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, 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 throughout the 2014-2015 winter season.
We've focussed on the main towns and cities, but a number of the smaller villages will also have their own local Christmas celebrations.
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.
The area around La Rontonde, the Cours Mirabeau and the winding backstreets of the Old Town are richly decked in lights and local stores make a magnificent effort with their festive decorations and window displays. And there's tons 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.
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 at weekends during the Christmas period.
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 Town Hall for traditional Swedish songs and a tasting of something called glögg (Swedish mulled wine). 9 December.
Mid December sees the Bravade Calendale, a ceremonial procession along the Cours Mirabeau with musicians, dancers and folklore galore. In 2014 it's on the afternoon of 14 December.
Aix also sets up a large marquee on the place François Villon near the Tourist Office where various special events and markets are held 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 to Baalbeck. 3-7 December.
After that the same location houses an Olive Oil Festival (13-14 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. 18-24 December.
The santonniers (vendors of Christmas crib figures) tend to cluster on the avenue Napoléon Bonaparte just off La Rotonde. From 20 November. 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 the Cours Saint Louis at 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. 11 January 2015.
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. 22 November-25 January 2015.
Other yuletide events include a donkey fair on 7 December (where you can 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.
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). 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 2014 is the provençal poet Frédéric Mistral, and there are guest santonniers from elsewhere in Europe. It's held in the Cloître Saint Trophime. 15 November-12 January 2015.
There is additionally a more conventional santons market at the Espace Van Gogh, where you can buy the little figurines. 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 2014 is held in the city's Palais des Congrès from 20-24 November. Website for Provence Prestige
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. In 2014-2015 there's a very large exhibition of Christmas crib figures from all around the world at the Cité de l’art santonnier Thérèse Neveu, 4 Cour de Clastres. Until 2 February.
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. 21 November-31 December. And every two years (in even years), a more important santons fair, the Biennale de l'art santonnier, is held.
It attracts master santonniers from all across Provence, as well as Italy and Spain and is the occasion for music, processions and other celebrations. In 2014 it's on the weekend of 6-7 December.
Aubagne also has a small Christmas craft market this year on the esplanade Charles de Gaulle. 13-24 December. There are very numerous other special events, culminating in the procession of the Three Kings, followed by mulled wine and Epiphany cake, on 3 January 2015. Details on the website for the Aubagne Tourist Office
Avignon has traditionally held one of Provence's prettiest 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).
Things are changing slightly in the winter of 2014-2015. For the first time Avignon's Christmas market is scattered all over the walled city. The dates are 29 November-31 December.
Around 60 chalets are now divided between the place de l'Horloge (where most stalls continue to be found), the place des Corps Saints (where the sellers of santons or Christmas crib figures are based), the place Crillon (for gourmet treats) and the place des Carmes (for Christmas trees).
The aim is to share the Christmas spirit (and cash) among shops, bars and cafés all over town, although the spread-out nature of the market may not be quite such good news for visitors.
To encourage them to move around Avignon, various attractions such as a skating rink (on the place Pie), Christmas tree and the illuminations are dotted around all the different locations and the little tourist train and horsedrawn carriages offer free rides between them. Much of central Avignon is pedestrianised at weekends in the run-up to Christmas.
Devoted 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. In 2014 it's displayed in the Eglise des Célestins on the place des Corps Saints.
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.
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.
In 2014 the village is hosting an exhibition of the charming work of the illustrator Jean-Marc Rossi, about a little shepherd in the Alpilles who spots that mysterious star in the sky one night... 24 October-4 January 2015.
The highlight of Christmas in Les Baux de Provence is Christmas Eve, when festivities begin at 2pm with an aubade, or procession of sheep, shepherds and musicians 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 at which santonniers demonstrate their art at locations all over the village. The 2014 Salon de créateurs et santonniers takes place from 24-26 October. In December there are workshops where children can make their own Christmas crib figures. 20-24 December and 26-28 December.
The village's santons crib has a different theme each year: in 2014 it's designed by the Polish artist Andrezj Wrzecionko and features larger-than-life sized figures woven from straw.
The crib has the perfect setting: the 17th century Chapelle des Pénitents (Penitents' 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.
And 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. 20 Dec-4 Jan 2015.
The picturesque coastal town of Cassis has a Christmas market right in the centre of town on the place Baragnon. 5-14 December. Part of this square becomes an ice rink for the duration of the cold weather. 20 Dec-9 March 2015. 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 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.
Some 30 santonniers display their wares in chalets on the place Charles de Gaulle and along the Canebière. In 2014 Marseille's Foire aux Santons runs from 15 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. In 2014 the market is held from 16 November-26 December.
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 the Giant Ferris Wheel - which sits on Borély beach throughout the summer - moves to the Old Port for the Christmas season. Weekends are spiced up by street entertainment.
For contemporary crafts, check out the curiously named Crea'market, a showcase for young designers and artisans. In 2014 Crea'market has several fixtures: at The Carrosserie, 7 cours Goffé, near the place Castellane (29-30 November); on the Cours d'Estienne d'Orves just off the Old Port (13 December); and at Les Docks in the Joliette District (19-21 December).
Saint Rémy de Provence holds a little "Nocturne de Noël" - sometimes referred to as the Fête de la Lumière - 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 2014 the Nocturne is on 13 December from 6pm.
Saint Rémy's main Christmas market, also called Le Petit Marché du Gros Souper, is held just before Christmas 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. 19-21 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
Toulon has a daily Christmas market of around 40 chalets on the place de la Liberté from 22 November to 31 December (this year's theme is elves), plus a large crib of over 700 santons and, from 13 December to 5 January, a giant skating rink. Website for the Toulon Tourist Office