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

– From the end of December to the end of January –

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.

Pastorals

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.