Feel the holiday magic of Provençal Christmas celebrations
The cities of Provence transform every December as they set up markets, hang lights, and prepare delicious regional specialties in preparation for the Christmas season, called Calendale. Holiday cheer and intimate markets can be found in Provence in the South of France throughout the season. From Lyon to Avignon, these make-shift villages, called “Marchés de Noël,” are full of charm and character. Visit the sparkling Provençal cities and towns and learn about rich Christmas traditions along the Rhône River on our new Colors of Provence (Christmas) Cruise itinerary.
Magical Provençal Christmas Markets
Stepping into the Christmas Markets of Provence, you can’t help but take in the smells of mulled wine, spices, and pine. The markets are a shopper's delight. Whether you are looking to treat yourself or a loved one, villages like St. Rémy and Carpentras are the perfect spot to find a gift. Local artisans line the streets and Père Noël, or Santa Claus, is never hard to find.
If you get hungry as you shop, no worries – food is never far! Merchants are happy to offer a taste of the region’s specialties: cheeses, cinnamon cakes, and gingerbread are aplenty. Many vendors are prepared with everything you need to set up for the traditional Provençal Christmas Eve dinner and thirteen desserts.
Why Thirteen Desserts?
During the Gros Souper (the Big Supper) on Christmas Eve, families set up a table with three white tablecloths and three white candles – representing the holy trinity. The meal is held before midnight mass and consists of six courses, traditionally fish and vegetarian dishes. After returning from mass, it is time for the famous thirteen desserts. Representing Jesus and the 12 disciples, these treats fall into four categories: dried fruit and nuts, candied fruit, fresh fruit, and pastries.
You will likely see calissons (white almond-shaped candies made of candied fruit, almond flour, and fondant) among these desserts. A Provençal specialty, calissons can be found in most patisserie windows and market stands. In St. Rémy’s small-town market, stretches of the Christmas Market specialize in the Gros Souper and thirteen desserts, providing everything locals need for their Christmas Eve meals. Taste regional sweets from some of the country’s best dessert specialists for yourself during your St. Rémy Christmas Markets excursion.
A Collection of Little Saints
Building your crèche, a crib or nativity, is a must for the people of Provence. In addition to the traditional biblical figures, crèches are filled with santons, or “little saints.” Originating from the Alpilles region, these tiny terracotta figurines are made to represent the nativity characters and professions, such as bakers, shepherds, and tailors. In 1793, during the French Revolution, nativity scenes and other holiday traditions were banned as an attack on the Church. Craftsmen sculpted the Holy Family in miniature and smuggled the figurines to the villagers so that they could celebrate in secret.
Every year locals buy new santons to add to their crèches from their Christmas Market. These petite figures are popular collectibles and make for a perfect souvenir. During your included Carpentras Christmas Markets excursion, visit the city’s famously intricate crèche and get a santon for yourself at the festive local Christmas Market!
The Cake of Kings
The galette des rois, or the Three King’s cake, is eaten throughout France to celebrate the arrival of the Three Wise Men in Bethlehem. The delightful puff pastry cake filled with almond cream holds a tiny surprise. Great care must be taken as you eat this dessert because hidden inside is a fève (bean) or santon. Whoever gets the slice of cake that holds it is crowned as the king or queen. In Provence, the galette des rois comes in the form of a crown-shaped brioche, decorated with candied fruits and pearl sugar.
The Festival of Lights
(December 8-11, 2022)
Every year, Lyon lights up for four nights. The renowned Fêtes des Lumières (Festival of Lights) draws millions of people to the city in order to watch as the buildings, streets, and river banks come to life with light. If your cruise overlaps with this astonishing festival, watch the dreamlike projections of colorful images and videos while your ship is docked in Lyon on select sailings during the event.
With delicious cuisine, enchanting traditions, and festive markets, Provence certainly knows how to celebrate the Christmas season. Cruise through the South of France to experience these local delights for yourself!