13 French Christmas Desserts

Illustration of the 13 traditional Christmas desserts of Provence, France.
Picture Credit: Fabuleuse Planète, CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons

The prospect of tasting 13 French Christmas desserts seems both mouth-watering and over-indulgent. The mind conjures up past delights in French cuisine. The mouth salivates at the memory. However, Les Treize Desserts are probably not quite what you expect. These Thirteen Desserts form an ancient tradition in Provence, in southern France. The choice of dishes is full of Christian symbolism. The numbers are particularly symbolic.

Centuries Old

The tradition dates back centuries, although it is not possible to judge precisely when it started. The first known record is from 1683. The custom was mentioned by a priest in Marseille. It undoubtedly dates back further than that and has evolved over the centuries. Some dishes may vary according to village or region, but there are nonetheless several constants in the choices.

Laying the Table

The custom starts with the laying of the table on Christmas Eve. The table is laid with 3 tablecloths and 3 candles to represent the Holy Trinity of Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The 3 bowls or dishes of wheat sown on St Barbara’s Day are also added to the table (see previous Advent blog for 4th December 2021).

Meatless Christmas Eve

The 13 desserts follow the gros souper and Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve. This is not meant to be a lavish French Christmas meal. No meat is eaten as in past Catholic days of abstinence. Traditionally, the meal had 7 meatless dishes including fish and seasonal vegetables. These 7 dishes represented the 7 sorrows of the Virgin Mary (The Prophecy of Simeon; The Flight into Egypt; The Loss of the Child Jesus in the Temple of Jerusalem; Mary meeting Jesus on the Via Dolorosa; the Crucifixion of Jesus on Mount Calvary; Jesus taken down from the Cross; The Burial of Jesus by Joseph of Arimathea).

Sharing

The 13 desserts are designed for sharing. They represent the 12 Apostles and Jesus at the Last Supper. It is expected that everyone should take at least a bite from each of the desserts. They remain on the table for three days. Even the crumbs are left on the table to feed the souls of deceased family members.

Essential Components

While some dishes may vary between households, others are an essential part of the tradition. An allusion is made to the vows of poverty of the 4 religious orders by the 4 Mendiants (beggars):

  1. Dried Figs for the Franciscans
  2. Raisins for the Dominicans
  3. Almonds for the Carmelites
  4. Nuts (usually walnuts and hazelnuts) for the Augustinians

Their sombre colours are meant to recall the orders’ dull-coloured robes.

Pompe à l’huile

A flatbread made with flour, yeast, olive oil, brown sugar and orange flower water is another key part of the meal. The Pompe à l’huile is a cross between brioche and fougasse. The bread is traditionally made in a round shape and scored with a knife. The scoring helps to make the bread easier to tear and share with guests, as Christ did with his Apostles. To cut the bread with a knife risks financial ruin in the following year! (Link to recipe). It is often dipped into fortified wine (vin cuit) to eat. The wine is yet another allusion to Christ.

Nougat

White and black nougat are also staples. White and black represent good and evil respectively. Sometimes pink nougat is included too.

Dates

Dates are eaten to remember that Christ came from the East. They are often stuffed with marzipan. Other exotic fruits are taken to represent the Three Wise Men in more recent interpretations of the tradition. Thus, some French households include kiwis, pineapples and mangoes.

Other Options

Other choices are more fluid. The full 13 desserts may be made up of seasonal fruits such as watermelon, grapes, apples, pears, oranges, clementines and quince jelly.  Oranges are seen as a symbol of wealth by contrast with most of the other desserts. The local speciality may also be included. For example, in Aix-en-Provence, you may find Calissons d’Aix, a lozenge of candied fruit and almonds.

Therefore, the 13 French desserts are surprisingly healthy-eating options for Christmas with multiple plant origins for Advent Botany. Can you work out the full list of ingredients with botanical names?

References and Further Reading

Note

Karen does not seek or receive any commercial interest or advantage from this blog. She is not promoting any business venture. She simply loves to share fascinating facts about plants. These pages illustrate her love of plants, botany, biodiversity, gardens and creative expression. There is always so much to learn about plant diversity. This blog is designed as a showcase for photography, commentary on plants and wildlife, gardens and other places visited, horticulture and related topics. Viewpoints are her own, not those of her employer.

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