Office de tourisme et des congrès

Christmas time

  • The santons (Christmas crib figures) fair announces the first signs of Christmas
  • The 4th of December, Saint Barbara’s day, marks the beginning of Advent and the inhabitants of Provence let grains of wheat or lentils sprout in saucers;
  • Materialized by the big supper, the 24 December;
  • Appreciated with the pastorals;
  • Prolonged the 6 January with the Epiphany;
  • Ended the 2 February at Candlemas.

In Provence, Christmas is a succession of rites and costums that are perpetrated in the respect of traditions. We invite you to discover and to share these moments with us in good humour.

The santons fair
- from the last Sunday in November until 31st December
Organised by the Santon-makers' association
The santons fair constitutes one of the most dynamic and popular traditions in Marseilles. Its origins date back to the period just after the Revolution, and make it one of the oldest santon fairs in Provence.
The Marseilles tradition of the santon fair came about due to the popular enthusiasm for the celebration of the Nativity from the emergence of this typically Provencal figurine - the santon.

It brings together many of the oldest families of santon-makers, and enables people who are interested to purchase all the varieties of santons, from the rarest to the most original, as well as cribs made in the traditional way, from cardboard, cork or glued paper.
The Marseilles santons fair opens each year on the last Sunday in November and lasts until 31st December. It is inaugurated to the sound of tambourins played by folklore groups at the end of the santon-makers' mass performed in the Provencal language, in the Réformés church at the top of the Canebière.
Each santon-maker creates figurines inspired by folklore and tradition, such as the shepherd offering the lamb, a reminder of the "pastrage" tradition, and the woman with the black hen, whose broth was recommended for new-born babies.

This means that it is possible to find all the little-known trades of the last century amongst these silhouettes: the baker and his basket of "fougasses", the garlic seller, the fishwife, the farm hand carrying a lantern, the fisherman carrying his net over his shoulder, the women carrying a jug holding water freshly drawn from a well, etc.

Saint Barbara’s day
Winter festivals follow one another with a view to hurrying in the summer season. Right from the beginning of December, people are thinking about the promise of the coming harvest the frozen earth is harbouring – in keeping with the deep-rooted myth of Demeter and Kore, whose pursuit symbolises the cycle of winter and summer. On the feast of Saint Barbe, children plant wheat or lentils, barley, chickpeas, or any seed that sprouts quickly, in a saucer: providing some greenery in the cold winter days, a precursor of the spring.

This custom originated in antique times, though the date of the rite has been moved from the summer period to the heart of winter. The "gardens of Adonis, sown in the middle of summer, decorated the houses of Asia Minor, in honour of the god that represented the life force of vegetation, dried up by the heat of July, - as happens in the West where they suffer from the rigours of winter.
In Rome and Seville, glazed earthenware bowls were sold for these symbolic gardens that are part of Mediterranean folklore.

A tradition which is very much alive in Marseille : a play about the nativity, in Provençal or in French with many characters: shepherds, knife-grinders, etc.

The main pastorals are:

  • The Maurel pastoral (in Provençal)
  • The Audibert pastoral (in French)
  • The pastoral of the rue Nau group.

The programme is available from the reception desk of the Office du Tourisme et des Congrès

- From the end of December to the end of January

Candlemas at Saint Victor
The Abbey of Saint-Victor is one of Marseilles' best known monuments. Its origins go back to the 3rd century.
Marseille's first and oldest shrine, it quickly became a place of pilgrimage.
The initial basilica, which today forms the crypt, was erected by Jean Cassien in 420-430, to house and glorify the remains of tortured martyrs.
The construction of the Abbey was started in the 11th century and work on it continued up to the 14th century under the aegis of Pope Urban 5th.

The church in Marseilles has always celebrated its victories in this edifice (Victor, the Victorious!). Martyrs confessed their faith here which explains the title of Notre-Dame de la Confession des Martyrs, the name given to the Christian monument in antiquity.
Since the Middle Ages, it has housed the polychrome statue of the black virgin, a sculpture made from walnut wood. The statue still displays today the full beauty of its past colours, such as the green and gold of the tunics of the virgin and the infant Jesus.
Mary is represented as a smiling Madonna with an elegant bearing. The Infant Jesus sitting on her knees holds the world in His left hand, and His right hand is raised in a gesture of blessing.
Since the end of the 13th century, this black Virgin has been the subject of fervent popular devotion during Candlemas week.

The origins of these pilgrimages go back to Antiquity. According to Roman legend it was king Numa who reorganised the calendar by adding two months to the existing ten, thus placing February as the last month.
The word februarius (February) comes from the verb februare which means "to purify".
This is why the beginning of this month was dedicated to purifying ceremonies known as the "februales", which were held in this the last month of the Roman year, in a spirit of atonement.
To bring its concept of penance closer to this trend for pagan purification, the Church chose to baptize using green candles, a colour associated with purification since antiquity.

Green candles and "navette" biscuits for candlemas
Each year on 2nd February, the black Virgin is brought up from the crypts of Saint-Victor for a procession on the square followed by the faithful carrying green candles.
From early morning onwards, the entire neighbourhood is a hive of activity. Pilgrims make their way up from the town centre to Saint-Victor. Roughly 1500 people come to attend the first mass of the Candlemas octave in the abbey where there is not always room for everyone!

The Archbishop goes down to the crypt to bring up Notre-Dame de la Confession, in her green and gold mantle.
The blessing is given in the chapel of confession, and then the procession moves up to the higher basilica.
On Place Saint-Victor the archbishop blesses the city and the sea, and then the procession returns to the abbey.
The procession goes past the "Four des Navettes" bakery which is also blessed as are its "navettes" biscuits, in remembrance of the period when the bakery was founded and erected in the abbey grounds.
The Virgin is then brought back down to the crypt, where mass is said every hour for eight days.

After mass, it is the custom to buy a green candle and some "navettes".
In the past, during the eight days of the Candlemas period, blessed bread and a "navette" were distributed in the crypt. The "navette" was kept by the bedside together with the green candle attached near a crucifix.

Today, people queue outside the "Four des Navettes" bakery to purchase their blessed "navettes" to protect their house and its inhabitants. Between eight and ten thousand "navettes" are sold every day during Candlemas week.