The big supper & 13 desserts of Christmas: French provençal traditions explained

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The big supper? 13 Desserts of Christmas? These are the names of two French Provençal Christmas meal traditions celebrated differently than the rest of France with a strict set of rules and a lot of religious symbolism.

Christmas is celebrated a little differently in Provence and the south of France

Our cat got to wear the king cake crown

If there’s one thing I’ve learned after living in France for over a decade, it’s that France is rich in traditions, especially during the holiday season.

Many French holiday traditions are well known and widely celebrated throughout France, such as eating King cake for Epiphany on January 6th or crepes for Candlemas on February 2nd .

But I think what surprised me the most when I first moved to the Provence region of France was that the French Christmas traditions which I thought I knew were sometimes completely different than the rest of France.

Take, for instance, Christmas in the south of France.

The 4th of December, la Sainte-Barbe day; marks the beginning of Calendale (the Christmas season) and ends on February 2nd, La Chandeleur. It’s the day to put up the Christmas tree and bring out the nativity scene. Other regions put up their nativity scene on different days which can be anywhere from December 1st, the beginning of advent or on Saint Nicholas day. 

Santon village
A French Provençal nativity scenes with village and villagers walking towards baby Jesus

Another regional difference is what a French provençal nativity scene looks like. Unlike traditional nativity scenes which only represent the birth of Christ, in Marseille and Provence, Nativity scenes are a mix of religion and everyday Provençal village life, its inhabitants, and traditional trades of the 18th century such as a truffle picker or Boulanger. 

But the regional Christmas tradition I want to talk about in-depth is the Provençal Christmas eve meal tradition which is very different than what some might imagine. At least, that’s what I thought when I first moved to a small town in Provence where I lived with my family for many years. 

You might be interested in reading about French Christmas Food in France: Nearly 30-holiday dinner ideas

The Christmas Eve Meal Tradition in Provence

13 desserts of Christmas in Provence

While most regions of France are enjoying their decadent Christmas eve meal with Foie gras and Turkey, called Le repas du réveillon de Noël, some French provençal families are eating a different kind of meal called le gros souper (the big supper).

Réveillon comes from the French verb Reveiller (to wake) because traditionally, you have to stay awake very late to eat the meal before going to midnight mass.

Le Gros Souper: The big supper & 13 desserts of Christmas

There’s no turkey or red meat at the big supper served in Provence on December 24th.

And there’s not one dessert, but 13 desserts called Les Treize Desserts de Noël (the 13 desserts of Christmas). 

The number 13 represents Christ and his 12 apostles at the last supper, and each dessert also has a symbolic religious meaning. 

The big supper consists of precisely 7 meatless dishes of fish and vegetables in memory of the Seven Sorrows of the Blessed Virgin Mary.

All the dishes are placed on the table at once at the start of the meal. Yes, I know what you’re thinking fish, meatless? Even though fish is technically flesh, some religions don’t consider fish meat.

If the family is not participating in the midnight mass, everyone eats the 13 desserts immediately after the big supper, along with some vin cuit (a fortified wine). However, if the family is attending the midnight mass, it’s customary to wait until after you return home from mass to eat the 13 desserts. 

The 13 desserts are simple, not decadent cakes. Think nuts, candied fruits and some simple pastries.

At the end of this long meal, the desserts are not cleared. They are left on the table for three days until December 27th to feed the souls of deceased family members. 

Setting the table properly is an important part of the French Provencal Christmas tradition.

example of 13 dessert table setting
Table setting of 13 Desserts from macigaleestfantastique

Part of the 13 desserts of Christmas tradition is to set the table with 3 white table cloths layered one on top of the other to represent the holy trinity: the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Then 3 candles or 3 candelabras are placed on the table. 

The table is also decorated with 3 sprouted lentils or wheat plants which should have been planted on Sainte-Barbe day, on December 4th. This is the day that officially marks the beginning of the Christmas season in Marseille and Provence.  If the seeds have sprouted by December 24, the coming year will be plentiful. If the seeds have rotted then the following year will be a difficult one. 

3 pots of germinated wheat grass or lentils are placed on the table for the 13 desserts of Christmas

And finally, some families put an extra place setting on the table in case someone arrives, “the poor man’s place.” 

What’s Served During The Big Supper

Like most households, Christmas dishes will vary by family and even region but a popular dish to serve at the top of the French Provenal Christmas eve big supper meal is a garlic soup called “L’aïgo boulido.”

L’aïgo boulido

Aïgo boulido: Provancal garlic soup for Christmas meal

L’aïgo boulido is the French provencal word for boiled water, and it’s made with garlic, thyme, and sage served with slices of bread rubbed with garlic and a little olive oil.

The 6 other savoury fish and vegetable dishes will vary by family and region, but cod usually figures into at least one of the dishes.

Here are some examples of provençal dishes that might be served during the big supper meal on Christmas eve in Provence.

Bouillabaise: one of the traditional dishes of the south that can be eaten for le gros super on Christmas Eve

  • Cod in raïto: Raito is a provençale tomate sauce.
  • Cod Gratin:
  • Eel à la matelote: Matelote is a stew usually made with fish, onions and wine sauce.
  • Octopus Stew:
  • Escargot: Snails
  • Bouillabaisse: A Provençal and Mediterranean fish soup with a tomato base (pictured above.)
  • Seasoned vegetables
  • Potatoes
  • Brandade de morue: A potato and cod dish mash or purée. 
  • Spinach
  • Artichoke
  • Cardoons: A thistle-like vegetable that looks like celery
  • Celery Anchoïade: Anchovy and celery spread. Anchoïade is extremely popular in Provence and usually figures into most home apero parties.
  • Lou saussoun (poor man in provencal language): an elongated piece of bread. 
  • Garlic Confit in olive oil

LIST OF THE 13 DESSERTS OF CHRISTMAS IN PROVENCE

While most of France might not be familiar with the provencal big supper tradition of serving 7 meatless dishes, the 13 desserts of Christmas are well known, at least in name. However, the symbolic meaning of the 13 desserts is probably not as well known.

It’s called 13 desserts of Christmas because that’s the number of desserts you should place on the table. It’s difficult to make an exact list of the 13 deserts because there are actually many more than 13 to choose from and limitless variations that vary by region and family. 

Even so, certain deserts should always be included; the rest can be mixed and matched from four basic categories. dried fruits and nuts, candied fruit, fresh fruit and pastry.

Must-Have: A sweet olive Oil bread

1) Pompe à l’huile

Marseille and south of France 13 desserts
Photo from marseille-tourisme.com

Pompe à l’huile (oil pump) is the star of the 13 desserts of Christmas and what most consider an essential part of the Provençal Christmas eve tradition.

It’s a sweet olive oil bread flavoured with fleur d’oranger (orange blossom) and sometimes anise, depending on the region. It contains no eggs or butter, and the texture is like a cross between brioche and Foccacia.

Pompe à l’huile used to come from the olive oil mills that the Provencal people used. At the end of the olive oil-making process, locals threw flour in the bottom of the mills, which would “Pompe” or suck up the residual oil. This wet olive oil-soaked flour was then used to create this dessert bread that’s become a Provencal Christmas tradition. 

Some areas refer to this bread as gibassier or fougasse. Fougasse is normally salty and savoury in France, but here it should be sweet and made with olive oil. 

one of the 13 desserts of Provence: pompe a l'huile or Fougasse made with olive oil bread

  • Symbolizes success and the Eucharist during mass
  • How to eat: According to tradition, the bread should be torn with fingers, not cut, because this is the way Jesus ate his bread at the last supper. Otherwise, you’ll have financial ruin the following year. 

Must-Have: The four beggars: 4 Types of nuts and dried Fruit 

Another dessert that is almost always included as part of the 13 deserts of Christmas is the 4 beggars (les pachichòis) in Occitan or “les quatre mendiants in French.”

A Mendiant is someone who relies on alms to survive (money, food, or other material goods donated to people living in poverty).

 The 4 beggers are 4 different dried fruits and nuts. Each represents the colour of the robes for the four Roman Catholic mendicant orders during the middle ages. They are the Dominicans, Franciscans, Augustinians and Carmelites. 

4 Mendiants ( The four beggars) 

2) Walnuts and Hazelnuts: 

Represents the Augustinians

13 Desserts
Hazelnuts: Raw, Unsalted, Steam Pasteurized
$24.95 ($0.78 / Ounce)


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12/08/2022 06:20 pm GMT

3) Raisins

Represents the Dominicains

13 Desserts
Seedless Golden Raisins
$14.99 ($7.50 / lb)


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12/08/2022 08:30 pm GMT

4) Almonds

Represents the Carmelites

13 Desserts
Almonds
$24.79 ($0.52 / Ounce)


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5) Dried Figs:

Represents the order of the Franciscans. 

13 Desserts
Dried Figs
$17.99 ($9.00 / lb)


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Must-Have: Two Kinds of Nougats

Black and white nougat represent good and evil, but some say it’s happiness and unhappiness.  These can count as two separate desserts, but some count them as one.

6) Black Nougat with honey (Nougat noir au miel)

This is a hard dessert made with honey and whole almonds. Many people make this at home. 

Black Nougat Bar from Provence, 125g
$12.90 ($3.36 / Ounce)


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7) White Nougat (Nougat blanc)

 White nougat is a firm but chewy dessert made from whipped egg whites, sugar or honey, and almonds or pistachios. Sometimes fruits are added.

White Nougat from Montelimar, 160g
$14.90 ($2.39 / Ounce)


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Dried Fruits

Dates

Dates are important because they represent the food where Christ was born and died. Some families stuff these with marzipan (coloured almond paste), representing Christ and the three kings. 

Dried Dates: pitted
$29.99 ($6.00 / lb)


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Prunes

13 desserts of Christmas: dried prunes

Dried Apricots

Fresh fruit

clementine

Fruit usually counts as one of the 13 deserts, no matter how many fruits you put out. Each family opts for their own interpretation depending on the region and what is available. 

  • Pears
  • Apples
  • Clementines, Tangerines
  • Grapes
  • Gree melon
  • Exotic fruits such as kiwis, pineapple, mango, or Lychee

Candied Fruits

Quince made into fruit jelly or fruit paste: (La pâte de coing)

13 Desserts
Quince Jelly, 14 oz
$13.95 ($1.00 / Ounce)


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Loukoum

Loukoum, is a soft confiserie made of fruit juice and gelatin cut into cubes and dusted with sugar. These are also called Turkish paste or Turkish delight.

13 Desserts
Loukoum Christmas Dessert
$27.79 ($0.79 / Ounce)


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Fruit jelly (Pâte de fruit)

Pâte de fruit means fruit paste in English and the best way to describe them is that they are like a thick jam that you eat like candy. They’re made by thickening fruit purees with sugar and pectin. They’re then cut into pieces, usually small squares and rolled in sugar. 

French Pâte De Fruit (fruit jellies) 5 Flavors 300g

 RASPBERRY, BLUEBERRY, ORANGE-PASSION FRUIT MANGO, STRAWBERRY ROSE, SOUR CHERRY

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13 Desserts

Candied Fruit (Fruit confit)

fruit confit

Candied fruit is glazed with sugar and is often used to decorate cakes. Remember the little dried fruits inside of Christmas cakes? This is what’s inside of them only this tastes much better. Fruit confit can also be eaten on its own, as candy or in this case as one of the 13 desserts.

Pâte de fruit is soft, chewy and has an almost creamy texture. They’re very popular in France, especially around the holidays.

Ground almonds (De la pâte d’amande)

Pâte d’amande, aka marzipan, is sweetened ground almonds that often come in different colours. 

13 Desserts
Marzipan Assorted Fruit, 8 Ounce
$11.95 ($1.49 / Ounce)


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Marrons glacés (Candied Chestnuts)

Candied chestnuts are confections from northern Italy and southern France consisting of a chestnut candied in sugar syrup. Around Christmas time, all the major stores carry boxes of these. 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. 

Pastries

Calissons d’Aix

Near Aix-en-Provence, many families will add a diamond-shaped pastry called “les Calisson d’Aix.” It’s a well-known specialty of the region that dates back to the 13th century. It’s made from candied melon and ground almonds (marzipan) topped with a hard icing.

Les navettes:

Navette de Marseille

Les navettes are a celebrated Marseille specialty. These hard treats are part cookie part bread and shaped a bit like a boat. You either love them or hate them. I personally don’t like them. 

Pain D’epices

Pain d'épice

Provence loves its “pain d’épice” or spiced bread which is similar to gingerbread cake but without the ginger. It’s common in all the Christmas markets and often makes its way onto the selection of 13 desserts.

Teeth breakers (Croquants aux amandes ou casse-dents)

casse-dents-croquants

Casse dents are similar to Italian biscotti. They’re 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. 

Buche de Noël (Yule Log)

Bûche de Noël (Yule Log Cake)

The Christmas Yule log cake or “bûche de noël” is a common dessert Christmas desert through France. Although not considered a traditional selection for the 13 desserts, some families do include it. 

Des beignets (donuts)

Every region of France has their version of les beignets which is essentially deep-fried dough usually covered with sugar. These 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. 

Oreillettes: Provencal beignet (donut)
Oreillettes: Provencal beignet (donut)
Bugnes Beignet from Lyon Region: Carnival donut also eaten at Christmas time
Bugnes Beignet from Lyon Region: Carnival donut also eaten at Christmas time

Cheese

Cachat Piquant

spicy marinated goat cheese olive oil

This is France and sometimes cheese is eaten as part of the dessert course. Some families like to include a goat cheese (chèvre) marinated in spicy olive oil of peppers, herbs and spices

Recap

Although the 13 desserts and the gros souper (big supper) are a French provencal Christmas eve tradition, not everyone in the south celebrates this way. Some families opt for a traditional turkey or goose meal with just one dessert.

Some will strictly follow these provencal traditions while others might break the rules and make them their own. For instance, one of my French friends only eats the pompe a l’huile during Christmas time and ignores the other of the 13 desserts. 

If you’re ever in the south of France during the Christmas season and want to give a few of the items on this list a try, many are available at French Christmas markets in France and in packages in grocery stores. 

XL 18 Variety Nut & Dried Fruit Christmas Holiday Gift Basket
$49.99

dates, apricots, pineapple, pistachios, strawberries, peaches, almonds, plums, pears, hibiscus, papaya, cranberries, apple rings, kiwi slices, filberts, cashews, golden raisins, and apricots.

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12/09/2022 04:55 am GMT
Photo of Annie André: www.AnnieAndre.com

Annie André

About the author 

I'm Annie André, a bilingual North American with Thai and French Canadian roots. I've lived in France since 2011. When I'm not eating cheese, drinking wine or hanging out with my husband and children, I write articles on my personal blog annieandre.com for intellectually curious people interested in all things France: Life in France, travel to France, French culture, French language, travel and more.

 

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