Editor’s Note: Bring a bit of Provence to your holiday feast this year. Learn about the centuries-old Christmas Eve tradition known as Le Gros Souper (“The Great Supper”) at the end of this post.
“The first time I experienced Christmas in Paris, I was awestruck,” recalls Alix Rico. “All along the Champs-Élysées, hundreds of long silver rectangles dangled from the trees. They lit up the night as they bounced off the streetlights and chimed in the wind like a bell choir. The scene in our French village is much more low-key. You won’t see commercial-sized Christmas trees or a Papa Noël on every corner. You’ll find markets stocked with seasonal crafts and homemade goodies, along with shop windows dressed in homey decor without any bling.”
It is the simplicity and authenticity of the Provençal style that has inspired Alix’s designs for decades—and not just during the holidays. For 25 years, the interior decorator and her husband, Paul, a photographer, have split their time between a 17th-century townhouse in the idyllic village of Goult and their primary residence, a 1930s cottage in New Orleans. Once described as a “cookie-cutter brick box,” the home in their beloved Old Metairie neighborhood was purchased in an effort to downsize.
But going small evolved into something big when they embarked on a painstaking renovation to revive the suburban structure and infuse it with the easy elegance of their home away from home in the Luberon valley of Provence. The brick exterior was slathered with thick layers of a natural, sand-based stucco that ages gracefully over time, while run-of-the-mill windows and doors were replaced with arched counterparts trimmed in cast-stone case moldings. The entry was offset from the front to the side, allowing the European-style courtyard to become the street-facing focal point.
Inside, bleached and pickled white oak covers the floors like a blanket, softening rooms filled with Louis XV and XVI tables, chairs, and case pieces with rich walnut stains and even richer patinas. Mirrors, lighting, and accents in chalky white, robin’s egg blue, and seafoam green gleam ever so slightly in the company of their delicate gilt details that have somehow managed to survive the centuries.
“I prefer a light touch,” says Alix of the ethereal palette. “That’s reflected in the drapes, upholstery, and rugs that I surround myself with every day, so why would I go with red and green come December? My wintry mix of pure white and shiny silver speaks to my aesthetic regardless of what the calendar says.”
But to say Alix doesn’t “go green” isn’t exactly accurate. Cedar, pine, fir, eugenia, and boxwood abound in every form, from sculptural topiaries to wispy, hand-tied garlands. White flowers of any and all varieties flock the greenery like snow as they spill from a mélange of unexpected vessels, including vintage confit jars, rustic dough bowls, antique molds, and ceramic soup tureens. Perhaps the most unique of these containers isn’t a container at all, but an 18th-century giltwood crown that proudly sits on permanent display on the dining room table. During the holidays, it gets the royal treatment with a bounty of white hydrangeas, tulips, and roses bursting from the center.
“Year after year, I hear friends lament the unpacking and repacking process,” says Alix. “I don’t have heavy boxes of decorations to haul back and forth to the attic. I pull from what’s around me. I clip kumquats, citrus fruit, and magnolia leaves from my yard and gather pine cones and oak branches—the more lichen-laden, the better. The gilded statues, putti, and church plaques don’t disappear after the New Year either. They are daily reminders of the special moments, people, and places in our lives. To us, they capture the true meaning of Christmas in a way that stockings and snowmen never could.”
Scenes from Alix’s Provençal-Inspired Home
“The French don’t ‘save the good stuff’ for special occasions. They love what they have, so they use it. They don’t see a chip on a plate or a patch of tarnish on the silver as a flaw, but as a sign of a life well lived,” says Alix.
The Provençal Feast
In Provence, many families throughout the region continue a centuries-old Christmas Eve tradition known as Le Gros Souper. Translating to “The Great Supper,” the humble menu consists of seven dishes in remembrance of the seven plagues of Christ. The meatless fare often includes soup, white bread, omelets, escargot, cod, anchovies, and artichokes. In the spirit of giving, an extra seat and place setting is reserved for an unexpected guest like a downtrodden neighbor or wayward traveler with nowhere else to go.
Following the meal, a wine-filled coupe referred to as Sauvé Chrétiens (Save the Christians) is passed around the table. According to local lore, a sip from the communal cup will warm and fortify celebrants as they walk in the cold night air to the village church. After the service, they arrive home to a bountiful spread of 13 desserts awaiting on a table draped with three white tablecloths in honor of the Holy Trinity. The desserts, representing Christ and his 12 apostles, include an assortment of nuts, fresh and dried fruit, quince cheese, and black and white nougat. Freshly baked olive oil bread, or gibassier, is accompanied by calissons, a candied fruit paste, and navettes, little boat-shaped cookies flavored with orange-flower water imported from the capital city of Marseille.