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LIFESTYLE : Christmas tradition in Provence : the 13 desserts

Written by Marc Pagnier Published Dec 20, 2012 Marc Pagnier

Rédacteur en Chef des titres en anglais, français et chinois.

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Provence The French celebrate Christmas around a big supper, which lasts hours with several courses. In the region of Provence, it ends with the ritual of the 13 desserts, foods which are highly symbolic.

The ritual in Provence is to offer the 13 desserts to your guests for Christmas Eve after they have relished the long and succulent Christmas dinner. While the different items vary according to local or family tradition, the desserts always number 13, as they represent Jesus Christ and the 12 apostles. The dishes are composed of dried fruit and nuts, fresh fruit and sweets typical of Provence. Three candles light the table, on which three white tablecloths are set, as a symbol of the trinity.

 The four beggars

The first four desserts, nicknamed “the four beggars”, represent the four mendicant monastic orders. Raisins stand for the Dominicans, walnuts or hazelnuts for the Augustines, dried figs for the Franciscans and almonds for the Carmelites.

As for fresh fruit, traditionally, they are apples, pears, oranges, grapes, tangerines or winter melon.

The thirteen desserts, Christmas tradition in Provence © M. Pagnier


Traditional sweets of Provence

The 13 desserts include white and black nougat, which symbolize good and evil. The white one is soft, with pistachios and almonds, while the black one is hard and made with honey.

Other specialties are the Pompe à l’huile, a brioche flavoured with olive oil and orange flower water, the fougasse, a type of bread, or the well-known calissons d’Aix, marzipan candies with sugar icing.

The 13 desserts are a treat both for the eyes and the taste buds, and a typical example of the Mediterranean tradition of opulence found in other cultures such as the Greek or the Egyptian. As for the big Christmas supper, purists say it should be composed of 7 courses, to remember Jesus Christ’ seven wounds during the crucifixion. So goes the symbolism : bon appétit!


The list may vary according to family and local tradition

– Walnuts or hazelnuts
– Dried figs
– Almonds and nuts
– Apples and pears
– Candied fruit such as citrons
– Quince paste
– White and black nougat
– Fougasse
– Pompe à l’huile
– Fried bugnes
– Cumin and fennel seed biscuits
– Calissons d’Aix

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