a few substitutions can’t hurt. More and more bakeries are making bûche de Noël these days. Call your best local French bakery, or try making your own! There are so many recipes to choose from. Harder to find is Pompe a l’huile, so when you are planning a 6-hour wrapping marathon, let this dough rise!

Pompe a l’huile

500 g flour

30g yeast

100g sugar

½ tsp salt

3 tbsp orange flower water (use more or less depending on your tastes)

125ml olive oil

1 lemon zest

1 orange zest

Prepare the leaven and dough:

Dilute the yeast in warm water with ½ tsp sugar and let stand 15 minutes.

Put the flour and sugar in another bowl. Add oil, orange flower water, the zests and mix together. Add the yeast. Knead well.

Roll the dough into a ball, put it into a bowl covered by a dish cloth and let it rise for 6 hours in a warm place.

Preheat the oven at 180°C, 550°F.

Divide the pastry into two parts and roll each out into two discs 1 cm thick.

Using a knife, make incisions in the surface of the pastry disk. Brush with egg yolk.

Bake for 15 minutes or until golden and the size has increased.

Makes 2 cakes

Vin Chaud

When there is a chill in the air, nothing warms you up faster than a little hot wine! You can find mulling spices at some speciality shops, or you can create your own.

Vin Chaud

1/2 liter of water

5-6 sugar cubes (or 1/4 cup of sugar)

3 cinnamon sticks

3 star fruit

3 whole cloves

1 liter of white wine (preferably from Alsace)

1/2 lemon

1 orange

Boil the water, sugar, cinnamon, star fruit and cloves until you obtain a mixture that is a bit thick and tacky. Turn down the heat and add the white wine. Add 2-3 slices of lemon and the sliced orange. Cover with a towel to keep in the heat and let it infuse for 10-15 minutes. Serve hot. (Maintain a warm temperature on low heat, but you must ensure that the wine doesn’t “cook”)

*This recipe can be made with pure apple juice instead of wine.

Joyeux Noël to you and yours!

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