I am starting with an apology: I do not have any recent photo of the 13 desserts, not even close. So here is a link to a google search for images of some tables set with this tradition.
A longtime tradition
In South of France, people are celebrating Christmas ending the 24th-eve meal with the “13 desserts”. When did it start? We do not know for sure. What is easier to understand is the significance of the 13 desserts.
13 represent Jesus and his 12 Apostles during the Last Supper.
Then the desserts individually mean something:
- La “Pompe a Huile” meaning the “oil pump.” This one absorbs the richness of the Christmas meal. It is a kind of brioche, but instead of butter, we use olive oil.
- The “4 Baggers” represent the four main religious orders: walnuts or hazelnuts for Augustinians, dried figs for Franciscans, almonds for Carmelites, raisins for Dominicans.
- The dates represent Jesus coming from Orient, or the presents from the three Wise Men also coming from Orient.
- The 2 nougats, black and white, represent the contrast. The meaning depends on the people: day/night (the idea that the winter solstice is the shorter day of the year, but also the one when days are becoming longer), good/evil, black and white friar or penitents.
This makes 8 desserts. There are many variations about the last five desserts. They mainly are a mix of seasonal fresh fruits and local specialties. Each family pick five of them (Grapes, apples, pears, oranges, “calissons,” quince paste, candied fruits, “bugnes” a local version of doughnut a thin dough with a diamond or rectangle shape, “croquants” which are very hard biscuits…)
Usually, those 13 desserts stay for 3 days on a table covered with 3 clothes, so everyone has the opportunity to taste each one of them. Obviously, for Christians, 3 reminds the Holy Trinity.
Tradition changed, tradition maintained
Nowadays, not everyone celebrating the 13 desserts cares for the religious meaning. It is more a regional tradition. Surely anyone could name some of the main characters of that gigantic sugar fest. If some are very careful about the tradition and its religious meaning, for others it’s a way of remembering their south-eastern French origins. More and more people adapt widely those desserts depending on the products available where they belong at Christmas time. The important thing is to find a little meaning in what we do. It is more fun to figure out how to find 13 desserts for the family Christmas Eve dinner, than buying an industrial cake!
A wish in provencal language to conclude
Bon bou d’an e a l’an che vem Diéu nous fague la gràci de vèire l’an que vèn, E se noun sian pas mai, que noun fuguen pas mens !
Happy end of the year, may God grant us to live the next one. And if we are not more, we wish not to be less.
More cooking ideas for family quality time? Try this: