We departed Lourmarin just as winter had arrived, with Christmas round the corner. The trees were almost bare, only a few remnants of their golden autumn gown still clinging to the branches. Temperatures had fallen, especially when the Mistral blew her cruel, icy breath down the Rhône Valley. There were occasional early morning frosts and mists creeping across the ground at first light. But most days the skies were still cornflower blue, with bright, dazzling rays of sunlight illuminating the world with a clarity only found in Provence. Perfect conditions for the olive harvest.
It’s barely been two weeks since we were there, and now, from so far away, it’s hard to believe it’s all just as we left it. The air perfumed with woodsmoke, and an air of expectancy swirling below the strings of twinkling lights. Below them, along the Lourmarin streets, carefully positioned baby sapins proudly displaying cheery crimson bows.
Brightly decorated shop fronts, our wonderful artist Isirdi’s Gallery looking splendid.
Many strung with tiny sparkles.
A profusion of temptations enticingly displayed.
One of my favorite at this time of year, La Maison Franc, their beautiful lavender wands and boules a special treat for the Christmas tree.
Lourmarin’s delightful new Boucherie was preparing to supply the village with an array of delicious, festive food!
The weekly markets still arriving, somewhat depleted except for food stalls, happy to help the locals to stock the local people’s Christmas pantries.
Warm lazy days sipping rosé in the shade were a distant memory. But café terraces still bustled, their patrons swaddled in coats and scarves, huddled around steaming hot drinks.
Christmas markets were popping up each weekend, we visited this one in the pretty fishing town of Cassis.
Tethered boats bobbed in Cassis harbor where we enjoyed lunch on the quayside.
And in Aix-en-Provence, its famous Cours Mirabeau was lined with a white ribbon of festive stalls.
Provencal gifts from the region; lavender products, incredible carved chocolate sets,
Calissons, a local almond paste speciality.
Festive bow ties.
presents made of wood,
and Santons, the hand-painted terracotta scene figurines made to decorate Provencal Nativity Crèches.
Santons were first created during the French Revolution by Jean-Louis Lagnel (1761-1822), an artisan from Marseilles. Traditionally a Provencal crib scene had about 55 Santons, depicting not only religious characters but local figures from ordinary life. To this day the Santons are positioned around a traditional crib scene surrounded by small buildings from the village.
Santon fairs take place all over Provence and officially mark the beginning of the Christmas season. We admired the Santon nativity scene displayed inside the magnificent cathedral of Aix-en-Provence, Cathédrale Saint-Sauveur.
Le blé de la Sainte-Barbe
Christmas in Provence begins on December 4th, the day of Ste-Barbe. In the days before Christmas little bags of wheat are sold or handed out free at boulangeries. Ste Barbe is celebrated by planting this wheat in small pots. The belief is, that if the wheat grows straight the year ahead will be prosperous.
Traditionally families grow 3 pots of wheat to represent the Holy Trinity. These pots decorate the table on Christmas Eve for the Gros Souper. This is a meatless meal, often beginning with a garlic soup, followed by a fish dish and thirteen desserts. After the Christmas day lunchtime meal the wheat is placed in the crèche among the santons, laid there to symbolise the fields.
Les Treize Desserts~ the 13 desserts
Les Treize desserts is an ancient tradition and steeped in symbolism, thirteen representing the Last Supper with Jesus and the 12 Apostles.
Although it is now possible to buy a simplified, boxed version, traditionally the 13 desserts would have included dried and fresh fruit, two types of nougat, candied fruit and Fougasse, a flatbread made of olive oil and orange flower water. The custom is that the fougasse should be torn not sliced, to do otherwise is to cause financial ruin for the coming year! The desserts are often eaten after Midnight Mass and served together with vin cuit, a fortified wine. Everyone is meant to try a little of each dessert.
Provence and Lourmarin seem very far away from California. And since we left, winter has dusted our little village with a coat of snow. I’ve been there when it snows, when my fairy tale village seems even more magical, as it waits patiently for Christmas.
I hope you’re waiting patiently, not too tied up in wrapping paper, tinsel and chaos!
Wishing you all a Happy Christmas wherever in the world you may be
and thank you for loyally following my ramblings!