December 4th – the Feast of St Barbe is the beginning of the “Calendales” as the Christmas Season is known in Provence. This year on Saturday Dec 7th – the Fire fighters of Sablet invite all the residents of the village as well as any visitors who wish to join in, to a celebration of this beginning of the Season’s festivities. Starting at 6.30pm in the Church of St. Nazaire (next door to our home – Maison des Pelerins) in Sablet with a Benediction – a Candlelight Procession down to the village followed by a Reception. What fun … and well worth a visit if you are in this part of Provence at the time!
Every year on this day, families throughout the region follow this time honored feast day tradition which involves the growing of wheat – in a tradition that apparently began during Roman times in Provence. St Barbara, the daughter of a wealthy Pagan nobleman – Dioscorus – disobeyed her father by turning to the Christian faith, despite his strongest efforts to shield her from its teachings. When she refused to denounce Christianity, she was thrown into prison and tortured daily, but her continued refusals only aggravated her father, to the point where led her out of town and executed her with his own sword. On his way back home, he was struck by a lightening bolt and instantly killed. Saint Barbara has since been known for her with fidelity. It was also believed that the lightening bolt which struck Dioscorus was sent to avenge his killing of his daughter, so she became the patron saint who protected against dangerous storms, lightening, explosions and sudden death. The Provencaux commemorate St. Barbara each year by the sowing of the wheat (the wheat of hope), which forms a carpet for their Christmas creche.
The Christmas Creche is a very big part of the seasonal tradition in Provence. During this time, local stores – bakeries, butchers, pharmacies and banks sell packets of wheat seeds for charity. Known as le Blé de l’Esperénce (wheat of hope), or ble de la Sainte Barbe (St. Barbara’s wheat) – during the time from the feast of St. Barbe many shop windows will display small saucers of sprouting wheat seeds on their counters and in their windows.
In a shop window in Carpentras – a bowl of vibrant, healthy St. Barbe’s wheat hopefully foretells a good year for the owners of the shop!
As legend has it, Christ was born in Provence and the crèches depict scenes of the village at the time of his birth. The beginning of the family crèche takes place on St. Barbe’s feast day, when families place take three small saucers lined with damp cotton wool “carpets” and “plant” wheat or lentil seeds on all three saucers which are placed on a window sill.
Christmas traditions of Provence – Saint Barbe’s Wheat
The growth of the wheat signifies fertility and fraternity as the cotton gives up the moisture to the seeds which sprout, and with the help of the sunlight, they grow and develop. During the ensuing 20 days, the seeds are diligently watered and cared for. Hopefully, the sprouts will grow into tall, straight stems of bright green wheat or lentil grass. If it does, it is said that the following year will being about a bountiful harvest. The saying goes, “Quand le blé va bien, tout vient.” “When the wheat goes well, everything goes (works, goes well)”. If the wheat does not sprout or is meagre, better start saving now !
On Christmas Eve, the saucers – ribbons decorating the (hopefully) lush, tall grass will be placed in the créche to represent the fields that surrounded the manger where Jesus was born.
The Blé de St. Barbe or St. Barbara’s wheat, plays it’s very important part in the Christmas créche and then goes on to serve as inpspiration for the new season’s crops. The sprouts are commonly planted out at the four corners of the real fields of crops or burned and the ashes sprinkled over the four corners of the fields to ensure a good harvest for the coming season, while in some parts of Provence the ashes of St. Barbara’s wheat is kept in the house and thrown in the fire during thunderstorms to protect against lightening.
After the feast of St. Barbe …….. families will go on with preparations which will culminate in the Christmas Eve Gros Super and the Christmas Day festivities, followed by St.Sylvestre (New Year’s Eve) and then la Fête des Rois – the festival of the Three Kings or the Epiphany.
Lots of fun to follow with the Christmas traditions of Provence.