©Vieux Port, Noël 2019, Marseille

Marseille's end of the year festivities

Ho ho ho, Christmas is just around the corner, and with it our Provencal and Marseille’s traditions for the month of December! Come and join us for a typically sunny end-of-year celebration in Marseille.

When wheat rhymes with wealth

It all starts here on December 4th, when every self-respecting inhabitant of Marseille plants the wheat for Saint Barbara’s Day (the patron saint of firefighters).

What’s that all about? In days gone by, if the wheat grew well, the harvest would be plentiful and wealth assured. Even today, tradition dictates that wheat should be planted in a dish to ensure that our finances are prolific throughout the year!

For beginners, here’s a special “planting wheat on Saint Barbara’s Day” tutorial: Place some cotton wool in a ramekin, lying flat over the entire surface. Sprinkle it with a little water and spread the wheat on top. Water regularly, without drowning it, so that it germinates. An ideal and easy activity to do with children!

Treat yourself to some Santons!

While you’re waiting for your wheat to grow, take a trip to the Santons fair in the Vieux-Port. A multitude of stalls offer visitors their little painted clay figures that will be used in the nativity scene.

In principle, you should remain faithful to your santon-maker so that the whole nativity scene is harmonious, the originality lies in the decoration, the stable, the mountains, the perspective, the fountains, the streams…

As a family, we gather moss, branches, berries, pebbles – everything that will make up the decoration, which we place on a sideboard or table in the living room so that everyone can admire it on Christmas Eve.

In the traditional Provencal nativity scene, you’ll find at least the Holy Family (Mary, Joseph and Jesus), the donkey and the ox who warm the little Jesus, even though it’s not that cold in Provence, and the shepherds and their sheep, Then there are all the little Provençal trades (the grinder, the garlic merchant, the soap merchant, the fishmonger, the fisherman, the hunter…) and the characters from the pastorale (a play re-enacting the nativity in Provence), the angel, the blind man and his son, Jourdan and Margarido, Pistachié and the boumian (the gypsy), who are usually hidden behind a well or a house. And for a touch of modernity this year, you can even treat yourself to Professor Raoult!

Time to eat!

Your wheat has grown, the nativity scene is decorated, now it’s time to eat.

There are 3 white tablecloths, 3 bowls of wheat and 3 candles, all representing the Trinity. Before you sit down to eat, don’t forget the ceremony of the “cachio-fio”, the log, which today is symbolised by the dessert served at Christmas. A log will be thrown on the fire with a glass of cooked wine, and we’ll say “next year, if we’re not more, let’s not be less…”.

And off we go, the dinner can begin, here it’s called the Gros Souper (big supper), with 7 courses: soup, aigo boulido (boiled water flavoured with thyme or laurel), snails, cod, vegetables, curly salad and goat’s cheese… and 13 desserts! But you’ll have to wait until after midnight mass to taste them. The number 13 stands for Christ and his apostles, who bring a touch of sweetness to this Big Supper.

On the 25th, lunch is again a family affair, this time consisting of meat, often roast game, and the 13 desserts that will remain on the table for 3 days.

Festivities to get the year off to a good start

As soon as we’ve had our Christmas meal, it’s time to get ready for Epiphany! On 6 January, the 3 Wise Men from the East will be added to the nativity scene, and we’ll eat the Kings’ Cake (not the galette), a brioche crown decorated with green and red candied fruits. The youngest child slides under the table and says “for whom? for granny, for uncle…” and whoever finds the bean or the subject will be the queen or the king, and will have to wear his or her crown proudly. King’s cake is eaten throughout January.

Then February comes around, and Christmas ends with Candlemas, a time of purification. The procession of worshippers holding a green candle, with the Black Madonna, leaves from the Vieux-Port to Saint-Victor Abbey, where mass is held in the crypts and the archbishop blesses the Four des navettes. The navette is a dry biscuit scented with orange blossom, shaped like the boat that brought the saints to the shores of the Mediterranean a long time ago.

The santons return to their boxes, the wheat has wilted and the 13 desserts have all been eaten… the magic of Christmas is over, but we’ll be back again next year!