The pastrage at Les Baux de ProvenceThe 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, this time of year in the South of France is just as romantic and 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 in winter.

We've focussed here on the main towns and cities, but a number of the smaller villages will also have their own local Christmas celebrations.

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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.

markets of provence smallFinally, Markets of Provence is a comprehensive new guide to exactly that by the American travel writer Marjorie R Williams.

It's a survey of the best markets all across the region with interviews, background featurettes and useful tips and you can buy a copy on Amazon here.

AIX EN PROVENCE

The dignified elegance of Aix en Provence takes on a fairytale aspect when lit for Christmas.

Cours Mirabeau, Aix en provence at ChristmasThe area around La Rotonde and the Cours Mirabeau is decked in lights and local stores make a magnificent effort with their festive decorations and window displays.

There's tons more going on in terms of markets and special events. The Cours Mirabeau is lined with children's fairground rides and around 50 chalets selling gifts, handicrafts and food and drink specialities. 16 November-25 December 2016.

There is also a Christmas crib of traditional santons in a chalet near the Monoprix department store half-way down the boulevard. Pictured, above, the Cours Mirabeau and, below, the celebrated statue of Good King René in festive guise. The Cours is closed to traffic during the Christmas period.

New in 2016: a programme of activities around the "three squares" (Madeleine, Prêcheurs and Verdun) in the Old Town. It's designed to inject life into this part of Aix, which is suffering from the effects of massive restoration works.

Among the innovations: a giant Christmas tree and an English-style pillar box for children to post their letters to Santa Claus.

In early December Aix celebrates the Fête de la Sainte Lucie, a Festival of Lights of Swedish origin. It starts at the Cathedral in the early evening, and moves on to the place Verdun for traditional Swedish songs and a tasting of something called glögg (Swedish mulled wine). 6-9pm, 13 December.

Mid December sees the Bravade Calendale, a ceremonial procession along the Cours Mirabeau with musicians, dancers and folklore galore. 2.30pm, 18 December.

Roi Rene, Aix en Provence, ChristmasAix also sets up a large marquee on the place François Villon near the Tourist Office. Various special events and markets are held here and along the nearby Allées Provençales throughout the festivities.

First off is an invitation to Aix's twin towns to set up stalls displaying their own Christmas traditions and you might discover guests from anywhere from Bath (which brings mince pies and Christmas crackers!) to Baalbeck. 2-7 December.

After that the same location houses an Olive Oil Festival (10-11 December) followed by 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 2016.

This year the santonniers (vendors of Christmas crib figures) are also in the area in front of the Tourist Office, from 18 November-31 December 2016.

And it's still not over in January, when an Epiphany procession, the Marche des Rois, pays homage to the Three Kings (accompanied by their three camels).

It starts at 2pm and winds through the streets of Aix, 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. 8 January 2017.

Website for the Aix en Provence Tourist Office

Read our full guide to what to see and do in Aix en Provence

ALLAUCH

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 on the first Sunday of December (where you can even buy one of these beasts if you so desire), a Christmas market, 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 around 10.15pm.

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 and even then you should arrive very early to secure a spot.

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

Read our full guide to what to see and do in Allauch

 

 

ARLES

Christmas is celebrated in more unusual style in Arles during its Drôles de Noëls (Funny Christmases).

Droles de NoelIn the week before Christmas, circus performers, singers, puppeteers, magicians, theatre and firework displays (the 2010 one is pictured) turn the city's streets and Roman arena into one huge - and entirely free - street-art spectacle. Even the car-parking is free! 21-24 December 2016. Website for Drôles de Noëls.

For traditionalists, the city also hosts an important santons conference, the Salon International des Santonniers, the largest event of its kind in France.

The theme in 2016 is the olivades (olive festival) and there are around 100 guest santonniers from all over Europe - and, this year, from Africa too (expect some stables to feature zebras and giraffes!). It's held in the Cloître Saint Trophime, 19 November-15 January 2017.

There is additionally a more conventional santons market at the Espace Van Gogh, where you can buy the little figurines. 19-20 November 2016. 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 in 2016 is held in the city's Palais des Congrès from 24-28 November. Website for Provence Prestige. Over the same weekend there's also a Christmas market in the centre of Arles around the place du Forum.

Website for the Arles Tourist Office

 

AUBAGNE

Famed for the quality of its local clay, Aubagne has traditionally been a focus for pottery, porcelain and santons and there are still around 30 ceramics workshops in the town today.

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. 19 November-31 December 2016. The town's giant crib can also be viewed here.

And every two years (in even years), a more important santons fair, the Biennale de l'art santonnier, is held. In 2016 it runs from 3-4 December.

It attracts master santonniers from all across Provence, and is the occasion for music, processions and other celebrations. Around 30,000 people flock to the Biennale.

Aubagne also has a small Christmas craft market on the esplanade Charles de Gaulle and, this year, an exhibition on the subject of santons and music. Cité de l'Art santonnier Ateliers Thérèse Neveu , 4 cours de Clastre. 18 November-12 March 2017.

There are very numerous other special events, culminating in the procession of the Three Kings, followed by mulled wine and Epiphany cake in early January. Details on the website for the Aubagne Tourist Office

Read our full guide to what to see and do in Aubagne

AVIGNON

Christmas market, AvignonAvignon had traditionally held one of Provence's prettiest and most popular Christmas markets on the place de l'Horloge, with wooden chalets selling provençal delicacies, santons, fabrics and more. Pictured above left and below (photographs by JP Campomar).

But all that has been changing. And now, after a disasterous failed experiment to scatter the Christmas market all over the walled city, it has been cancelled completely in 2016-2017.

Instead the city is focussing on a street festival aimed at children. The centrepiece is a "children's village" on the place Pie (10-31 December 2016), with performances, parades and concerts at the weekends.

Update: The new arrangement has proved unpopular with locals. Over 12,600 people have signed a petition to restore the ancien régime and bring back the old Christmas market. Watch out for further developments in 2017.

Christmas market, AvignonDevoted to provençal history and heritage, the 15th century Palais du Roure 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.

Avignon's main crib, one of the biggest in the region is designed by Marcel Carbonel, a leading local santonnier and features over 600 handpainted, terracotta santons in a provençal landscape, with vineyards, olive groves and hilltop villages.

It's displayed, as in previous years, in the Eglise des Célestins on the place des Corps Saints, where a santon-makers' village will be installed.

One of Avignon's oldest and most notable cribs is on view in the Cathedral, Notre Dame des Doms. Its 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.

Website for the Avignon Tourist Office

Read our full guide to what to see and do in Avignon

 

LES BAUX DE PROVENCE

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 coat of arms. So you expect Christmas in this stunning hilltop village to be something special.

Midnight Mass, Christmas, Les Baux de ProvenceThe highlight of Christmas in Les Baux de Provence is Christmas Eve, when festivities begin at 2pm with an aubade, or procession of sheep, shepherds, musicians and dancers through the village.

Midnight mass is celebrated from 11.30pm in the beautiful 12th century Saint Vincent's Church (pictured).

During the service, traditional musical instruments accompany provençal songs and a human crib populated by locals dressed in folk costumes, while shepherds converge for the pastrage to bring the baby Jesus a gift of a new-born lamb.

Les Baux also holds a santons fair in October at which santonniers demonstrate their art at locations all over the village. In December there are workshops at which children can make their own Christmas crib figures. 17-23 and 26-30 December.

The village's large santons crib has a different theme and geographical setting each year. In 2016 it's created by artist Pauline Ohrel out of delicate wire netting.

It has the perfect location: the 17th century Chapelle des Pénitents (Penitents' Chapel) decorated with huge murals (1974) by Yves Brayer depicting provençal shepherds as they celebrate Christmas.

Another little shepherd is the hero of an exhibition of charming illustrations by Jean-Marc Rossi telling the story of a young local boy who one night, while tending his flock, sees a new star in the sky... At the Hôtel de Manville, 17 December-3 January 2017.

Children will also love the impromptu sheepfold on the church square where young shepherds tend their flock, herd the sheep daily through the village at and answer questions about their work. It's on every day from 17 December-3 January 2017 (except 25 December and 1 January).

There are various Christmas-themed activities happening within the precinct of the Château des Baux too throughout the school holidays.

Website for the Les Baux de Provence Tourist Office

Read our full guide to what to see and do in Les Baux de Provence

CARPENTRAS

North-east of Avignon, Carpentras has one of the most ambitious extended Christmas festivals in Provence. Called Noëls insolites (Unusual Christmases) it runs this year from 10-31 December and includes processions, street theatre, a market, a snow garden and skating rink and plenty of activities for families, many of them free.

Website for the Carpentras Tourist Office

CASSIS

The picturesque coastal town of Cassis has a Christmas market right in the centre of town on the place Baragnon. 2-11 December 2016. Part of this square becomes an ice rink for the duration of the cold weather. 17 December-26 February 2017. Website for the Cassis Tourist Office

Read our full guide to what to see and do in Cassis

MARSEILLE

Dating back to 1803, Marseille's Foire aux Santons is the very oldest of them all and opens in mid-November. At the official inauguration, a santonniers' mass is celebrated in provençal 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.

Christmas in MarseilleSome 30 santonniers display their wares in chalets on the place Charles de Gaulle and along the Canebière. In 2016 Marseille's Foire aux Santons runs from 20 November-31 December. Website for Marseille's Foire aux Santons.

The city's Christmas craft market on the Old Port offers ceramics, traditional Marseille soap, wooden toys, sweets, cookies and chocolates. 20 November-31 December 2016.

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 as well as the Giant Ferris Wheel on the Old Port itself.

Weekends are spiced up by street entertainment: this year it features Santa's elves, a parade led by Mother Christmas, gospel music, capoeira and more. The city's Christmas illuminations are switched on on 2 December. Website for the Marseillle Tourist Office

Read our full guide to what to see and do in Marseille

SAINT RÉMY DE PROVENCE

Saint Rémy de Provence holds a little "Nocturne de Noël" - sometimes referred to as the Fête des Lumières - in early 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. In 2016 it's on 10 December.

Saint Rémy's main Christmas market is held just before Christmas on the place de la Mairie 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. 16-18 December.

Also in the run-up to the big day, there's a performance of the pastorale, an open-air dance celebration and bonfire and on 24 December a midnight mass. Website for the Saint Rémy de Provence Tourist Office

Read our full guide to what to see and do in Saint Rémy de Provence

TOULON

Toulon has a daily Christmas market of around 40 chalets on the place de la Liberté from 25 November to 31 December 2016, plus a large, animated crib of over 700 santons. Look out for the city's Mont Faron cable car!

On the place d'Armes is a giant skating rink. 7-31 December 2016.

At weekends throughout December there are festive parades through the town, climaxing in the arrival of Santa Claus on the port on Christmas Eve. Website for the Toulon Tourist Office

Read our full guide to what to see and do in Toulon

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