What to Eat in France: Le Gros Souper de Noël, the Great Christmas Supper in Provence
In France, the main Christmas meal is eaten on Christmas Eve. Every region in France approaches Christmas Eve meals differently, but that of Provence, known as Le Gros Souper in French and the Gros Soupa in the Provençal dialect, is perhaps the best known.
The table is set with three white tablecloths, one on top of the other, representing the Holy Trinity. Three candles light the table, representing past, present and future. The past is in memory of loved ones who are deceased; the present to express one’s loyalty to friends and family, and the future to express hope for children yet to be born. Three bowls of germinated wheat, planted on December 4th, St. Barbara’s Day, and decorated with red and yellow ribbons, are used as table decoration. Once again, the number three is symbolic of the Holy Trinity.
St. Barbara, a Middle Eastern Christian saint, was the beautiful and much sought after daughter of Dioscore, who locked her in a tower to keep her suitors away. Much to her pagan father’s chagrin, she managed to get baptized, inciting him to go after her with a sword. She managed to escape and hide under a cliff, but a shepherd saw her and informed on her. As a result, God punished him by turning his herd of sheep into grasshoppers. She was sent to prison, then forced to give up Christianity and marry a pagan. Refusing to renounce her God, she was tortured and her father finally slit her throat, so the heavens promptly sent down lightning and killed Dioscore in revenge. This miracle is recreated symbolically today by germinating and planting grains of wheat, and sometimes chickpeas.
Quand lou blad vèn bèn, tout vèn bèn ! or “when the wheat is doing well, everything is going well,” meaning that if it germinates, it will bring prosperity for the coming year. This tradition apparently dates back to the Romans. The direct connection between germination of the wheat and St. Barbara is not clear, nor how St. Barbara became a favorite saint in Provence.