Christmas in Provence past used to be a magically festive affair, with plenty of Christian symbolism and typically with huge amounts of effort made by the family. These days however (as recent enquiries amongst local friends have revealed) preferences and tastes have changed. The Provençale now enjoy a variety of Christmas dishes from seafood, including oysters, foie gras and turkey, none of which seem to resemble the traditional “gros souper” served up in the olden days.
The Christmas table used to be laid in a beautiful manner, with 3 white tablecloths (one on top of the other, representing purity), 3 chandeliers for lots of light and 3 plates with sprouted wheat and a twig of hops representing nature’s renewal.
The traditional Christmas supper is held on the evening of the 24th of December, and there are seven different dishes served. The dishes are not very rich or expensive and they were usually based on fish or snails, with winter vegetables, such as spinach. The table (and you better had a big one) was decorated with 13 deserts that were eaten after you came home hungry from midnight mass.
The significance of thirteen represented, naturally, Jesus and his twelve disciples. Central to the table would be the famous “pompe a l’huile”, a brioche flavoured with orange flowers and olive oil, alongside white and black nougats, dates, fruit pastes, and seasonal fruit -all of which made for a beautifully decorated table that people would return to over the next few days. Lunch on the 25th would usually be meat based and, rather like today, leftovers would often last for several days.
How special must it have been to sit down at that luminous and laden Christmas table, especially when you consider that people generally had very simple meals throughout the year and were certainly not used to having the amazing variety of food that we now have on tap. Not that I would really like to accept the hardships of rural life in days gone by, but the moment when Christmas had finally arrived must have been pretty unique.