Each country marks Christmas in its own way; even countries that are geographically close such as France and the UK have very varied traditions surrounding the celebration of this festival but there are also notable regional differences too. The folk customs and traditions regarding the celebration of Christmas differed from region to region in France, as elsewhere, and those in Brittany were once quite distinctive.
One tradition that was once widespread across much of Europe was that of the Yule Log. In Brittany, this was known as the “Kef Nedeleg” (literally, the Christmas trunk in Breton). As the name suggests, this was usually a massive log or even a stump of oak or some other slow-burning local hardwood such as beech or chestnut that had been specially selected and set aside for the purpose. Once hauled into the hearth, a prayer was said before the log was sprinkled with grains of salt and a little water taken from a sacred spring. A few 19th century accounts note that some families embellished the log with branches of evergreens but this does not appear to have been a custom widespread in Brittany.
In households that contained children, the fireplace was usually scrubbed clean in honour of the anticipated nocturnal visit by the Infant Jesus who was believed to descend the chimney in order to leave a gift rewarding good behaviour over the previous year. It was believed that Jesus entered the house via the chimney because the doorway was habitually used by those stained with sin whereas the chimney was constantly purified by fire. It is worth noting that the figure of Santa Claus was almost unheard of in Brittany until around the time of the Second World War.
Lit just before the family set off to attend midnight mass on Christmas Eve, the Kef Nedeleg would burn over several days; some traditions here claimed that it should burn until the Solemnity of Mary or, even longer, until the Feast of the Epiphany. The embers of the burnt log were subsequently collected as they were believed to hold magical, beneficial qualities including the ability to purify water. Additionally, small bags of ash were placed under beds in order to protect the home from lightning strikes and snakes over the year ahead.
A number of other ancient beliefs and superstitions were once closely associated with Christmas Eve in Brittany:
- Country folk would place straw wreaths around their apple trees in the hope of ensuring a good year’s harvest.
- During midnight mass, the animals in the stables were able to speak to each other in the tongues of men.
- Again, during midnight mass, at the time of consecration, a candle was said to cast light on the spot where a hidden treasure could be found. At the same time, the water in the sacred fountains was changed into wine.
- As the church bell sounded midnight, it was thought one could hear in the wind, the chimes of the church bells of Ker-Is, the legendary sunken city of Brittany, ringing in the distance.
- While the bells heralded the start of Christmas Day, standing stones known as menhirs would free themselves from the earth to drink at the ancient sacred springs; returning to the earth with the echo of the last bell. A menhir outside the town of Pontivy was said to drink at the nearby Blavet River; its momentary absence revealed a hidden treasure. In some areas, the menhirs were said to be raised into the air by birds; revealing a tantalising glimpse of the secret treasure trove they guarded over.
- On Brittany’s north coast, the Grand Rocher massif near Plestin-les-Grèves was said to entomb a magnificent lost city which could be glimpsed through a small fissure that only opened-up on Christmas Eve once every seven years. It was said that the city would be resurrected, if someone was only bold enough to venture into the depths of the mountain at the first stroke of midnight and swift enough to re-emerge before the sounds of the twelfth bell had died away.
- In western Brittany it was widely believed that the bells of midnight mass on Christmas Eve marked the end of the parish priest’s ability to metamorphose into an animal, most usually some form of black dog; an ability he was often held to possess during the period of Advent.
- Upon returning home from midnight mass, the farmer would give a small piece of bread to his animals to ensure their good health over the year ahead and protect them against the bite of a rabid dog.
In some Breton families, it was customary to have the Christmas meal after returning home from mass on the night of Christmas Eve; this feast usually consisted of a thin pork stew that had been steadily gaining flavour in the cauldron set-up in the open hearth.
The holiness of Christmas night was considered so sacred that no evil spirit could act with impunity but it was also a time for the dead; Christmas Eve being one of the three solemn festivals (the others being the night of Saint John’s Day and the eve of All Saints’ Day) where the community of the dead, the Anaon, of each region gathered. This was a night when the veil of separation between the living and the dead was particularly vulnerable; a time when the dead wandered freely in the land of the living.
The Breton ethnographer Anatole Le Braz in his book La Légende de la Mort en Basse-Bretagne (1893), described it thus:
“On Christmas night, we see them parading by the roads in long processions. They sing with soft and light voices the song of the Nativity. One would think, to hear them, that it is the leaves of the poplars that rustle, if, at this time of the year, the poplars had leaves.
At their head walks the ghost of an old priest, with curly hair, white as snow, with a slightly hunched body. In his emaciated hands, he carries the ciborium. Behind the priest comes a small altar boy who rings a tiny bell. The crowd follows, in two rows. Each dead man holds a lighted candle whose flame does not even flicker in the wind. This is the way to some abandoned chapel in ruins, where no more masses are celebrated than those of dead souls.”
While the beliefs of yesteryear may have died away there is one old Christmas tradition that is still observed in many Breton households today; on Christmas Eve, children leave their shoes by the fireplace in the hope that Père Noël (Father Christmas or Santa Claus) will fill them with gifts. An echo of a practice noted just a few generations ago when children left their heavy wooden clogs by the open hearth where blazed the Yule Log in hopes of the gift of a little sugared sweet.
Nedeleg Laouen ha Bloavezh Mat! Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!