Friday, December 3, 2010

Le Blè de l’Esperance

I have ignored my blog and the blogs of everyone else for weeks. School seems to be taking precedence and that's okay...however, I feel so out of touch. I keep writing in my just never gets as far as the computer. I actually wrote this article Monday and am just getting around to posting it today. My niece is here now for a long weekend visit so I'll probably continue ignoring it for awhile. I hope everyone is well and I can't wait to catch up.

Monday is a busy day. It’s the day I have to finish (or start and finish) my weekend homework assignment, write my blog, and finish (or start and finish…yes, there’s a pattern developing here) my weekly article.  I know… I should be at least starting all of these projects over the weekend…. and sometimes I actually do. But this weekend I blew everything off and thus; here I am with a pile of work and one afternoon to do it.

So, as I walked home from school, I tried to think of a subject for this week’s article. And I had nuthin’!  When this happens, the whole day gets set back as I dilly-dally on my way home. I tell myself I’m taking my time trying to come up with an inspiration. In fact, I’m really just delaying the inevitable. I’m SO good at that!

I stopped at my little coffee shop and when the owner (and my friend) Fehti, asked me how I was, as is my new French practice, I complained. I explained that it was deadline day and I didn’t have a subject for my article. He tapped on a box sitting in front of me filled with little packets of what looked like seeds. He said, tell your readers about this; it’s a very old Provençal tradition. I replied that I’d be happy to explain…really happy… if I had any idea what that was. All the patrons then commenced to tutor me on this lovely little Provençal holiday tradition called Le Blè de l’Espérance (also called Le Blè de Ste. Barbe) which translates to The Wheat of Hope.

The tradition stems from an old Roman custom during which people would test the strength of the wheat seeds for next year’s planting. If the seeds sprouted well, the year would bring prosperity. If they emerged yellow and sparse, things weren’t looking so good. From this tradition stemmed the proverb “Blè bien germé, c’est prospérité pour toute l’année”. Which means” wheat well germinated is prosperity for all the year”, but it sounds better and actually rhymes in French, like a good proverb should.

So here in Provence, every year, on the Jour de la St. Barbe (the day of St. Barbara) people plant their wheat. By December 24, the wheat has grown tall and green…hopefully. Then a red ribbon is wrapped around the wheat, tied with a bow, and this adorned symbol of an abundant upcoming year is placed on the table as a centerpiece.

After a little research I discovered that in the 14th century, St. Barbara was beheaded by her own father after her conversion to Catholicism and her father was then duly struck by lightening.  Barbara subsequently became, in the world of saint-dom, the saint who protects against violent death and later developed into the Saint of Hazardous Occupations. I found it a little odd that this girl would be also associated with fertility and abundance.  With a little more fact-finding I learned the St. Barbara just lucked out on this one. Actually, the ancients discovered that it takes 20 days to get perfect wheat for Christmas and 20 days before Christmas Eve just happens to be December 4th, the day of Saint Barbara.

So this year, and all years henceforth, I’m adopting this little holiday ritual. If you’d like to join me this Saturday, here’s what you do. Place a bed of cotton in a saucer or shallow bowl and sprinkle in a handful of wheat seeds or lentil seeds. Dampen it with water and keep it moist; you don’t want it standing in water. Let it rest in a warm place but not directly near heat. If you’re nice to it, it should grow 5 to 10 inches tall. On Christmas Eve, encircle the stems with a red ribbon and place it on your holiday table.

Since the 1980’s, a benevolent organization here in Provence sells little packets of these seeds at various businesses for one euro apiece and all the proceeds go to benefit children in various hospitals in the region.  Which makes it an all-around delightful custom, in spite of the fact that it celebrates a woman who lost her head. And having this new tradition in my life just proves that my tradition of dilly-dallying has got a definite up-side. 

I wish you tall, green wheat and great abundance in the year ahead.



  1. That is a delightful custom. Now I'll be able to understand why French people have wheat on their Christmas table. Had you seen the wheat before and thought it was artsy rather than tradition?
    (Thanks for blogging. I'm avoiding my work and am more successful if I find some interesting blogs to read)

  2. Thanks for checking in, Delana. It IS a busy time of year, so don't fret about it.

    Saint Barbara? Wow. I never heard her story. Yikes. Now I'll never forget it!

  3. The sale of the packets of seeds for charity sounds much more worth my odd coins than Mme. Chirac's 'Pieces Jaunes' campaign.

    Lovely tale.

  4. And kids today get upset when they are scolded. Geez, how about a beheading instead...?

    Didn't know about St Barbe either but what an interesting story!

  5. Lovely story, totally unknown to me. Hopefully I will remember to plant my seeds next 4th od December.


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