Christmas In Provence

It’s December, 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 4, la 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, 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. After a mass said in Provençal, Aix-en-Provence then opens its Marché des Santons. 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 this year when he introduced the likeness of actor Gérard Depardieu and fashion designer Christian Lacroix (who hails from Arles) among his santons. The art of santon making dates from the 19th century and has been practiced by certain families for generations. Clearly, “novelties” are not appreciated. These traditions 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 many Christmas cards. Rather, all creativity seems focused on the table and when you know that the AVERAGE French family spends nearly $200 on Christmas dinner you can be sure that the results are impressive. In our house, too, food is important and a lot of care is lavished on Christmas dinner. 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. Due to the long hot summer, truffles are scarce this year and expensive (800-1000 euros per kilo) and they won’t reach full flavor until January. So perhaps we’ll wait. During this 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 nosegay 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 overeat 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 (old Roman expression). Next week, the big tent will open at the Rotonde in Aix. This is where the new olive oil is introduced, where truffles are offered under the aegis of the Association of Truffle Growers (quality-controlled, and everyone sells at the same price), 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 mass. The light meal is definitely a thing of the past, but the 13-part dessert (symbolizing Christ and his 12 apostles) survives. It consists of Gibassié (a dry ginger cake to be dipped in sweet wine), black and white nougat, dried figs, raisins, nuts and almonds, white grapes, green melon, quince paste, dates, mandarins, and Calissons, the traditional sweets from Aix. Although food ads predominate in magazines, 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 lusciousness. Another good one is a large poster of a guy 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 tonga 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 cocktail party, which has become a popular event. Oscar prepares an ample buffet, but the Virginia honey-baked ham remains the favorite among our French friends. Last year many of them left with a very un-French doggy bag. I guess we have arrived. Merry Christmas … Bon Appétit! — Anne-Marie Simons has worked as a translator, teacher, journalist, sportswriter (covering Formula One races) and director of corporate communications.  Now happily…
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