When living in the South France, I participated in an association to preserve the traditional dances, songs, language and customs of the Provence. There, I found a small treasure crest for the Winter Solstice, easily integrated into Pagan practice. I would like to share these customs with you, hint at some parallels to other customs and inspire you to include some of these practices into your own.
The Provence is a cultural very rich region: Inhabited by the Ligures and Celts, Hellenized, re-invaded by Celts, Romanized and invaded by multiple German tribes: Merovingians, Carolingians and finally Franks. As an additional curiosity, the first cabbalistic manuscript, the Sefer ha-Bahir, has been first published in the Provence. In this environment many customs of unknown old provenance have emerged who are now in modern time at the verge of disappearing. This article covers the customs of the “Calendale”, the Solstice tide. (Find the German Version of this article here)
The celebration time around the solstice is called “la Calendal” in the Provence. It begins on December 4th and lasts until Candlemass on February 2nd. Calendale clearly comes from the Roman calendae, the first day of the month.
4th December – Lou Blad – The Wheat - The Day of the Fertile Weather Goddess
It is custom to line three bowls with wet cotton and let wheat sprout upon it. This is called the "Lou blad" (the wheat). If the seeds sprout straight and green, it will be a fruitful year. As the first sprouts of seeds are seen, a ribbon is tied three times around the bowl. Traditionally the bowls are white and the ribbon red. Later these bowls are used for decorating the table on Christmas. After Christmas the wheat should be buried in the garden to protect the house against lightning.
In some Catholic parts this is the day of Saint Barbara, a not assured Christian saint. Arab-Christians celebrate her feast with seeds and include some customs which recall Halloween. This is paralleled in German Oberallgäu where women dress as old hags, give nuts to children but as well canings. A parallel can be drawn to the rites of Bona Dea in Rome, celebrated the same day and the myth of this Goddess includes a rod too. In German folklore this day is connected to Holle a Figure related to weather, abundance and fertility. In Germany and Switzerland rods of fruit trees are brought into the houses so they may bloom by solstice. The Jews include from here on until Pessach bidding for a rain blessing in their prayers.
We can assume that the customs of this day have been originally connected with a weather governing fertility across many cultures.
It is easy making the three bowls, but you should remember keeping some grain (maybe three ears of grain?) from Lughnasadh, as the Provence is the only place I know where you can actually buy some in December. For divination you could connect the wheat to your achievements in work and attach a symbol of your work to the ribbons. As a prayer for fertile blessing you could bring in the rods (forsythia, apple and cherry tree are often used) and hang in symbols of the area you wish to receive that “fertile rain” in.
La Crèche et les Santons – the solstice Lararium
La crèche is the Nativity scene of the Christian Jesus representing his birth with little figures. In Provence the crib tradition takes a very important role. Starting with the 4th December it is built with great care and attention in a special place. The Provencal crib knows so-called "Santon" (little saint). But far from representing actual Christian Saints, the Santon represent the trades, important figures from the village life and characters from Provencal narrative tradition. Usually the crèche shows a Provencal village that has heard of the birth of Jesus and goes to see him. Many cribs are associated with a family tradition, the trade of the parents holding a special place and this tradition is passed on to the children. Others play in several stages according to the Christian Christmas story. Only after the midnight mass in the night of the 24th December the Baby Jesus is placed in its crib, and only on the 6th January the three kings are placed in the crèche as well (though sometimes they can be seen from afar).
Although Francis of Assisi is often cited as the inventor, figurative representations of the infant Jesus are already seen in early Christianity. In my opinion it is a high possibility that this custom emerged as a Christian reflection of the Roman Lararium. A Lararium is a small house shrine with different small figures representing Gods (Lares) who should protect the household and the family.
Can we use this tradition for us? Definitely! Small figural representations of Deities are well known among the Romans and other IE-cultures and we could even go further back to Non-IE cultures, like the Mesopotamian Religion. So why not portray a Pagan Solstice Story with these figures? The picture of the Sungod or Sun-Champion being born in a cave seems to be an old pattern, not only tied to the IE realm. Especially the Santons of the Provence, which can be bought online without having to buy a costly trip to the Provence, have through the trade representations, many possibilities to represent different Deities. It is possible to buy some raw to paint oneself. I am using symbolism like the primordial mound, the world tree and usually make a cosmic story with the imperishable stars and the constellations of the month coming to greet the sun (I am still working on a really good story). A few years ago I settled on the name Solstice Lararium instead of “crib”.
Cacho-fio – Solstice log
Cacho-fio means "light the fire." This refers to the lightning of a log. Similar customs are known from England, Tuscany, Catalonia, Bulgaria and Serbia. In Provence it should consist of a fruit tree (pear, cherry or olive). The small ceremony connected to it will take place in front of the fireplace before going to dinner on Christmas. It is performed by the eldest and youngest Person attending. Both should hold the log and walk three times around the dinner table. Then the wood is placed into the fireplace. The youngest pours three times some young wine onto it and a blessing for fertility and happiness is spoken. The ashes are carefully preserved as they protect the house and its inhabitants. Sometimes they are even used in a medicinal way to cure fever by marking a cross on the forehead of the sick. Since the 19th century the custom of a cake designed in the form of a wooden log, “la Bûche de Noël” is found, later it even often replaced the traditional custom. This cake can be found in France and Switzerland and other francophone lands. This is a nice alternative for people who don’t have a fireplace at home.
To make your own cake buy or make your favorite roulade, cut it at one or both ends and use the small pieces to imitate branches. Then you make a butter cream topping cream and spread it over the complete cake. Using a fork you try to make it look like a tree bark. Add appropriate decoration ad gusto.
Gros Souper – the „Great Dinner“
The "Gros Souper" is served on Christmas Eve before the midnight mass. Nothing is left to chance and the food is saturated with symbolism. The table is covered by three white tablecloths, each one a little smaller than the other so that you can actually see the three different cloths. It is very important to fold in the edges of the cloths, so that “bad spirits” cannot climb up the table. Folding the three cloths at the four corners you get twelve folded edges for the solar months or the constellations. Three white candles are placed on the table together with the three bowls with wheat (Lou Blad). It is custom to decorate with some other greenery but not with Mistletoe, since it brings bad luck (perhaps in connection with the death of God Balder who has been killed by a mistletoe arrow?) Of course, the Christian interpretation of the Trinity is well seen, but counting you get three times three and suddenly a very Celtic connotation. Traditionally, a plate for deceased family members is dressed. Later it became the place of the beggar should one come along. The food consists of seven lean dishes that are reminiscent of the seven sufferings of Mary. It is served with 13 small loaves of bread as a side dish. The seven lean foods vary from place to place. Often there is celery, cauliflower, spinach, cod, omelets, snails, clams, garlic soup - but they never ate meat, only fish, shellfish, gratins, vegetables, soups and Anchoiade. So although lean, no-one has to go hungry. To see the complete table of the "Gros Souper" as homage to the fertility of the Earthgoddess (and maybe a prayer for it) is not hard. I would like to emphasis the magical number seven for the week and the known planets of the ancient world as well as the 13 moons, underlined by the small round buns.
The whole of creation can be represented at this table: The table itself being the primordial mound clothed by the three worlds, pointing to the four corners of the world and the twelve solar month and monthly constellations. Three bowls of wheat representing the bounties of the Earth mother. Or you could connect the three table cloths to the starry sky and the primordial waters, so you can represent all three Hallows: the wheat for the Land as representations of the tree or you even put the hopefully blooming fruit rod on the table for a tree representation and the candles representing three fires. Or you connect the table cloths to the Eathgoddess using dark green, red and white as colors (which would be very typical colors for Solstice too). I think you get the idea, that many possibilities open up for connections. Through the numerical symbolism we can see the relationship with the year (four seasons, 12 months, 13 moons, and 7 days of the weeks).
Midnight Mass und Pastorage
In the Christian Midnight Mass, the story of the birth of Jesus is once again re-enacted with people during the mass. The pastor bears the Baby Jesus as the mediator of God and places it in the crib. Each individual old craft then comes forward and gives the baby Jesus his gifts. Also, sheep, donkeys and goats can be found in this short procession in the Church.
A nice idea for a ritual drama springs to mind: Each Grove member could symbolically stand for his /her profession. By laying down the gifts of my profession to the divine I show that part of my everyday work is for the Gods and for the community. This theme could be integrated ad gusto into the solstice ritual. And probably could serve as a good food for thought of finding symbols to represent “figuratively” today’s often quite abstract jobs. Be sure to think of currently unemployed people or people in parental leave. It is possible to represent one’s craft even if we don’t work in it at the moment and many contribute a lot to society but don’t get money for it!
The 13 Desserts
Back from the Midnight mass the 13 desserts are eaten (don’t worry; your diet won’t blow into your face). They traditionally remain during the next three days on the table from which everyone can nibble (usually one has to fill them up). These desserts vary geographically and are made of local specialties, nuts and dried fruits. They consist mostly of: Dry figs, almonds, raisins, hazelnuts, dates, white and black nougat, pita bread (la pompe), quince paste, honey comb, fresh fruits (mandarins, oranges, apples, pears, grapes and winter melon). You just chose your 13 desserts from among. In Christian tradition they symbolize Jesus now born with his 12 Apostles. As the 13 desserts are not considered so much “dessert” anymore, many people eat the above described chocolate log instead or together with the 13 desserts.
In a Pagan context you can take a Sungod and the 12 constellations (or just take Gods connected to the specific season and constellation). You could chose appropriate Gods or if your grove honors the same Gods for certain High Days you take them and add a few more. Some plates are very decoratively arranged.
The traditional food is chicken, which should be greasy and beautifully decorated. It is accompanied by 12 guinea fowl, 30 black truffles and 30 eggs. The chicken symbolizes the year, the guinea fowl the 12 months, the truffles and eggs for 30 days and nights. It is interesting that reference is made above all, a chicken, which is the symbol of the Mother Goddess, and eggs. You may speculate about the connections to the world egg. Additionally the use of the truffles is quite interesting, as even in a truffle area most people probably wouldn’t have had the means to come up with 30 black truffles. A woman told me that they simply took one and grated it in 30 discs with an appropriate truffle-grater. If you have problems with it you could try staying with the symbolism using vitelotte (a blue violet potato), black olives or simply another amount of eggs dyeied in tea could be used. For a greater grove you can always go for a cake in Chicken form and cupcakes with icing representing day and night. Or you make chocolate truffles – I think you can come up with a few alternative ideas. The amount of eggs is quite noteworthy. It could be a memory of the “New Year” maybe originally starting at the spring equinox.
6th January – Galette des Rois – Kings’ pancake
The legend of the three Kings or Wise men is based on the Christian Evangelist Matthew (2:1-16), who tells of Wizards (magoi) who have followed a star to the birth place of Jesus Christ. Historically they are not maintained and their symbolic interpretation sometimes seems a bit bumpy. They are regarded as members of the Medo-Persian priestly caste, astrologers, Diviners or Seer. They brought gold, frankincense and myrrh, presents connected to kingship in the Near East. In the 6th century CE the names Caspar (Pers. Treasurer), Melchior (God's protection) and Balthazar (King of Light) are established. A Gnostic text indicates that there were twelve Magi. The connection to the zodiac bowing before the sun is not far now, especially when you consider that this is also the 12th Night.
In the Provence a special cake is eaten on this day, the (three) Kings’ Pancake. The nature of the cake varies locally. A very thin cake is made and sometimes a Galette (crepes, thin sort of pancake) is put as a decoration above it. With the shiny yellow color it does remember again of the solar disc. It is usually decorated with a paper crown. A small plastic figure or a bean can be found in it. If you find this particular piece, you must pay the next cake or drinks for all. In Switzerland the finder is crowned king, which commemorates the coronation of the "scorn-king" at the Saturnalia. The Swiss cake is of sweet bread one large round pieces surrounded by smaller round pieces around it, remembering us of the Sun again.
This is a nice custom which can be easily adapted. The important part seems to be the representation of the Sun and the crown. The connection to the “Crowning” is again stressed by the Magi brining the Kingship presents. An alternative explanation could be that this custom was originally connected to the Spring Equinox New Year festivities, where in the Near East different rituals involving the king (one of them in which he got slapped by the High Priest and crowned again – because he certainly had done something wrong during the last year).
2nd February – la Chandelle – Candlemass
As this is one of the major High Days again, I am mentioning only a peculiarity that in Provence connects this festival with the winter solstice and possibly makes a nice addition to the usual Festivities. It is customary that crepes (pancakes) and Navettes (small boat cookies) are made to eat. Again the pancakes as the solar disk and in my humble opinion the Navettes as the solar barque known in Egypt and Sumeria, but shown as well on the German Neolithic Disc of Nebra. In the Christian interpretation, it is the boat with which the three Marys came to bring the Bible and Christianity into the Provence. With regard to all the cosmological symbolism we had until now it is a bit bumpy again as an explanation. It is said that the crepes should be turned while holding the pan in the right hand and a silver coin in the left. If you succeed you should put the crepes on a high place in the house (throw the one from last year away) and the new crepes will bring wealth to the house. This could be a far off hint of an offering on a place on high. In the Provence weather conditions in February would be good enough to go walk on a High Place for offerings!
With this day the Calendale is finished and the crèche (solstice lararium) and all the other decoration is put away for next year.
I hope you’ve found a few inspirations to use for your next High Day and those to come with your family.