CHRISTMAS IN PROVENCE

November is gone and thoughts turn to Christmas. If in the United States the day after Thanksgiving marks the beginning of the Christmas season, in Provence the date is December 4th, the Fête de la Sainte Barbe (Barbara). On that day, people buy little packets of seeds of wheat which they sprinkle on wet cotton placed on saucers. By Christmas day, the wheat has grown tall and green and will serve as table decoration during Christmas dinner. This age-old custom served to ward off winter’s rigors, accelerate the coming of spring and encourage the frozen earth to soon give way to a bountiful new harvest. During December, many shops and offices, including banks, have saucers with sprouting wheat on their counters and reception desks.
   On the day of St. Barbara, Aix-en-Provence opens its Marché des Santons. The Santons de Provence are clay figurines, either plain or brightly painted, that are handcrafted by local artisans. Originally, these santons (little saints) were of biblical inspiration (nativity scene, shepherds, three Magi) but soon the creators began to include their fellow villagers in a variety of trades and professions, such as the miller with a sack of flour, the doctor with his instrument bag, the mayor in top hat and tricolor sash, the shoemaker, the butcher, the baker, the blacksmith. Other popular figurines are the beautiful Arlésiennes in traditional dress, peasants carrying produce or chickens to market, and women spinning wool at the wheel.
   Though most santons still depict rural life in Provence, a santon maker created consternation some time ago when he introduced the likenesses of actor Gérard Depardieu and fashion designer Christian Lacroix (who hails from Arles) among his santons. The art of santon making dates from the nineteenth century and has been practiced by a few families for generations. Clearly, “novelties” were not appreciated and not welcome.
The typical Provençal crèche may include little houses, a windmill, a bakery shop, a bridge, the village café, the town hall with flag, perhaps a railroad station or a country inn, and provides the setting for the figurines of villagers and shepherds. People tend to buy at least a couple of new santons for their crèche every year and some local families boast large collections built up over several generations. Some churches draw crowds with their beautiful life-sized crèches of figures in Provençal dress gathered around the Nativity scene. Gifts of wheat, lavender, grapes or olives sometimes complement the Magi’s myrrh and incense, and a sheep dog may join the ox and donkey.
   The santons certainly add charm to the Provençal Christmas celebration, but when all is said and done Christmas in France is mostly about food. This is not a country for carolers, for office Christmas parties, for decking the halls or sending out numerous Christmas cards. Rather, all creativity seems focused on the table, and when you know that the average French family spends around $300 on Christmas dinner you can be sure that the results are impressive. Se faire plaisir is the order of the day, and half the pleasure is in the planning of the feast which starts long before the big day and doesn’t end until the digestif has been passed around the table.
   In our house, too, food is important and a lot of care is lavished on Christmas dinner, traditionally served on Christmas eve. Oscar scouts recipes for weeks before choosing the menu and wines, but the one constant is Christmas breakfast when each gets his wish: an American breakfast for Oscar (bacon, eggs, sausages, pancakes and maple syrup) and a truffle omelet for me if we are lucky enough to have truffles. After a long dry summer, truffles can be scarce and expensive (about €800–€1000 per kilo) and they usually don’t reach full flavor until sometime in January.
   But before this breakfast, we go to midnight mass at the Cathedral in Aix. The choir sings beautifully, the organ music is wonderful, but the best part for me is still the ringing of the church bells when mass is over.
A beautiful, deeply sonorous ringing of every single bell in the register over the quiet, sleeping, age-old city of Aix-en-Provence. It hits me in the gut every time. We go home to dessert and champagne, wish each other Merry Christmas and wake to a late breakfast and gifts the next morning. A perfect Christmas à deux.
   A week before Christmas, a big tent is set up at the Rotonde in Aix for the next two weeks. This is where the new olive oil is introduced, where truffles are offered under the aegis of the Association of Truffle Growers (quality- and price-controlled), and where Les Treize Desserts de Provence are sold. The Thirteen Desserts are a local Christmas tradition that dates from times when people would have a light all-vegetable meal before midnight mass and then would have their dessert after church. The light meal is definitely a thing of the past, but the thirteen-part dessert (symbolizing Christ and his twelve apostles) survives. It consists of Gibassié, also called Pompe à l’Huile (a dry olive-oil and orange-zest cake to be dipped in sweet wine), black and white nougat, dried figs, raisins, nuts and almonds, white grapes, green winter melon, quince paste, dates, mandarins, and Calissons, the traditional sweets from Aix-en-Provence.
   During the Christmas season food displays are often tantalizing. Or surprising, as in the case of our butcher who has a whole suckling pig in his window with a nose-gay of fresh flowers sprouting from its rump. And the packages of fresh foie gras not only give the name and location of the farm that produced it but also a picture of the gaveur, the person who did the force-feeding. Meet the executioner! By the way, I learned that foie gras is not a French invention, since the old Romans and even the Egyptians were familiar with it. Birds would over-eat before taking off on long flights and when they were caught it was discovered that they were tastier than others, so the fatty liver became prized and the rest is history. Do you think this is a French fabulation to make you feel less guilty about eating force-fed fowl? Anyway, si non è vero è ben trovato, as the Romans say.
   Although in this season food ads predominate in magazines, the large billboards seem to favor lingerie or perfume with superbly sexy ads. Women’s bodies in every state of undress bid you hello and fare-thee-well from posters and photos. A particularly hot one is for Aubade, a lingerie brand, showing a back shot of a tight pair of fesses in the smallest hint of a bikini. Oscar still backpedals when he comes across one of those, unable to move on without one more lingering look at this Christmas treat. Another good one is a large poster of a young man leaning back on a couch with a serious, pensive look on his face, staring through two impossibly long spread legs standing in front of him on stiletto heels and ending in a pair of bare buttocks that may or may not be wearing a tanga slip—you know, the dental floss kind. The ad says: “Stop Thinking... .” I can’t remember what they’re selling but I sure remember the picture.
  Time again for our annual year-end cocktail party, which has become a popular event. Oscar prepares an ample and varied buffet, but the Virginia honey-baked ham remains a favorite among our French friends. Last year many of them left with a very un-French doggy bag once they had overcome their initial resistance to this quaint American custom. Globalization at work?