Although Christmas, in the Christian tradition, is a celebration of the birth of Christ, the thirteen desserts which are always present in Provencal households on Christmas Eve represent Christ and the Twelve apostles at the Last Supper. These desserts are all set out on Christmas Eve after “le réveillon” (long festive supper) and left out for three days, until December 27th. As guests and family walk by they are free to nibble on various fruit and other goodies whenever they want but, on Christmas Eve, everyone must take a taste of all the desserts, each of which has a specific meaning either in connection to the Christian religion or to regional specialties that have long been popular in Provence.
Nuts symbolize the “four beggars,” a term for the four monastic branches of the church. Walnuts or hazelnuts represent the Augustinian monks, almonds represent the Carmelites, raisins the Dominicans and dry figs the Franciscans.
There is almost always a “fougasse” (a traditional olive oil flatbread) which is to be broken with the fingers (not a knife) in order to avoid bankruptcy in the coming year.
White and black nougat represent good and evil and are usually made with various nuts and caramelized honey.
The other six desserts may vary from household to household or between different Provencal locations but they always include some platter of various fruits such as oranges (for wealth), apples, pears and grapes as well as some type of marzipan or “calissons” (which were created in Aix-en-Provence sometime in the thirteenth century). Fried “bugnes” (a little like donuts) and pain d’épice (gingerbread) are also popular.
And, finally, a “bûche de noël” (a cake that has been designed and decorated to represent a log) is often the festive crown of the traditional thirteen Provencal desserts.
If you’re visiting Provence during the winter holidays and don’t have an invitation to celebrate Christmas in someone’s family home, don’t worry, there are plenty of opportunities to savour many of these delights in the Christmas markets and restaurants that you will find in most of the villages in Provence.