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The 13 desserts, a Christmas tradition

Updated: Dec 2, 2023


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The 13 desserts accompany the Provençal tradition at Christmas time. Indeed, in Provençal families, to respect this centuries-old ritual, it is necessary to plan to offer thirteen desserts to the guests during the Christmas meal. Twelve for the apostles and one for Christ.


You should know that the 13 desserts are served at the same time and in abundance on the table on Christmas Eve after the big supper which precedes midnight mass. They must remain on the table for three days and all the guests must taste each of these desserts. Obviously, over the centuries, the tradition of midnight mass has been lost, but the festive meal remains a special moment.


13 desserts, The list of 13 desserts in the Christmas meal of the Provençal tradition, Made in Marseille France


The story of the 13 desserts


The first mention of the thirteen desserts did not in fact appear until 1925. In a special Christmas issue of the newspaper La Pignato, a writer from Aubagne, Doctor Joseph Fallen, majoral du Félibrige, stated: “Here are a quantity of sweets , of delicacies, the thirteen desserts: you need thirteen, yes thirteen, not more if you want, but not one less.”


In his list, come first the pachichòis, another name for the four beggars (fig, almond, walnut and raisin) which must be used to make the poor man's nougat or capuchin nougat. Followed by hazelnuts, pistachios, and muscat grapes. Then come rowan berries, dates, apples, pears, oranges and “the last slightly wrinkled melon”.


Today, the lists of these 13 desserts diverge in Provence from one city to another. But there is a common basis: the four mythical beggars, the two nougats and the oil pump. You can also find quince or fruit paste, calissons, chocolate,


And elsewhere than in Provence?


This accumulation of sweets is found among Sephardic Jews during Rosh Hashanah where figs, almonds, grapes and turrado (nougat) are eaten.


It is the same among the Greeks of Egypt during the festivals marking the change of year. In the house, a tray filled with almonds, hazelnuts, walnuts, prunes and chestnuts is available to guests and visitors.


Catalonia celebrates Christmas in abundance with turrón, dried fruits, pastries made from almond paste, honey and spices. Languedoc has also adopted the thirteen desserts where cartagena replaces cooked wine. Tradition dictates that, once the meal is finished, everything is left in place, including the crumbs that scatter the table. These remains are supposed to serve as food for the spirits that roam the house and the deceased family members. The Armenians of Marseille did the same. For their Christmas Day, which is celebrated on January 6, they present the thirteen desserts accompanied by their specific pastries.


The list of 13 desserts from Provence


The four beggars and their religious significance:


Dried figs, whose gray color symbolizes the Franciscan order

Raisins, which represent the Dominicans

The almonds represent the Carmelites

Walnuts or hazelnuts symbolize the Augustinians

Fresh fruits, which as tradition dictates, had been preserved since September in cellars and attics, gradually joined by exotic fruits from the former colonies:


The grapes, preserved from the harvest from autumn to Christmas

End of season watermelon has the particularity of keeping well

Orange, which represents wealth, was gradually replaced by tangerine

Dates are the symbol of Christ from the East

An exotic fruit: kiwi, pineapple, mango…


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