In the British Isles, thanksgiving for successful harvests has been celebrated since the pagan ages. Harvest festivals are traditionally held on the Sunday near, or on, the Harvest Moon – that is, the full moon which occurs closest to the autumnal equinox (around September 23). In many lands, this astronomical event coincides with the harvest and is an important time for religious rituals and celebrations. From Meán Fómhair in pre-Christian Eire, to the pyramid builders at Chichen Itza in the Yucatan, to Higan rituals of remembrance in Japan, this astronomical event has long been a catalyst of religious inspiration and awe. Gratitude is not limited to the pious – even secular nations recognize this pan-human emotion. For example, World Gratitude Day is celebrated each September 21; it was created in 1977 by the United Nations Meditation Group as a time to celebrate our existence, passions, local heroes, relatives, friends and all the little things in life which bring us joy.
In Provence, the flower garden of France, the people have much to be grateful about – gorgeous landscapes that Impressionist masters immortalized on canvas, fields of lavender that perfume the countryside, and cobblestone streets that lead to natural fountains and charming buildings. Here, autumn is a second spring when every leaf is a golden flower. In the heart of this fairy-tale land is its ancient capital, Aix-en-Provence, which flourished as the center of arts and learning during the middle ages. Its history as a natural spa goes back thousands of years to 122 BC, when the Roman garrison of Gaius Sextus Calvinus founded this city of hot springs as Aquae Sextiae. Through the years, the words Aquae Sextiae concatenated into the single word Aix (pronounced like the English letter X).
According to French tradition, Mary Magdalene, the first person to witness Jesus’ resurrection, came to Provence in a small boat with neither rudder nor mast, and landed at the place called Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer near Arles; she evangelized Provence, and when the hour of her death arrived, she was carried by angels to Aix and into the oratory of Saint-Maximin-la-Sainte-Baume, where pilgrims from around the world come to venerate her relics. The tradition of the small boat remains firmly ensconced in Aixian culture.
In 1629, a great bubonic plague engulfed the Duchy of Milan, thereafter made its way to Provence, where it devastated Aix. Those who had money to do so, fled. On January 11, 1630, one of the few remaining town leaders, Monsieur Martelly proclaimed a vow to the Holy Virgin of Seds, patron saint of the city of Aix: Save Aix from the plague, and we will offer gratitude to you forever more. By September of that year, the plague abated, and the church marked the occasion at a mass of Thanksgiving.
The Alte Pinakothek Museum of Fine Arts in Munich house one of the most famous collections of Old Masters’ paintings; it also holds a manuscript written by a Capuchin friar named Bonaventure de Six-Fours in the 1600s, “Customs of Church and Mission Festivals in Provence.” The medieval manuscript describes a boat-shaped chalice (câlisse) of wine into which almond wafers are dipped for distribution during mass. The almond wafers are called calissons, and have become a specialty of Aix en Provence; they are made from ground almond paste (pâte d’amande), sugar and candied cantaloupes, a topping of sugar glaze, all layered upon a boat-shaped paper-thin wafer (like the Catholic host) as the foundation.
Rich families and confectioners marked their gratitude by supplying the church with calissons in lieu of bland, ordinary wafers. These festive calissons, blessed by the Archbishop, were distributed to the faithful, who sang “Venite Ad Calicem” [Come to the Chalice]. Since 1630, the city of Aix-en-Provence has kept its promise of gratitude by ringing church bells on the first of September. Annual blessing ceremonies were held in the church Notre-Dame de la Seds, which was the first residence of the bishops of Provence. The tradition continued until interrupted by the Revolution.
Before the Revolution, 1757-58, Jean-Pancrace Chastel sculpted an ornate scene of thanksgiving on the north gable of L’Ancienne Halle aux Grains. The sculptures represent Saturn, a major Roman god presiding over agriculture and the harvest time, accompanied by the goddess Cybele, who embodies the fertile Earth. Saturn, in the guise of an old man crowned with reeds, rests upon an urn, from which flows the river Rhone. He holds a paddle to represent navigation. Cybele represents the Durance river, and holds an overflowing cornucopia in her left hand. This tribute to thanksgiving occupies a prominent spot in the city center – Place de l’Hotel de Ville (City Hall). The people of Aix are known for their sincere gratitude.
Now in its 16th year, Aix continues special blessing of the boat-shaped wafers at its annual Bénédiction des Calissons d’Aix, in remembrance of Martelly’s vow of 1630. On the first Sunday of September, two ancient houses of worship hold mass to bless the calissons: The Cathédrale St-Sauveur at 10:30 am, and The Église de Saint-Jean de Malthe at 3:00 pm.
The Cathédrale is a national monument; the current building dates back to the 5th century. According to the Christian tradition, the original church on the site was founded by Saint Maximinus of Aix, who arrived in Provence from The Holy Land with Mary Magdalene on a boat belonging to Lazarus. Maximin built a humble chapel on the site of the present cathedral and dedicated it to the Holy Saviour (le Saint Sauveur). We toured the cathedral, which has a personal connection for us.
My 21st great grandfather, Raimond Bérenger IV, Count of Provence, and his family attended this church. He had four daughters, all who married kings. Two of his daughters are my ancestors on separate branches: Eleanor married Henry III, King of England, and Marguerite married Louis IX, King of France. The historical highlight of the cathedral is a 5th-century Merovingian baptistery, with an octagonal basin – each of the four queens were baptized here while children.
The baby sister, Beatrice, married Charles I of Anjou, King of Sicily. As a monument to her father, Charles and Beatrice built a gothic church to house the tomb of Raimond Bérenger IV: The Église de Saint-Jean de Malthe. Here, the bodies of Alfonso II, Raimond and Beatrice rest in peace, and their tombs are marked by gracious marble statues. This beautiful gothic church hosts the second celebration of the calissons.
Aix holds a “passo-Carriero” procession through the ancient city, displaying The Statue of Our Lady of Calissons at the forefront. The Faithful are dressed in ancient Provençal clothing, and at 3 pm enter The Église de Saint-Jean de Malthe with baskets of calissons to be blessed by the Bishop. After the blessing, the calissons are distributed around the fountains of the Place des Quatre Dauphins.
A local legend asserts that calissons were invented in 1454 by the chef of René I d’Anjou, King of Naples and Count of the Provence to celebrate his wedding to Jeanne de Laval. During the festivities Jeanne asked the name of the sweets, and The Good King answered in Provençal “Di calins souns (they are hugs)” [for you]. It’s a romantic story how the sweets got their name, but writer Canale di Martino , in his chronicle of the Venetians ( 1275 ) specifically mentions the name of a specialty called “calissons” which are similarly made. Considering that the Venetians were sea-faring people who prized gondolas and other boat-like craft, it’s a high probability boat-shaped calissons were around long before the royal wedding.
Bountiful harvests have always been a source for celebration in Aix. It is immediately apparent in the markets which spring forth every morning throughout the old town. We found luxurious soaps made from lavender, flavored honey in charming bottles, freshly cut flowers, gorgeously ripe vegetables and all kinds of appealing goods sold by vendors under canvas umbrellas. Aix has a farmer’s market every day somewhere in the city – the visitor need only discover their whereabouts. I was thrilled to purchase giant bottles of lavender oil from the growers; I use the oil for blending custom perfumes.
We can learn from the people of Aix – life isn’t measured in the breaths you take, but in the moments that take your breath away. Standing in a field of millions of sunflowers is one of those moments I experienced in Provence. If you seek a place of beauty, you will find it in Aix-en-Provence.