Throughout Provence, the gros souper on Christmas Eve usually ends with the famed 13 desserts. Though the phrase may bring to mind a table laden with creamy gateaux or rich pastries, the reality is more austere -- and rife with symbolism.
The presentation of the 13 desserts, a tradition traceable to the 18th century if not earlier, is said to represent Christ and the 12 apostles. Among the "desserts" are figs, raisins, almonds, and walnuts, each of which reflects the robe colors of the four mendicant religious orders -- Franciscan, Dominican, Carmelite, and Augustinian, respectively.
There are also two types of nougat: soft white for the white penitents and brittle dark for the dark ones (some say they represent the forces of good and evil).
Dates stand for Christ himself, and seasonal fruits like mandarin oranges, pears, apples, and winter melon usually round out the assortment, along with a specialty item that varies from town to town. In Allauch, for example, it is the round bread called pompe a l'huile; in Aix en Provence, it's the popular orange blossom-flavored almond confections called calissons.
Custom holds that all the desserts, generally accompanied by vin cuit, a sweet wine, must be served at the same time and that everyone must sample at least a little of each one. They are usually offered again after midnight mass and left out for three days, to be shared with visitors and, some say, the spirits of one's ancestors and the Holy Family.