As the oldest and most important Christian festival, it should come as no surprise to discover that several popular traditions and superstitions once surrounded Eastertide here in Brittany.
In many households here, people would not dare to slaughter any animal on Good Friday or to sow any kind of grain. Serious misfortune was said to follow for anyone who spun yarn on Maundy Thursday or Good Friday. Nor was the latter popularly regarded as an appropriate day to do the laundry, for it was believed that a person who slept in a bed whose sheets had been washed on that day would be in danger of dying there within the year. Easter was also thought an unlucky time to get engaged to be married but to be assured of marriage within the year, young women once climbed to the summit of the large boulder in the churchyard of Saint Eustache’s chapel in Saint-Étienne-en-Coglès on Good Friday.
However, certain practices were positively encouraged for Good Friday. For instance, it was considered a most auspicious day for sowing cabbages and onions; the latter were said to be protected from drought and insects if sown on that day. Similarly, grilling a sardine to hang from the ceiling beams of your house on Good Friday was said to ensure the year ahead would be free from bothersome flies. Likewise, sprinkling a little broth made of pork-fat into the ponds and streams near the house on Good Friday was recommended to guard against the annoying clamour of croaking frogs throughout the coming summer.
It was also a traditionally held belief here that children needed to be washed on Good Friday in order to protect them from scabies. While the bread baked on that day was believed to hold special properties; if placed in a pile of wheat, it protected it against mice and other rodents.
It was also customary here that, on Good Friday, those who lived within striking distance of the sea visited the coast to collect barnacles and whelks. People were not despondent if it rained on the day as it was said to forecast plentiful supplies of bread in August. This was also the day that those who kept bees, placed a small cross of wax, blessed by the local priest, on top of the hives in order to secure good fortune over the year ahead. However, in some parts of the region, it was a blessed branch of boxwood that was put on each hive. This latter practice carries some similarities to the ritual observed a few days earlier on Palm Sunday, when blessed sprigs of boxwood were typically placed on the graves of loved ones and also on the strips of a family’s uncultivated land for the same purpose.
The potential of the day was also manifested in the belief that only a healer born feet first on the afternoon of Good Friday was powerful enough to straighten the spines of those people suffering from rickets. Likewise, the seventh child of a family of seven boys was thought to possess the gift to cure intermittent fever and scrofula but only on a Good Friday. While a seaweed popularly known as marine mistletoe was said to cure epilepsy but only if harvested at three o’clock in the morning of Easter Sunday by a person with a perfectly clear conscience.
Belief in the transformative power of Easter can also be seen in its employment against the supernatural. For instance, in some parts of Brittany, it was believed that werewolves could only be killed by being struck three times by a dagger made of silver melted from a crucifix or shot by a ball moulded from the same source but only if the haft of the knife or the stock of the rifle had been rubbed with wax from the Paschal candle. It was also said that even that bird of ill omen, the magpie, crossed its nest on Good Friday. Roosters born on this day were believed to start crowing unusually early and to possess the ability to foretell death, which they did by altering their usual cry. Around Saint-Brieuc, mariners once believed that fish spoke in the language of men on Easter Day.
In Brittany, the eggs laid by chickens on Good Friday were thought to bring good luck to the household and were carefully kept as talismans to protect the house against fire over the year ahead. Here, people traditionally refrained from eating eggs during Holy Week but then ate as many as a dozen on Easter Day. Care having been taken with storing the eggs laid on Good Friday as it was once believed that eating the first egg laid on that day would protect one from illness for the following seven months. As well as using-up whatever fresh eggs remained from the previous week of abstinence, eating eggs on Easter Sunday was also thought the best way to assure the fertility of the household’s domestic animals. While Easter Sunday was the day to break open the eggs, Quasimodo Sunday was traditionally the day to break apart the pots and plates that had been chipped and damaged over the previous year.
While the custom of exchanging gifts of eggs was not unique to Christian celebrations, at Easter, the egg symbolized both life and the sealed tomb which contained the body of Christ until it opened after His resurrection. Another widespread custom once associated with Easter here involved colouring, on Maundy Thursday, the eggs to be gifted on Easter Day; typically these were dyed red with boiled onion skins. We will now never know why red was most popularly used; some suggest that it was to symbolise Christ’s sacrifice, while Christian legends tells us that it was in remembrance of the miraculous tears shed by the Virgin Mary at Golgotha or in support of Mary Magdalene’s proclamation of the resurrection before the sceptical Roman Emperor.
The egg has long carried mystical connotations and was often a favourite tool of the humble healer as well as the more sinister sorcerer. Traditionally, fresh eggs were often mixed with various leaves and seeds to treat all manner of ailments but it was used on its own to treat eye diseases which were treated with the application of a very fresh, still warm, egg. An egg yolk mixed with lambig and red wine was even said to cure dysentery. In times past, the practice of transmitting a disease from the patient into an egg was not uncommon. In central Brittany, sick people would place a fresh chicken egg into the waters of the Notre-Dame-de-Lille fountain in Kergrist-Moëlou; as the egg rotted, so, the fever dissipated.
Sometimes, eggs served more rather diabolical purposes; sorcerers were believed to use them to cast malevolent spells that caused great harm. Thus the shells of eggs that had been eaten were customarily struck three times so as to deny one’s enemies the means of preparing an evil charm against you. Additionally, foretelling the future by inspecting the motion of egg whites in water was once popular with witches and alchemists alike; the eggs laid during the day by black hens were held to be the most effective for such oomancy, especially if consulted under the light of the midday sun.
In Brittany, as elsewhere in France, church bells were traditionally not rung between Maundy Thursday and Easter Sunday; a mark of mourning for the death of Christ before ringing again in celebration of the resurrection on Easter Day. According to legend, the bells did not sit idly in their towers; for, on Good Friday, they made a pilgrimage to Rome where they were blessed by the pope. They returned full of pious vigour on Easter Sunday, laden with eggs dressed as red as the pope’s cardinals, along with other treats for the children. Chocolate eggs did not really start to appear in Brittany until well into the 20th century.
Some old stories tell that the bells are accompanied on their homeward journey by hosts of angels carrying baskets filled with flowers and eggs which they disburse near the houses of the deserving. However, the spirit of darkness, ever vigilant in its quest for fresh prey, was sometimes nimble enough to slip its rancid egg amongst those gifted by God.
It is said that many years ago, in a small village located several leagues south of the market town of Guingamp, a widow and her beautiful daughter earned an honest living as seamstresses of note; such was their reputation for delivering fine results that they always found themselves busy with work. Nolwenn was now nineteen years of age and it was not just her mother who considered her as beautiful as the fairies and as virtuous as the angels; many proposals of marriage had been made to her since she had turned fifteen but her mother had always postponed the painful day that would separate her from her daughter. “You’re not ready. Wait just one more year”, her mother would say and Nolwenn was always happy to acquiesce and remain under her mother’s wing.
Returning home from mass one Easter Sunday, the two women discovered an old beggar seated at the doorway of their cottage. This beggar was unknown to the village and yet entreated Nolwenn’s charity as though he had known her for years. Nolwenn’s mother went to fetch water while, as was her way, Nolwenn donated what she could spare by way of coins and bread. On receiving her alms, the stranger, whose face remained hidden by a ragged hood, said to her in a quavering voice: “Beautiful lady, today is the greatest feast of the year, if you do not disdain the poor gift of an old beggar, take this egg, it will bring you good fortune. Before the next Easter arrives, a kindly lord will come and ask you for marriage, you will become a countess my beautiful child because it is written so. On the day of your union, break this egg and you will find within its frail shell, my wedding present to you.” As he said these words, he handed her an egg, unusually large and of a brilliant deep red hue.
Having thanked the beggar for his kind gift, Nolwenn watched him shuffle steadily away and took a moment to examine her egg, laughing at the old man’s prophesy as she did so. For some reason, she did not tell her mother of this most singular encounter, she merely wrapped the egg in a piece of torn cloth and placed it at the bottom of her clothes box. Her life continued as before but increasingly her mother would surprise her in some deep reverie. Unknown passions burned in her heart, enchanting dreams disturbed her sleep; several times, she even saw in her restless sleep the beggar’s egg glow a sinister red and radiate like a fiery coal in the darkness.
More than once, Nolwenn was tempted to break the egg in order to know the future but she pushed such curiosity to the bottom of her heart and instead surrendered herself to the destiny of God’s will. A short distance west of her village stood the old castle of Kraviou; dismembered during the Wars of Religion, the castle had been abandoned for centuries and its ruins long since consumed by ivy. It therefore caused much surprise in the locality when a gentleman arrived on Midsummer’s Day claiming to be the heir to the old lords and their estate. In short order, the castle was partly restored and the new lord, Rivallon de Kersaliou, established a comfortable home there, surrounding himself with friends from the city who spent their days hunting and feasting.
During one of the lord’s outings, providence conspired to set Nolwenn across his path; he espied her walking near the village fountain and was immediately stuck by her beauty and grace. Having inquired as to her name and whereabouts, it was not long before he stood upon the threshold of Nolwenn’s cottage. The haze of introductions were still floating about the air when, suddenly, the Lord of Kersaliou made a bold proposal of marriage. Nolwenn’s mother, stunned by this unexpected proposition, refused but the good lord would not be swayed and eventually, she yielded to him. Perhaps it was the improved prospects offered for her daughter’s future by a noble match that changed her mind. Whatever the reason, she gave her approval only on condition that Nolwenn herself agreed to the union.
This Nolwenn did with much eager happiness, assuring her mother that as the wife of a lord, they need never again fill every hour of daylight with labour and that her improved circumstances would allow her to donate more alms to the poor and needy. Finally, the necessary arrangements were made and five weeks later, the wedding of the noble Lord of Kersaliou and Nolwenn, the seamstress’ daughter, was celebrated on an auspicious Tuesday in the chapel of the castle in the presence of an unknown chaplain and de Kersaliou’s many high-born friends.
The day was filled with a wonderful banquet; a feast of such splendour as the parish had not seen before. All the inhabitants of the village were invited and there were also full tables of food set-up for the beggars and vagrants of the neighbourhood to enjoy the day’s festivities. Everyone remarked on how fine the musicians were; always sensing when to encourage another gavotte or to lead the guests into an energetic circular dance. Nolwenn’s mother, who had been to the city, said that she had never seen as many people as there were servants hurrying to and fro between the castle and the wedding feat with fresh pitchers of drink and full platters of food.
In the midst of the day’s head-spinning splendour, Nolwenn had not forgotten her Easter egg, nor the old beggar’s prediction that was now coming true. She was anxious to open her egg and had earlier arranged for her box to have been brought over to the castle and placed in the bridal chamber. With nightfall, the merrymaking and dancing slowly fell away and, little by little, the guests showered the couple with good wishes and withdrew. The newlyweds ascended the stairs together but her husband had taken just a few steps before he turned back to have words with his page while Nolwenn’s maid led her eagerly upstairs and into the most beautiful room she had ever seen.
The midnight bell was striking and Nolwenn caught herself quivering with emotion when her husband, Rivallon, entered their chamber. He smiled as he walked towards her in hopes of his first husband’s embrace but Nolwenn stepped back from him, saying: “My dear lord and love, before I belong to you, as I swore before the chaplain, I want to know what is in my mysterious egg, which, almost a year ago, was given to me by a beggar who predicted the fate that favours me today. I promised to break it on the first night of my marriage because it must answer the enigma, which, for some time, has enveloped my existence and made me its mistress.”
“Why now, what is the point tonight? Today is for happiness! Would not tomorrow be soon enough? Surely, we can …,” her husband replied. However, Nolwenn could not wait to even listen to the end of her husband’s words and had already taken the egg between her fingers. Alas, the egg was so hot that, without thinking, she instantly threw it to the ground where it shattered. Immediately, an enormous toad emerged from the broken shell. The vile beast jumped on to the wedding bed, vomiting flames which set the curtains ablaze; then, with a tremendous leap, it passed through an archway and continued to spew its sulphurous fire on all sides. The fire’s surge was swift; its grip terrible. Flames consumed everything and soon a terrific crack shook the castle’s rafters which collapsed in a ghastly conflagration, returning the castle once again to ashes. Satan had gathered one more soul.
From that day to this, local people claim that during moonlit nights, the ghostly figure of the young bride can be glimpsed prowling around the castle’s ruins. Sometimes, the soft wind is said to carry the sound of her lamentable voice begging the poor of the village for their prayers, in memory of the many alms she had given them when she lived.
As you impatiently break open the delicate shells of your Easter eggs, spare a thought for the poor lady of Kersaliou and the steady path to perdition that began with a gift that was not what it was blindly hoped to be.