Christmas Eve brings the whole family together around the fireplace and traditionally starts with the ancestral ceremony of "cacho-fio". Meaning literally "to set fire", it involves the youngest and oldest members of the household jointly placing a log from a fruit tree in the fireplace, where it will burn until dawn.
After carrying it around the table three times, mulled wine is sprinkled onto the beautiful cherry, olive or almond log and it is placed in the hot embers. As the flames leap, the father of the family utters a short blessing in tribute to the new year that is just around the corner.
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A symbolic meal
Before setting off to church for midnight mass, "cacho-fio" is followed by a meal steeped in symbolism: "le gros souper" (big supper). The layout of the table reflects the importance of this meal for the people of Provence. To represent the Holy Trinity, the family table is set with three white tablecloths garnished with three candlesticks which symbolise past, present and future.
Light yet wonderfully varied, the "gros souper" dinner consists of seven courses symbolising the sorrows of the Virgin Mary. Regional ingredients feature strongly, particularly vegetables with Southern flavour such as chard and celery as well as gently stewed fish.
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A frugal dessert
Mass is followed by a feast of thirteen desserts laid out on the table in memory of Jesus Christ and his apostles at the Last Supper. Dry, crystallized and fresh fruits, nougat, dates and "fougasses" (flat breads) cater to those with a sweet tooth. An abundance of sweet treats which these days feature new dishes, according to each individual's preferences and customs.
Leaving the table also involves a rather unusual ritual. The rule: nothing is cleared away! It's advisable to turn up the four corners of the first cloth on the table to cover the food while still allowing the deceased to come and dine during the night. These are just some of the traditions which have made Christmas celebrations in Provence famous the world over.
© José Nicolas