13 Desserts at Christmas Dinner

by Ella
13 Desserts at Christmas Dinner

Christmas dinner is a cherished and festive occasion celebrated by families around the world. In many regions, particularly in Provence, France, a unique tradition called “Les Treize Desserts” (The Thirteen Desserts) takes center stage during the Christmas feast. This age-old custom involves serving a selection of thirteen specific desserts after the main meal.

In this comprehensive article, we delve into the fascinating origins and symbolism behind this tradition, exploring its cultural significance and the variety of delectable desserts that grace the holiday table. Join us on a journey to unravel the rich history and customs surrounding the inclusion of thirteen desserts in Christmas festivities.


The Origin and Symbolism of the Thirteen Desserts

a. Historical Background: The tradition of serving thirteen desserts can be traced back to medieval times in Provence, France. It was influenced by the Christian significance of the Last Supper, where Jesus and his twelve apostles shared a meal.


b. Religious Symbolism: The number thirteen represents Jesus and his twelve apostles, symbolizing the unity of the Holy Trinity and the community of believers. The desserts are served as a representation of abundance, hospitality, and gratitude for the blessings of the year.


Traditional Desserts of Les Treize Desserts

a. The Four Essential Desserts:


Nuts and Dried Fruits: Walnuts, almonds, hazelnuts, figs, dates, and raisins are common choices, representing the simplicity and natural abundance of the region.

Fresh Fruits: Seasonal fruits, such as apples, pears, oranges, and grapes, are included to showcase the diversity of the local harvest and offer a refreshing and healthy option.

Two Types of Breads: Pain d’épices (spice bread) and fougasse (a type of flatbread) are typically served, symbolizing prosperity and sharing among loved ones.

Calisson: This traditional almond-shaped confectionery made of ground almonds and candied fruit paste holds a special place among the thirteen desserts, representing the Holy Trinity.

b. Additional Desserts:

Les Quatre Mendiants (The Four Mendicants): Each representing a religious order, these four ingredients—almonds for the Carmelites, walnuts for the Augustinians, hazelnuts for the Dominicans, and raisins for the Franciscans—are typically presented together.

Local Pastries: Various regional specialties, such as nougat, pompe à l’huile (olive oil flatbread), and oreillettes (fried pastries), showcase the culinary heritage of Provence.

Marzipan Fruits: Delicately crafted marzipan fruits, often shaped like apples, pears, or oranges, add a whimsical touch to the dessert spread.

Dessert Wines: Sweet wines, such as Muscat de Beaumes-de-Venise or Banyuls, are traditionally paired with the desserts to complement their flavors.

The Ritual and Presentation

a. Setting the Table: The desserts are carefully arranged on a beautifully adorned table, often featuring a three-tiered centerpiece or a “Yule log” decorated with candles and greenery.

b. Sharing and Community: The desserts are meant to be shared among family, friends, and guests. It is customary for each person to taste a small portion of each dessert as a symbol of unity and togetherness.

c. The Meaningful Act of Breaking Bread: A prominent tradition during Les Treize Desserts involves the host breaking the two types of bread (pain d’épices and fougasse) and sharing them with loved ones, signifying generosity and fellowship.

Modern Interpretations and Variations

a. Regional and Personal Flair: While traditional desserts form the core of Les Treize Desserts, modern interpretations often include variations and additions based on regional preferences and personal tastes.

b. International Influences: In multicultural settings, the tradition has evolved to incorporate desserts from other cultures, expanding the range of flavors and textures.

c. Dietary Considerations: To accommodate dietary restrictions or preferences, contemporary versions may include gluten-free options, vegan desserts, or lighter alternatives while still maintaining the spirit of the tradition.

Preserving and Reviving Tradition

a. Cultural Heritage: Les Treize Desserts serve as a powerful cultural symbol, preserving the culinary traditions and customs of Provence. Efforts are made to pass down the tradition from one generation to the next, ensuring its continuity and significance.

b. Revitalizing Interest: Festivals, events, and community gatherings centered around Les Treize Desserts help revive and promote the tradition, engaging both locals and visitors in the celebration.

c. Adaptation and Modernization: While maintaining the core elements, contemporary interpretations contribute to the tradition’s longevity by making it relevant and accessible to new generations.


Les Treize Desserts is a cherished tradition that brings a sense of history, symbolism, and togetherness to the Christmas celebrations in Provence. The thirteen desserts, each with its own significance, create a delightful spread that embodies abundance, unity, and gratitude. Through the centuries, this custom has evolved, incorporating regional variations and adapting to changing times, while remaining a beloved part of the holiday season. Preserving and reviving the tradition ensures that future generations can continue to savor the rich cultural heritage of Provence and experience the joy of sharing these delectable desserts. So, as you gather around the table this Christmas, consider embracing the tradition of Les Treize Desserts, immersing yourself in the flavors, stories, and community that make this celebration truly special.



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