The cities of Northern and Central Europe are more famous for their Christmas markets, but this is also a magical season in Provence.
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With its many festivities, its ancient, mysterious and mystical traditions and glittering illuminations, Provence in midwinter reveals another side of itself.
It might be very different from the lavender fields, rosé wine and blazing sun of high summer. But, in a very different way, Provence is midwinter is no less spectacular.
This page tells you where in Provence to find the best Christmas markets, fairs, festivals, exhibitions, pastorales (nativity plays), pastrages (shepherds' processions) and other events that will light up the landscape throughout the 2013-2014 winter season.
Click here for detailed general background articles about provençal santons and cribs, Christmas foods of Provence and the Christmas rituals and traditions in Provence. Click here to read about the year-round street markets of Marseille and the markets of Aix en Provence.
The dignified elegance of Aix en Provence takes on a fairytale aspect when lit for Christmas, in particular the Cours Mirabeau, although the winding backstreets of the Old Town are also richly decked in lights and local stores make a magnificent effort with their festive decorations and window displays.
The Cours Mirabeau itself is lined with children's fairground rides and around 50 chalets selling gifts, handicrafts and food and drink specialities. The dates of the 2013 Aix en Provence Christmas market are 20 November-28 December.
There will also be a Christmas crib of traditional santons in a chalet near the Monoprix department store half-way down the boulevard. 25 November-30 December. Pictured, above, the cours Mirabeau and, below, the celebrated statue of Good King René in festive guise.
Later in December, the same location houses the Marché des 13 Desserts (the Market of the 13 Desserts), where you can find these traditional delicacies and other regional specialities. 16-24 December.
The santonniers (vendors of Christmas crib figures) tend to cluster on side-streets just off La Rotonde. The 2013 santons fair in Aix is held from 25 November-30 December,
It starts at the Cours Saint Louis at 1.50pm and winds through the streets, pausing from time to time along the way for a festival carol or folk song. The procession ends with a ceremony at the city Cathedral at 4pm - and no doubt plenty of tastings of the traditional brioche des rois Epiphany cake.
Allauch, a charming hilltop town on the edge of Marseille, exhibits a superb crib populated by 450-odd santons, or Christmas crib figures (including several dozen animated ones) created by Gilbert Orsini. You'll find them in an old reservoir converted into an art gallery in the heart of the town.
Other yuletide events include a donkey fair in early December (where you can buy one of these beasts if you so desire), a Christmas market (7-8 December 2013), a Gros Souper and on Christmas Eve itself a famous pastrage, or shepherds' procession. Click here to read more about the pastrage.
In Allauch this torchlight event, featuring fifes, drums and some 150 sheep accompanied by their shepherds, starts at around10.15pm. It is so popular that the ensuing Mass is projected on a giant screen outside the church, which is far too small to accommodate all the pilgrims and participants. If arriving by car, you will need to park well outside Allauch as the village is closed to traffic that evening.
All through January the town's theatre, Lou Tiatre dou Terraire d'Alau, holds performances of the pastorale, or nativity play, in provençal. Click here to read more about the pastorale.
Further information from the Allauch Tourist Office. Tel: (+33) 4 91 10 49 20. Website for the Allauch Tourist Office
Christmas is celebrated in more unusual style in Arles during its Drôles de Noëls (Funny Christmases).
In the week before Christmas, circus performers, singers, puppeteers, magicians, theatre and firework displays (the 2010 one is pictured) turn the city into one huge - and entirely free - street-art spectacle (over 150 shows of different kinds have been offered in previous years). From 21 Dec.
For traditionalists, the city also hosts an important santons conference, the Salon International des Santonniers, now in its 56th year and the largest event of its kind in France. This year's theme is the santonnier, or santon-maker,and there will be guest santonniers from elsewhere in Europe. It's held in the Cloître Saint Trophime. 16 Nov-12 Jan 2014.
For the first time in 2013 there will additionally be a more conventional santons market at the Espace Van Gogh, where you can buy the little figurines. 16-17 Nov. Website for the Salon International des Santonniers and Foire aux Santons in Arles
Arles also has a popular early Christmas crafts market, Provence Prestige. It boasts some 150 artisans and exhibitors and is held in the city's Palais des Congrès from 21-25 Nov. Website for Provence Prestige
Every winter the esplanade Charles de Gaulle and the cours Foch in the centre of Aubagne are lined with cabins selling Christmas crib figures and ceramics. In 2013 this Christmas market runs from 15 Nov-5 Jan 2014.
Every two years, a more important santons fair is held which attracts master santonniers from all across Provence, as well as Italy and Spain and is the occasion for music, processions and other celebrations. The next Biennale de l'art santonnier will be held in December 2014. Website for the Aubagne Tourist Office
Avignon has one of Provence's prettiest Christmas markets. Lavishly illuminated, the place de l'Horloge houses some 50 wooden chalets selling provençal delicacies, santons, fabrics and more. 30 Nov-5 Jan 2014. Pictured above left and below (photograph by JP Campomar). The Hotel Mirande is hosting a craft market this year too, on 13-15 December.
Also on the place de l'Horloge, the Town Hall (L'Hôtel de Ville) hosts one of the region's biggest cribs in its imposing high-ceilinged atrium.
Designed by Marcel Carbonel, a leading local santonnier, it features over 600 handpainted, terracotta santons in a provençal landscape, with vineyards, olive groves and hilltop villages and is on view daily 9:30am to 7pm.; entrance free. Next to it, a table is set with the Gros Souper and the 13 Desserts. 1 December-1 January 2014.
Devoted to provençal history and heritage, the 15th century Palais du Roure also houses a crib and celebratory Gros Souper table.
Members of the local folklore association, L'Estello d'Avignoun, are delighted to talk to visitors about their traditions. 3 rue Collège-du-Roure, Hôtel de Baroncelli-Javon. Tel: (+33) 4 90 80 80 88.
These large wax santons were first fashioned around 1830 by the Carmelite order and its nuns continue today to maintain and restore these fragile treasures (many of their costumes are originals). Place du Palais. Tel: (+33) 4 90 82 12 21.
The princes who once controlled Les Baux de Provence claimed to be the descendants of Balthazar, one of the Three Wise Men, and the 16-pointed silver star which guided the kings to Bethlehem is still on the municipal flag. So you expect Christmas in this stunning hilltop village to be something special.
The highlight is Christmas Eve when festivities begin at 2pm with an aubade, or procession of sheep, shepherds and musicians through the village. If you miss that, there's an exhibition of photos depicting the aubade by José Nicolas in the Post Tenebras Lux garden from 21 December-5 January 2014.
Midnight mass is celebrated in the beautiful 12th century Saint Vincent's Church (pictured). During the service, traditional musical instruments accompany provençal songs and a human crib peopled by locals dressed in folk costumes.
Les Baux also holds a santons fair, and there are santons workshops where children can make their own Christmas crib figures. The 2013 "Salon de créateurs et santonniers" takes place from 1-3 November and the workshops are held 21-23 and 26-26 December.
The village's santons crib has a Far North theme in 2013, with an iceberg, polar bears and seals, and the perfect setting: the 17th century Penitants' Chapel decorated with huge murals (1974) by Yves Brayer depicting provençal shepherds as they celebrate Christmas. This local artist also has his own museum, the Yves Brayer Museum, based in a nearby 16th century mansion, the Hôtel de Porcelet.
But Les Baux also often offers a slightly unexpected take on Christmas traditions and 2013 is no exception. Its special exhibition in La Citerne this year is devoted to illustrations by the Aubagne artist Jean-Marc Rossi for the book J'ai entendu parler les santons (I've Heard the Santons Speaking), accompanied by a special crib of santons created in Rossi's naïf style. Rossi also has a show in the Hôtel de Manville. 21 December-5 January 2014.
Children will love the impromptu sheepfold on the church square where two young shepherds tend their flock, herd the sheep daily through the village at 11am and answer questions about their work. 21 December-5 January 2014.
The picturesque coastal town of Cassis has a Christmas market right in the centre of town on the place Baragnon. 6-15 December. Part of this square becomes an ice rink for the duration of the cold weather. 20 December-9 March 2014. The town also installs an unusual, marine-themed Christmas crib in the Tourist Office. Website for the Cassis Tourist Office
Dating back to 1803, Marseille's Foire aux Santons is the very oldest of them all and its 211th edition opens on 16 November. At the official inauguration, a santonniers' mass is celebrated in provençal on 17 November at the church of Saint-Vincent-de-Paul, followed by a procession down the Canebière to the sound of the tambourin, a long, traditional drum.
Some 30 santonniers display their wares in chalets on the place Charles de Gaulle and along the Canebière, while a Christmas market at the bottom of the Canebière and on the Old Port offers ceramics, traditional Marseille soap, wooden toys, sweets, cookies and chocolates. Website for Marseille's Foire aux Santons.
Marseille's Christmas illuminations have been pretty underwhelming in previous years but a big effort is being made in 2013, with 111 new light installations inspired by highlights of the Capital of Culture programme on the Old Port and Canebière. Two giant santons preside over the santons market. The lights are switched on at 7pm on 6 December, accompanied by a fireworks display on the Old Port.
For children, there are roundabouts and other attractions on the Old Port, the cours Belsunce and the place Léon Blum near the top of the Canebière and in 2013 the Giant Ferris Wheel - which sits on Borély beach throughout the summer - is moving to the Old Port for the Christmas season.
Each weekend will be spiced up by clowns, musicians, Santa's elves, a puppet theatre and other street entertainment. The Foire aux Santons continues from 9am to 7pm until 31 December.
For contemporary crafts, check out the curiously named Crea'market, a showcase for young designers and artisans which had great success over the summer. It returns for Christmas at the same location, the cours d'Estienne d'Orves just off the Old Port, on Sundays 15 and 22 December.
Saint Rémy de Provence holds a little "Nocturne de Noël" on 7 December, when the town's illuminations are all switched on. Shops in the centre are open late and live music, mulled wine and soup are on offer.
Saint Rémy's main Christmas market, also called Le Petit Marché du Gros Souper, is held from 20-22 December 2013 on the place de la République and offers crafts and santons, plus the ingredients for the seven dishes and 13 Desserts of the Gros Souper or Great Supper traditionally eaten in Provence on Christmas Eve.
On 21 December there's a performance of the pastorale, on 22 December an open-air dance celebration and bonfire and on 24 December a midnight mass. Website for Saint Rémy's 2013 Christmas celebrations