In Frigolet, a Christmas of celebrations after the fire

It’s a night of Christmas cool, breezy and starry. Lights and the music of galoubets and fifes escape from Saint-Michel de Frigolet. This 12th century abbeye century has just welcomed a “big soup”, a feast bringing together the faithful close to the Premonstratensian community that animates the place. Christmas Eve will begin in the Provencal tradition, with its pastrage, a procession of shepherds and Arles women bringing lambs and sheep to the church in procession and music.

Costumes of silk, velvet, cotton for the children, headdresses with ribbons, capes and hats for the shepherds, canons in white clothes, and a community of faithful returning in droves to the church, the traditions of Christmas are respected in the basilica narrowly saved from the flames the previous summer. The fire that broke out here July 14, 2022 stay in the heads. It inscribes its stigmata in the surrounding landscape with its charred and twisted trunks, its empty expanses, its bare and raw white rocks. “For us, it was like when Notre-Dame-de-Paris was burning, terrifying”, testifies a parishioner of Tarascon. It was raining ashes at our house in Avignon, twenty kilometers away”, says another.

“The fire surrounded the massif and the abbey”

In this Montagnette which was the green lung of its region, the blaze ravaged 1,600 hectares of pines, olive trees, scrubland and woods. Fighted tirelessly by 1,200 firefighters, it cost the life of one of them, Chief Warrant Officer Martial Morin, 54, a volunteer from Tain-l’Hermitage (Drôme).In terms of destruction, it is one of the worst fires that we could know. High pines, a very wooded and very dry area, strong heat… The fire, fanned by a violent mistral, surrounded the massif and ravaged the surroundings of the abbey”, explains Pascal Chauvet, captain of the Boulbon fire brigade.

The rebirth of Christmas is all the more precious in the eyes of the prior of the abbey, brother Jean-Charles, who presides over midnight mass. His homily, entirely turned towards the humility of the birth of Christ, naked, helpless and entrusted to the love of his mother, does not evoke the fire which almost consumed this high place of spirituality in Provence. He celebrates tonight “the hope of the Nativity and the radiance in hearts of the presence of God”. A high mass of nearly two hours, in Latin, French and Provençal, festive and ardent in its desire to be reborn despite the difficulties.

“Fire has become an economic and administrative problem, because of damage, insurance, reforestation issues. But the abbey could also be excluded from the minds of visitors and pilgrims, because for them the Montagnette is forbidden to access. Yet only the burnt area is closed to shepherds and walkers. The roads are clear, and we always welcome in our church and our monastic lodges, says the prior. The economic aspect, we will always manage. But we need prayers, vocations. Noyour future is that of the church from France, he must be spiritual », adds Brother Jean-Charles.

The thirteen Christmas desserts for the offertory

Physical reconstruction is underway. “The emergency works, listed by the National Forestry Office, were approved on December 20 at a cost of €400,000 in 2023. They will be financed by the department, the region and the ONF Agir pour the forest “, explains Lucien Limousin, Mayor of Tarascon. On the spot, the vegetation takes back its rights, with beautiful herbaceous areas and small pines and holm oaks which pierce.

“We can no longer graze the animals in the burnt massif as long as the earth does not hold. In the spring, we’ll see when it grows back. » Arnaud Gabriel, shepherd of Barbentane, kneels with his lambs in front of the altar during the pastrage. He took his herd of nearly 1,000 animals, including 850 adult ewes, to graze this winter on the plains of La Crau, and does not know whether he will return to the Montagnette, or directly to the Alpages next summer. “I only kept here in my fold the ewes which were to lamb in December. With their lambs, they are in the front row of the mass! »

During the offertory, the Christmas festivities accompany the return to life in a concrete way. The shepherds bring their animals to the altar to lay two lambs in the heart of the nursery, and the Arlésiennes bring their offerings. Clementines and dried figs, walnuts and oil pumps, the thirteen Christmas desserts flourish in their baskets as their sumptuous dresses shine in the light of the basilica.

“The midnight mass in the Provençal tradition is the reminder of the people who come to Jesus to pay homage to him with their offerings: the shepherds and shepherdesses, the Arles women, the people of God, smiles Geneviève Blanc, who organizes the procession of the Arlésiennes. This year, we put even more enthusiasm into it! If the fire did not affect Frigolet, it is thanks to the firefighters, but also to the lucky star. »


The origins of the abbey

The Premonstratensian order was founded by Saint Norbert on Christmas night 1121. These canons in white habits, who follow the rule of Saint Augustine, celebrated their 900th birthday in Rome, received by Pope Francis on September 22, 2022.

Since the XIIe century, pilgrims go up to pray the Archangel Saint Michael and the Virgin Mary, at Frigolet, the first proven written trace of which dates from 1133.

Made famous by Letters of my mill of Alphonse Daudet, the abbey manufactures Father Gaucher’s elixir which it sells in its shop. It welcomes in its monastic hotels and the restaurant of La Treille.

In Frigolet, a Christmas of celebrations after the fire