The novena of Candlemas, covering the period from 24 January to 1 February, was a devotion once particularly performed by those young Bretons who wished to know who they were destined to marry and it was believed that there was no devotion more agreeable to the Virgin Mary than this novena which rewarded, with extraordinary favour, anyone paying her this special tribute.
Once far more commonplace than popularly found today, a nine day period of devotional prayers, known as novenas, are sometimes observed in preparation for a Christian feast day. Such prayers, typically offered at the same time each day, are made to petition for special favours or to ask for a sign from God.
Perhaps best known for his 1820 adaptation of John Polidori’s tale The Vampyre, French author Charles Nodier described the novena of Candlemas in his Souvenirs de la Jeunesse (1832) and La Neuvaine de la Chandeleur (1839). He tells us that the novena started on 24 January with eight hours of prayer in a chapel dedicated to the Virgin, where, with a piety that did not diminish, one needed to hear the first mass said every day and attend the last prayers each night until 1 February. On the eve of Candlemas itself, it was necessary to attend all the masses in church and to hear all the evening instructions without missing a single one. It was also important to have made a full confession and received absolution; it was crucial, for any hope of success, to return to one’s home in a state of grace, prepared for an evening of devout prayer and fasting.
Once alone and closeted away in one’s home, it was necessary to ensure that all was arranged in such a way as to be appropriate to receive a guest of some distinction. Particular care needed to be taken with the dining table which was decorated with clean white linen, as fine as could be obtained. The table, set for two, was garnished with two full dinner services except for the knives, which were to be avoided at all costs.
The meal served consisted of two pieces of blessed bread brought back from the last mass attended and two small measures of unadulterated wine divided equally between the two place settings. In the middle of the table, separating the two placings, only a single porcelain or, if available, silver serving dish was called for, containing two blessed sprigs of myrtle, rosemary or any other green plant except boxwood; carefully placed one next to another so as not to cross.
Such formalities completed, the door was reopened in anticipation of the expected guest. Taking a seat at the table, one recommended themselves devoutly to the Virgin and drifted to sleep while waiting for the effects of her protection which, it was said, never failed to appear. In the comfort of sleep, strange and wonderful visions were revealed.
Those girls for whom providence had intended the happiness of marriage were believed to see the image of the man who will love them, if he finds them, or the man that would have loved them if he had found them. It was said that a particular privilege of this novena was to give the same dream to the young man of whom one dreamt and to inspire him with the same impatience to join the lady made known to him in a dream.
It was said that those who were destined not to marry were tormented by alarming forecasts. Some, intended for the convent, saw a long procession of nuns slowly pass, singing prayers; the others, whom death must strike before their time, attend their own funerals and awaken with a start to the light of funeral torches and the sounds of their family weeping over a coffin draped in white.
A story tells of the daughter of a Breton noble who, on the eve of Candlemas in 1794, during the height of the Terror, visited the Fontaine du Coq in Bulat-Pestivien. This sacred spring, dedicated to the Virgin Mary, was once a popular site of pilgrimage; its water being said to hold therapeutic virtues that cured the sick. It was also said to be an oracular fountain that allowed believers to read their fate in its water. According to legend, it was on the eve of Candlemas that the waters revealed to young women the face of their future husband.
Born the only child of the Marquis de Kergoat, Catherine Glomel celebrated her eighteenth birthday at the family’s ancestral home; an old granite manor nestled in the countryside a short distance east of the village of Bulat-Pestivien. She would, of course, have preferred to have been near her friends in Nantes or Paris, where her family kept houses but those cities held nothing for her now; there had been no word from her friends for almost two years and her father’s city properties had been seized by the authorities.
The majority of the marquis’ vast estate in central Brittany had been confiscated by the new republic but the old manor house, being in a poor state, had, so far, escaped sequestration. To avoid any untoward official attention, the old marquis lived as a recluse surrounded by only his oldest, most trusted servants and his beloved daughter. As an additional precaution, he had also assumed the name of a commoner, Jean Glomel.
On the evening of the first day of February, clad in thick woollen shawls to guard against the biting south wind, Catherine set out to offer her devotions to the Virgin at the ancient fountain with its ornate 16th century edifice. As ever, she was accompanied by her trusted maid, Marie Anne; a family retainer of longstanding and a lady known throughout the canton for her deep familiarity with the old beliefs.
The women had skirted the small Chapel of Saint-Blaise when the moonlight broke through the trees to illuminate a pyramidal wall of dressed stone adorned with fine pinnacles and carved figures; its niches sadly devoid of the statues that the women had long been used to seeing there. As Catherine descended the few steps into the fountain, she caught the sweet smell of damp moss in the air and turned towards the source once thought to have been home to a fairy venerated by the Celts of old.
Catherine made her ablutions as she softly uttered the mysterious incantation taught to her, in return for a very modest donation, by the old woman whose wild hair, wrinkled features and mumbling lips were well known in the cottages and castles of central Brittany: “On the surface of the fairy mirror, Good Lady, show me, for a moment, the one who will be my love.”
Almost immediately, the charm began to weave its special magic. In the middle of the water, a small mist suddenly formed and slowly lifted; a form took shape then melted into a single appearance. In the gloom, Catherine distinguished the smiling face of an old man with greying hair, ruddy cheeks and a thick white beard. Catherine swiftly hurried away; her head reeling in anxious confusion. The notion that the Good Lady intended for her, a husband in his sixties, frightened Catherine so much that when she returned home she could not sleep all night.
Two days later, still overwhelmed by her vision, she could not help raising the matter with her father over dinner. The old gentleman pushed his bowl of kig ha farz aside and gently teased his daughter, he laughed at her evocations of Candlemas and reminded her that she had no need of the old superstitions and indeed had she not been engaged for some time to her distant cousin, Hervieu de Gourmont, who was far from having a single grey hair on his head.
Their simple meal, a far cry from the fine fare that they had once been accustomed to, was almost over when they were interrupted by an unexpected commotion in the hallway. Suddenly, the door crashed open and there, on the threshold of the dining room, stood five men dressed in long grey cloaks, their long hair tied at the back of the neck by a large ribbon, their faces concealed behind black velvet masks.
One of their number stepped forward: “Citizen Jean Glomel” said a young voice with a clear air of authority, “we are here to search your home. You have been hiding the old priest of Bulat here. Your daughter was seen two nights ago skulking near the presbytery and leaving with him, disguised in women’s clothes. There is no need to try to pretend otherwise or any point in resisting. Come along, quickly now, show us your attics and your cellars.”
“Citizen,” replied the old marquis, rising to his feet: “I give you my word of honour at this time when, I accept, the notion carries little weight, that there is no shadow of a cassock in my house. The person who accompanied my daughter in Bulat the other night was none other than her old nursemaid, Marie Anne. Both had been to the old fountain to evoke the superstitious and naive visions of Candlemas. Go ahead, search my home as you think fit.”
Stepping towards the masked man who had spoken, Jean Glomel mustered his manners and graciously asked if he would care to share their meal. The man, clearly the group’s leader, sent his men to search the house and gladly accepted the hospitality offered. To the marquis’ surprise, the conversation and wine flowed easily with his Jacobin guest, especially as no words touched upon the upheavals wrought by the revolution.
Throughout dinner, the official’s mask remained fast and it was impossible for the marquis to distinguish the features of his uninvited guest. However, there was something in the man’s voice particularly its inflections, which told him that he was not in the company of a stranger. Alas, he could not be certain and was unable to retrieve any memory that would help identify his guest although he was convinced that the stranger’s language and manners revealed him, at times, to be a man of his own world, now lost.
Catherine maintained a respectful interest in the evening’s exchanges but found her mind worrying over the fate of Father Jean. She had been assured by her father that the priest had escaped overseas so as to avoid the doom that befell the rector but perhaps he was still hiding in the area; these men clearly thought so. She wondered whether these were the same men who had desecrated the church a few years earlier. Was she perhaps, even now, sitting at table with one of the men who had stripped the church of its gold and silver thus robbing the community of its most sacred relics in the name of ridding them of the vain tinsel of fanaticism?
It was very late at night by the time the masked official gathered together his men and left the old manor. His last words, spoken softly, were to reassure the family of their safety. However, morning brought an unexpected and disturbing discovery; a small, grubby piece of card was found, discarded, in the vestibule. It bore just three words but they tore the soul out of both father and daughter: Hervieu de Gourmont. Catherine was stunned to silence while the old marquis cursed as he felt tears of shame well in his eyes for the man who was to have become his son.
The years of turmoil endured and eventually eased but the marquis did not live long enough to see the return of kings. Catherine never married; she refused any alliance, being unwilling to again embrace the blue dreams of her youth and replace the image that had once filled all her heart. She invested all her energies in the farm that her father had managed to carve from the rump of their, once fine, estate and spent much of her days caring for her trusty maid, Marie Anne, now approaching ninety one years of age.
As always on the eve of Candlemas, that of 1830 found Catherine’s memories return to settle, briefly, on the events that changed her life so long ago. No sooner had she sat down for dinner than suddenly, just as thirty five years earlier, the door to the hallway opened with a crash and a stranger stood at the threshold. The light of the high oil lamps illuminated a man dressed in the manner of a Parisian, with greying hair and ruddy cheeks framed by a fine white beard: indistinguishable from the appearance in the mirror of the Bulat spring.
“I have come, as I once did before on such an evening, to requisition your supper, my dear cousin,” said the newcomer with a slight bow, “but this time as an honest man, as a gentleman.” The brief moments of tenderness, once glimpsed in her young girl’s dreams and dashed so cruelly long ago must have still lingered in the depths of her heart, for Catherine indulged her visitor and it was with an earnest wish of welcome that she invited her former fiancé to stay.
The years fell away as Viscount Hervieu de Gourmont and Catherine dropped into easy conversation over dinner. The viscount regaled her with many tales of his emigrant adventures and showed himself to be a good and attentive guest; an amiable man and amusing conversationalist. He recounted, with great wit, how he had been obliged to assume a false identity in order to save the Marquis de Kergoat, whose presence had been noted and reported to the Revolutionary Committee in Guingamp. With a little quick thinking and some judiciously applied gold coins, he had been able to secure, from the military commission of Port Brieuc, leadership of the party sent to Bulat that Candlemas.
Hervieu laughed heartily when he heard that his search party had unwittingly been within feet of discovering the famous statue known as Our Lady of Bulat; a large silver statue of the Virgin that had, for years, been sought by the authorities as the main instrument of superstition in the region. This treasure of Brittany had been buried by the priest of Bulat in the corner of the marquis’ barn, where it had remained safe and undetected for ten long years.
Reconciled and reunited, the couple parted company in the small hours and, as the poets tell us, love recalled is love reborn and so it was on that Candlemas. Later that day, Catherine told Marie Anne of the night’s events and the old lady was delighted to celebrate the return of one to accompany the joy of the other. A wedding was arranged for the Tuesday following Easter and as the fairy mirror had predicted, Catherine would marry the old man whose image had smiled at her thirty five years before in the fountain of Bulat. Truly, the vision of Candlemas did not deceive.