What is the tradition of 13 desserts?
The 13 desserts of Christmas (les treize desserts de Noël) are a collection of treats served after the French Provencal Christmas Eve feast known as the big supper (Gros Souper) in the south of France.
These treats are very simple and rustic compared to what you might find in other regions of France during the holidays.
They typically include a selection of mixed nuts, fresh and dried fruits, simple baked treats, and sweet confections such as candied fruits and nougats.
Each guest must try all thirteen desserts accompanied by a glass of “vin cuit,” which is a sweet wine, to ensure good fortune for the whole year.
However, in my experience, some families will serve champagne or sparkling wine from their region while others will serve mulled wine (vin chaud.)
What desserts are included in the 13 desserts?
There isn’t an exact list of 13 desserts.
There are actually over 50 different choices that can be included, so the selection of sweets can vary across families and even from town to town.
These humble treats are reminiscent of what Provençal peasants who worked the land served in the Middle Ages. The kind of things that were locally grown, preserved, or could be made at home.
The first time I experienced the thirteen desserts of Christmas was when we lived in “La Garde,” in the Provence region of France, where many Christmas traditions differ from the rest of the country.
It’s the kind of tradition you can only experience by being invited to someone’s home.
I learned from my friends that, like many things, this tradition has evolved, and in recent years, many families include desserts that were not traditionally included in the 13 desserts, such as a yule log cake, fancy chocolate, spiced bread or ‘beignets.’
Some people will even include more than 13 desserts, which is fine, but there should not be less than 13.
Why are there 13 desserts?
Thirteen is symbolic and represents Christ and his 12 apostles at the Last Supper, and each dessert has its own religious symbolism.
Although these desserts are now tied to Christian symbolism, this tradition dates back to Pagan traditions linked to the winter solstice. Over time, as Christianity spread across Europe, many pagan traditions became integrated into Christmas festivities.
How to display and set the table for the 13 desserts of Provence
According to tradition, the thirteen carefully chosen desserts should be arranged on a separate table buffet style. The desserts can be placed in several dishes and spread out or on a single platter, similar to how you might style a cheeseboard.
If you want to follow the thirteen desserts tradition to a “T,” the dessert table should have three white tablecloths and three candles to represent the holy trinity.
Some families also put out three saucers of sprouted wheat germ or lentils, which should have been planted on December 4th for the feast of Saint Barbara’s to symbolize fertility and rebirth of the seasons. If the seeds have sprouted by December 24th, the coming year will be plentiful. If the seeds have rotted, then the following year will be challenging.
And finally, desserts should remain on the table until December 27th to feed the souls of deceased family members.
List of things you can include in the 13 desserts of Christmas
From Marseille and Avignon to Arles and Aix-en-Provence, although each family has their own traditions of what to include in the thirteen desserts of Christmas, there are about seven or eight must-haves that almost always make it onto the list. The remaining five desserts will vary depending on a family’s preference or what is available.
Let’s briefly review the must-haves and then launch into the full list.
Must-haves for the 13 desserts of Christmas:
- 1) Pompe a l’huile (Oil pump): a lightly sweetened olive oil bread
- 2) Black and white nougats (some count this as one, others count as two)
- 3) Dates
The 4 beggars
- 4) figs
- 5) raisins
- 6) almonds
- 7) Hazelnuts or walnuts
This brings us to about 7 desserts. However, some count the four beggars as one dessert, while others count them as four separate desserts.
- Fresh fruits from the region, such as apples, pears, oranges.
From here, each family and region will add additional desserts depending on their local specialties and traditions, candied fruits, beignets, calissons etc.
Let’s go over these must-haves mentioned above and the other optional sweets, cakes and treats that many families include in their version of the 13 Desserts.
Pompe a l’huile: A must-have slightly sweet olive oil bread.
‘Pompe à l’huile’ (oil pump) sounds like an odd name for Christmas bread, but this rustic-style bread is considered the star of the 13 desserts. Not serving it would be like having no sand in the dessert.
It’s a slightly sweet olive oil bread flavoured with fleur d’oranger (orange blossom) and sometimes anise, depending on the region. It contains no butter or eggs and the texture is like a cross between brioche and Foccacia.
Here is a pompe a l’huile’ recipe from Le Chefs wife.
Depending on the region, some will opt for “gibassier” or “fougasse” bread.
According to tradition, this bread, which symbolizes success and the Eucharist during mass, should be torn with fingers, not cut, because this is how Jesus ate his bread at the Last Supper.
The four beggars: 4 Types of nuts and dried fruit
Everyone will agree that a must-have for the thirteen desserts is the 4 beggars, “les quatre mendiants” in French.
A “mendiant” (mendicant) is someone who relies on charity and alms to survive.
The 4 beggars are 4 different dried fruits and nuts. Each represents the colour of the robes/habits for the four Roman Catholic mendicant orders during the Middle Ages. They are the Dominicans, Franciscans, Augustinians and Carmelites
- Walnuts and/or Hazelnuts: Represents the Augustinians
- Almonds: Represents fruitarmelites
- Dried Figs: Represents the order of the Franciscans.
- Raisins: Represents the Dominicains
Black and white nougat
Another dessert that almost always ends up on the table of 13 desserts is black and white nougat, which represents good and evil, but some say it’s happiness and unhappiness. These together usually count as one dessert, but some count them as two seperate.
These were commonly made at home in the past; however, these days, most people purchase their nougat from specialty stores, Christmas markets, and even supermarkets.
According to one legend, nougat was offered as a gift to Jesus by one of the Three Wise men.
- Black Nougat with honey (Nougat noir au miel): A hard dessert made with honey and whole almonds.
- White Nougat (Nougat blanc): A firm but chewy dessert made from whipped egg whites, sugar or honey, and almonds or pistachios. Sometimes, fruits are added.
Dates are an important part of the thirteen desserts because they represent the food where Christ was born and died. The three kings also brought baby Jesus dates as a gift. Some families stuff these with coloured almond paste representing Christ and the three kings.
Other optional dried fruits:
- Dried Prunes:
- Dried Apricots:
At least one fresh fruit should be included in the thirteen desserts, and each family opts for their own interpretation of fresh fruit to include depending on the region and what is available.
Some families will include a variety of fruits and count them as one, while others will count each type of fruit as one. The important thing is to have an abundance of one or a variety.
- Clementines, Tangerines, oranges
- White grapes
Green melon (Le verdaù):
Le verdaù is a green, oval-shaped cantaloupe that keeps for a very long time. For many families in Marseille, it’s considered one of the must-have for the 13 desserts. In English, it’s sometimes called a Christmas melon or Santa Claus melon.
Modern interpretations of the thirteen desserts include one exotic fruit, such as the following:
Depending on the region, families ill include various baked goods. Here are the most popular ones that make it on the dessert table.
Aix en provence regional specialty
“Calisson d’Aix” is a specialty from Aix-en-Provence that dates back to the 13th or 14th century. This diamond-shaped treat is part candy and part cookie and is made of candied fruit, such as melons and oranges, combined with ground almonds. It’s then topped with a thin layer of hard royal icing.
Les navettes (Little boats)
Marseille regional specialty
“Les navettes” are hard boat-shaped treats from Marseille that are part cookie and part bread. They are typically flavoured with orange blossom water. This was one of the first provencal treats I was introduced to when we lived in Marseille. You either love them or hate them. I personally don’t like them.
Pain D’epices (Spiced bread)
French spiced bread is often compared to gingerbread cake, but there are some differences.
While French “pain d’épice” is sweetened with honey and usually made with rye flour, gingerbread is traditionally made with white flour and sweetened with molasses. Another difference is in the
Teeth breakers (Croquants aux amandes ou casse-dents)
‘Casse dents’ or teeth breakers are similar to Italian biscotti. These French-style biscotti are flavoured with fleur d’oranger (orange blossom), filled with almonds and baked twice. They are very hard and will test the strength of your teeth, hence the nickname, teeth breaker.
Des beignets (donuts)
Every region of France has their version of ‘les beignets,’ which is essentially deep-fried dough usually covered with sugar. They are also popular around the time of Mardi Gras.
In Provence, les beignets are shaped like squares and called les Oreillettes. In Lyon, they are called les bugnes and shaped like a diamond with a hole in the middle.
Buche de Noël (Yule Log)
A modern addition
There was a time when the yule was an actual log thrown in the fireplace. These days, the Christmas Yule log is a cake or “bûche de noël” and a typical Christmas dessert throughout much of France.
However, the Yule log cake is not a typical dessert included in the thirteen desserts, but in recent years, some families include it among the thirteen desserts.
Confectionary is a French term for sweets, candies, chocolates, and other sugary treats made with lots of sugar.
Fruit jelly (Pâte de fruit):
‘Pâte de fruit’ is like a thick jam you eat. These soft and chewy treats are made by thickening fruit purée with sugar and pectin, cutting them into pieces and rolling them in sugar.
RASPBERRY, BLUEBERRY, ORANGE-PASSION FRUIT MANGO, STRAWBERRY ROSE, SOUR CHERRY
A popular fruit jelly is Quince jelly (La pâte de coing):
Loukoum is a soft confiture treat made of fruit juice and gelatin cut into cubes and dusted with sugar. These are also called Turkish paste or Turkish delight.
They are similar to fruit jellies but tend to have a softer, chewier texture.
Candied Fruit (Fruit confit):
Candied fruits are fruits that have been cooked in a sugar syrup until they are candied and preserved. They can be used in baking, such as Christmas cakes, or eaten alone as candy.
Marrons glacés (Candied Chestnuts)
Candied chestnuts are confections that are made similar to candied fruit. It consists of boiling chestnuts in a sugar syrup until absorbed and dried.
All the major grocery stores carry and sell these in boxes during the winter holidays in France. I’ll be honest: these are one of those things you have to try, and when you do, you’ll either love them or hate them.
Orangette (Candied orange peels)
Candied orange peels are a popular confectionery in France. They are made by cutting strips of orange peels, blanching them in water to remove bitterness, then simmering them in sugar syrup until the peels are infused with the sugar. Once dried, they are sometimes coated in chocolate.
Cédrat confit (Candied Cedrate or citron)
Cédrat, scientific name Citrus medica, is an heirloom fruit that looks like a lemon with a thick, bumpy rind. It’s one of the original citrus fruits that all other citrus developed. In English, it’s referred to simply as cedrate or citron, which can be confusing since ‘citron’ is the French word for lemon.
Candied almand paste (La pâte d’amande)
Not to be confused with marzipan, almond paste is sweetened ground almonds that you buy ready-made in different colours or make yourself from scratch. Almond paste has a coarser texture compared to the much softer marzipan.
Fondants are pastel-coloured sugar confectionaries of yesteryear typically made from sugar moulded into various festive shapes like snowflakes, stars, Christmas trees, or other holiday-themed designs. These nostalgic melt-in-your-mouth treats are crunchy on the outside but soft on the inside.
It’s not traditional, but some families include chocolate on their table of 13 desserts, such as
Sweet spinach tart
In the city of Carpentras near Avignon, some families opt for a sweet spinach tart.
Sweet chard and pin nuts
In the Nice region, some families opt for a sweet chard tart with pine nuts.
Some families like to include a strong
Thirteen desserts FAQs
Origins of the 13 desserts served
The tradition of the 13 desserts wasn’t formally known as 13 Desserts until December 21st, 1925 when Dr. Joseph Fallen used the term “13 desserts” in an article titled “Lou gros soupa” (The Big Supper) in a special edition of the Toulon Newspaper called “La Pignato.”
Prior to 1925, there was no specific number associated with this tradition, with the exception of the bread. The oldest written evidence of this was in 1683 by Father Francois Marchetti in “Explication des Usages et Coutumes des Marseillais“ (An Explication of Customs and Traditions of the Marseillais).
Father François never mentions serving 13 desserts. Instead, he talks about serving an abundance of cakes and dried and fresh fruit alongside one large loaf of bread. This large loaf of bread was often marked with a cross, which represented the bread of our Lord, surrounded by 12 smaller loaves, representing the twelve apostles. (see photo above.)
Today, this bread is known as “le
But this tradition of serving simple treats harvested in the countryside is much older and even resembles aspects during the celebration of the new calendar year of the Sephardic Jews “Rosh Hashanah” the Greeks of Egypt, Languedoc, in Spain and the Armenians of Marseille (with their specific pastries). (source)
Wrapping up the 13 desserts:
If you’re ever in the south of France during the Christmas season and want to try a few items on this list, you can find many of the 13 desserts of Christmas at French Christmas markets and grocery stores.
dates, apricots, pineapple, pistachios, strawberries, peaches, almonds, plums, pears, hibiscus, papaya, cranberries, apple rings, kiwi slices, filberts, cashews, golden raisins, and apricots.
You can also watch the 1990 French film ‘Le château de ma mère’ (My Mother’s Castle), which follows the story of Marcel, a young boy growing up in the countryside of Provence, France, and his adventures with his family and friends. In the movie, there is a scene of the family enjoying the 13 desserts of Christmas.