Some Lost Christmas Traditions from Brittany

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.

Dragging the Yule Log
The Yule Log

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.

Gathering the faggots in the snow - Jules Breton
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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.
Menhirs on Christmas Eve
Flying menhirs on Christmas Eve
  • 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.
A wolf in winter
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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 Wayside Cross at Rochefort en Terre
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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.

Father Christmas Brittany
Father Christmas in Brittany!

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!

Published by Bon Repos Gites

Enjoying life in Kalon Breizh - the Heart of Brittany.

240 thoughts on “Some Lost Christmas Traditions from Brittany

    1. Haha, thank you!! The past would be a fun place to visit but I am not sure we would cope particularly well there full-time 🙂 but, yes, a visit would be so good! 🙂

      Until we invent that time machine, I wish you and yours a merry Christmas and a joyful year ahead!! 🙂

      Liked by 2 people

  1. Wonderful post! It was fascinating to read about the infant Jesus coming down the chimney. In my German Christmas tradition, baby Jesus and the angels bring gifts but they don’t come down the chimney. That last image of Father Christmas reminds me a lot of the St. Nicholas (a disheveled one) who left oranges, nuts, chocolate and a whip made of branches on our porch on Dec 6. Merry Christmas and best in the new year to you and your family.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thank you! I am happy that you liked the read! Ha, yes, he does look a million miles away from the Coca-Cola type Santa doesn’t he?
      Thanks also for your good wishes! I too wish a very merry Christmas and a happy new year to you and yours!! 🙂 Stay well! 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Such beautiful words by Anatole Le Braz and how relieved I was to see the woman wood gatherer had something on her feet! I was dreading to see her bare footed in all that icy snow. Thank you for this posting.
    Gwen.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Hope you had a wonderful peaceful Christmas! 🎄❤️🎁

    I love to see what traditions used to be… it used to be more magical back then ❤️

    Not too sure about flying rocks lol … but I liked the Jesus coming down the chimney and the Yule log 🪵

    I have heard of the Yule log – but until you explained I didn’t know exactly what they did with it and why lol – very cool

    I would make sure that I had GIANT shoes lol

    (We hang stockings – I used to have one “I” could fit inside 😄✌️) ❤️ 🎄

    I hope your Christmas was amazing!!!

    Mine was nice – was peaceful… I was able to get kids some nice presents this year and they loved them but said “mum you don’t have to do that, we just love being with you on Christmas” 😮❤️❤️❤️ so my Christmas was awesome ❤️

    My own traditions are every year I get a new ornament for tree – can only be one …

    Has to represent my year and what happened – this year my ornament said “I survived Covid” and had mask, toilet paper, shot record etc lol – cause I will never forget that lol

    But we just be together and appreciate each other and the year we went through. We share funny stories from the year. ❤️ like a recap lol

    But my kids make it extra special now, especially after watching me be sick… I was in hospital one year… now they don’t leave my side at Christmas and they don’t take for granted ❤️🎄

    Anyway… I love traditions and beautiful thoughts of things – these are some of my favorite things lol 🎶 ❤️

    I like the bridge between the living and the dead … we used to light candles 🕯 on Christmas Eve for the people we lost that year. In a remembrance, as if they were there ❤️ we would share funny stories about them or Christmases with them ❤️

    My mom used to always have blue candle flames on her electric candles – was for the Virgin Mary 💙 every window had a blue flame candle

    My dad would always pick the most beautiful tree 🌲 and we would all decorate together ❤️

    Anyway, thanks for the Christmas memories ❤️ hope you had an amazing one!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Awwhhm it really sounds as though you had some really nice Christmas traditions while growing-up!! What is even nicer is that you have carved out your own traditions and that they are loved by the children!! Truly, a magical time of the year! 😉

      I am pleased that you managed to get some quality time with them and that you all had a good time!! Here’s hoping the new year will be a good one for you all!! 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

      1. ❤️ thank you!

        Yes I did have wonderful traditions ❤️ I still keep some of those with kids

        I have added new traditions with the kids lol – old and new ❤️

        I hope you had a wonderful Christmas too and also hope 2022 is better year for everyone 🙏❤️

        🥂 2022 💥

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Oh they aren’t very traditional … I am.

        Although I will say … if I forget a tradition we have or I try to change it up… they complain … and want it

        So when they older and have their own lives … then they will be traditional lol … they will remember the traditions and keep some and make some of their own.

        I am the traditional and sentimental one 😘 … I am one who has always done for them so … when I am gone then they will remember those things ✌️ they will mean more. They haven’t experienced life yet.

        Oh yes yes yes!! Totally praying 2022 goes good … when we hit 2030… I hope we done with all the crap!! 🙏🙏🙏

        I hope every year gets little better and better 🙏🙏🙏 I hope very much ❤️

        Also really over all the Covid stuff – I wish that to go away lol …very badly!!!

        Liked by 1 person

      3. Lol sooo true!!

        And also other cultures come and expand the traditions so that everything gets blended – creating some pretty awesome traditions … as the past is there but fades slightly or I suppose “morphs”? Lol

        Some traditions are just solid though ❤️

        Liked by 1 person

  4. Also… I literally just heard on our news that France is having hard time with Covid

    Be safe and ok 🙏🙏

    Stay masked and wash hands … no crowds – if you catch… it be ok… if you vaccinated – should be fine … might get sick, but is like flu with severe sinus infection – some people, it doesn’t effect at all.

    Stay safe and protect those you love 🙏

    – be smart and be careful – be aware

    Peace to France 🇫🇷 during this 🙏

    Ps … I don’t trust news either, but just in case they actually reporting correctly ✌️stay safe 🙏

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you so much!! Wise words and good advice!!
      Sadly, the reports you heard are true – we have had the highest daily new infection rates for almost a year; 100k+! Thankfully, there has been no surge in death rates, yet. And on another positive note, I am due my booster injection next week!
      Hope you are keeping safe too! 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Sorry to hear that! Definitely stay safe 😮

        Hopefully won’t kill people like the other variants. 🙏🙏

        Glad to hear you getting booster!! Stay safe while you waiting!!!

        Many are falling here too ☹️

        Yes I am keeping safe. Thank you

        No one comes to purposely see us – and I’m strict with the masks – I have my own mask mandate inside the funeral home – absolutely!!

        I have one funeral home completely down 😮

        But we handling ✌️

        I went through it in Texas so I am not doing that again if I can prevent lol 😘✌️

        I hope France goes ok 🙏🙏🙏 stay as safe as you can!

        Liked by 1 person

  5. I really thought the idea of baby Jesus coming down the chimney to leave gifts for good children would have been a religious version of Santa Claus– very interesting that it developed independently. Hope you had a wonderful Christmas (did you remember to leave your clogs out?) 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  6. The legend of the animals being able to talk on Christmas Eve bled over into our German household. I remember, as a child, trying to stay up late not to see Santa, but because I wanted to have a conversation with my cat. Happy New Year!

    Liked by 1 person

  7. I was waiting for something dead to come lurking in this story. You didn’t disappoint. Another great story my friend.
    But those clogs are the best part because the kids only wanted a sugary sweet and not something that cost 1000 bucks!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you!! I am very pleased that you enjoyed it! 🙂 Ha, yes, we could try giving only a sugary sweet next year but I think the cloaked look of disappointment might spoil it! 😉 Ahh, simpler days … simpler days, 😉

      Liked by 1 person

  8. Sorry I came upon this post long after Christmas, but you made me smile in delight over some of these revelations. Wouldn’t you love to ease-drop on the talking animals during midnight mass? I bet it could be enlightening:) Thank you again for your amazing post.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Christmas traditions of Brittany seem so quaint today, but I think we may have lost some of the magic in current celebrations of the holiday. When I lived in Washington, DC, we used to visit the National Christmas tree and the
    many exhibits such as reindeer and choirs singing carols. One of our favorite spots was the Yule log, a great place to warm up!

    Liked by 1 person

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