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. as well as the truffle markets of Provence which take place throughout the winter, but especially around Christmas and New Year.

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. Click here to read our full review.

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.

Over the last couple of years Aix has been dominated by a series of major construction projects.

But it's promised that the bulldozers and concrete barriers will all be cleared, at least from the area around La Rotonde, for the whole of the Christmas period. Children's carousels will be here too.

And the Place des Precheurs, where many of the building works have been concentrated, is hosting the traditioal giant Christmas tree and a Santa Claus grotto.

There's tons going on in Aix in terms of markets and special events. The Cours Mirabeau is lined around 50 chalets selling gifts, handicrafts and food and drink specialities. At the top of the Cours, the city has its own chalet where music and dancing shows are held.

There is also a large 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.

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).

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

Aix 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.

Roi Rene, Aix en Provence, ChristmasFirst 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.

After that the same location houses an Olive Oil Festival followed by the Marché des 13 Desserts (the Market of the 13 Desserts), where you can find these traditional delicacies and other regional specialities.

The santonniers (vendors of Christmas crib figures) are also in the area in front of the Tourist Office.

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 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 - and no doubt plenty of tastings of the traditional brioche des rois Epiphany cake.

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 650-odd santons, or Christmas crib figures (including around 50 animated ones) created by Gilbert Orsini. You'll find them in the Usine Électrique, an old electric station 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! 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. It features around 100 guest santonniers from all over Europe - and often further afield too - and is held in the Cloître Saint Trophime.

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 has a popular early Christmas crafts market, Provence Prestige, in late November. It boasts some 150 artisans and exhibitors and is held in the city's Palais des Congrès. Website for Provence Prestige. A classic Christmas market is held in the centre of Arles around the place du Forum.

Website for the Arles Tourist Office

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

 

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. 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. 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.

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, AvignonIn past years Avignon held one of Provence's largest Christmas markets on the place de l'Horloge. Pictured above left and below (photographs by JP Campomar).

However a number of changes and experiments have been brought in over the last couple of years as the city attempted to re-focus its Christmas celebrations on a street festival aimed at children, with performances, parades, concerts and a skating rink.

But the axing of Avignon's Christmas market proved highly unpopular, and in 2018 it is back, though in a greatly reduced form. Just 20 wooden chalets are selling artefacts and edible goodies from the region, and they are now to be found between the cours Jean Jaurès and the place des Corps Saint, near the Tourist Office.

Update: Following the political unrest and violent demonstrations across France, the Avignon Christmas market has been cancelled in 2018.

Devoted to provençal history and heritage, the 15th century Palais du Roure houses a crib and celebratory Gros Souper table.

Christmas market, AvignonMembers 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, has been redesigned in 2018. The new crib is created by Romain Rodriguez and features hundreds of 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 is 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 and the village's large santons museum is open all year round.

Children will 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.

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: in fact it continues well into the New Year. Called Noëls insolites (Christmases with a Difference), it 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 and part of this square becomes an ice rink for the duration of the cold weather. 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 MarseilleAround 30 santonniers display their wares in chalets on - for the first time this year - the Old Port; one of them offers demonstrations of the art of santon-making. Website for Marseille's Foire aux Santons.

The city's Christmas craft market, also on the Old Port, offers ceramics, traditional Marseille soap, wooden toys, sweets, cookies and chocolates.

For more unusual gifts, visit the Cours Julien where, on certain weekends in early December, there's a marché des créateurs (artisans' market).

For children, there are roundabouts, a big wheel and other attractions on the Old Port and a skating rink on the place Charles de Gaulle, just off the Canebière.

Weekends are spiced up by street entertainment, which might feature Santa's elves, a parade led by Mother Christmas, gospel music, capoeira and more. 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.

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.

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, plus an artisans' market on the place de la Cathédrale in the week before Christmas. There's 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 and video mapping illuminates the city's magnificent 19th century opera house.

Throughout December a programme of street entertainment, climaxes 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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