The 4th of December, Sainte-Barbe, marks the beginning of Christmas in Provence known as Calendale (from the Provençal word Calèndo meaning Christmas). This is a festive period that runs from 4th December to Chandeleur on 2nd February. Traditional Christmas celebrations last almost two months here. I don’t mean cheesy piped music in shopping centres and Santa’s grottoes or even pretty sparkly lights starting in November or earlier, I mean traditions dating back to Roman times.
So how is Ste-Barbe, the beginning of Christmas in Provence, celebrated? By planting wheat or lentils in little saucers on a bed of cotton wool. This symbolises the future harvest so if the wheat grows straight and green by the 24th, the coming year will be a prosperous one. If it flops or turns yellow things aren’t looking so good! There’s a saying in Provençal “quand lou blad vèn bèn, tout vèn bèn” when the wheat grows well, everything goes well.
Image credit here and in the pinable image below from Dans la Bulle de Manou
In the run-up to December it’s common to see little packets of wheat being sold for charity or handed out free at boulangeries. Now you know what they’re for!
True traditionalists grow 3 pots of wheat to represent the Holy Trinity. On the 24th the germinated wheat is tied up with a red ribbon and used to decorate the table for the Gros Souper on Christmas Eve. The next day it is left on the table during the main meal at lunchtime and then placed in the crèche among the santons to symbolise fields.
When my boys were much younger, back in Primary school days, they’d come out of school bearing saucers of lentil shoots on the last day of term before Christmas. I must admit I had no idea at all what they were the first time it happened, having cress sandwiches in mind rather than seasonal celebrations! Not all kids had healthy-looking shoots, but luckily for us our always survived until Christmas, theoretically bringing us good luck.
Do you have any unusual traditions relating to the start of the festive season where you are? Please share them in the comments.
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This post was originally published in December 2012 and has been updated for 2021.