In Brittany, the magic of Christmas night was once said to have been so complete that no evil could act. It was a time when only the son of man and the toad slept; a moment when animals spoke to each other in the tongues of men and secret, hidden treasures were momentarily revealed.
The old tales told in front of the Breton hearth on a cold winter’s evening were full of magic. Some terrifying, others touching but always entertaining; from the infant Jesus descending the farmhouse chimney to leave sugary gifts for the children of the house, to the Devil striving hard to ensnare innocent souls trudging to church.
The period of the Midnight Mass was popularly believed to be the time when fantastic things happened and key parts of that religious service were said to mark moments of special supernatural power. During the chimes of the midnight bell, it was held that many of the region’s menhirs, uprooted themselves to go and drink from a sacred spring or nearby stream; returning to their home on the sound of the last chime. A menhir near Jugon was said to drink in the Arguenon river, another near Saint-Barthélemy to drink in the Blavet river, while the menhirs of Plouhinec were reputed to drink at the Étel river only once every century. Even the stone alignments at Carnac were said to go and wash in the waters of the nearby ocean on Christmas night.
Local legends once reported that, at the stroke of midnight, one of the menhirs that stood on the summit of Mont-Belleux near Luitré was lifted by a mere blackbird to momentarily reveal a great treasure. Anyone impudent enough to try to seize it was doomed to be crushed to death as only the magical korrigans could move fast enough to take the gold. Sadly, these ancient megaliths were destroyed in the 19th century; the last in 1875 in order to provide hard core for a nearby road. Local tradition cautions against walking on the mountain at night else one encounter the korrigans dancing around the site where their stones once stood; their destruction, a sacrilege still resented by them.
Standing almost six metres high, the menhir of Kerangosquer near Pont-Aven was said to guard a buried treasure whose presence was heralded by a rooster that sang at midnight. As with other sites, this treasure was only accessible during the sound of the Midnight Mass bells when the menhir took itself to drink at a nearby stream. As you might expect, there are several popular tales of men who came to grief, having been crushed by their greed under the weight of returning menhirs.
In Brittany, it was believed that the dry bones stacked in the village ossuary spoke to each other during the time of the Midnight Mass. Anyone with the foolhardy courage to hide in the village ossuary during this sacred service was also thought able to see the Ankou, the Breton personification of death, and learn from him the names of the people of the parish who were to die during the following year.
Another legend tells that the Ankou touches, with his finger, those who will die within the year. To witness this safely, it was believed necessary to have fasted for a full day and when only nine stars could be seen in the night sky one needed to hold their index finger in the holy water font. One Christmas, a man, who had observed the required conditions, immediately lost his curiosity when he witnessed the Ankou approaching and decided to flee the church. Alas, the water in the font had frozen and he could not withdraw his finger in time.
This was also a time when animals too were said to be able to talk with one another. One tale tells of a farmer determined to eavesdrop on these magical conversations. Hiding himself in the barn, he waited patiently until sometime, around midnight, he heard his two oxen speak together: “What will you do tomorrow, old friend?”; “Oh, I will just take the master to the cemetery.” The farmer, furious at being mocked, seized a pitchfork to strike his beasts but, in his haste, he stumbled and injured himself. His injury proved fatal and, so, as predicted, on the following day the ox pulled the cart that carried his master’s coffin to the church.
In some parts of Brittany it was only the donkey and the ox that possessed the ability to speak on Christmas Eve; a miraculous gift granted every year to these two animals in memory of the good offices once rendered to the baby Jesus in the stable at Bethlehem. It was said here that donkeys carried a cross on their backs to mark the day Christ entered Jerusalem on a donkey and that, at Christmas, they knelt in silent tribute at midnight. A related belief held that burning the broken pieces of a yoke invited disaster; the ox having been sanctified by its presence at the birth of Christ.
The holiness of the night before Christmas was considered so sacred that no wicked 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 Midsummer’s Eve and Hallowe’en) when the dead of each parish 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 and returned to visit their former homes before being led, by the ghost of a dead priest, in a long procession to some abandoned chapel, where the only masses celebrated were those of the dead.
A far more sinister being was also held to be active on Christmas Eve; consumed with rage on this anniversary of his greatest failure, the Devil sought to harvest fresh souls. It was said that the verges of the sunken pathways trodden by the devout attending Midnight Mass often glistened in parts. Such reflections were not of moonlight but of gold coins scattered by the Devil to enchant the unwary traveller. Cracks appeared in the earth around the base of the wayside crosses, offering a tempting glimpse of a stream of gold coins but any who tried to enrich themselves were unable to keep hold of their gold. Each coin collected immediately escaped their grasp, leaving on the fingers an indelible black imprint and a terrible burning sensation, like that of hellfire.
It was believed here that evil spells lost their power on Christmas night; it was a time when it was possible to discover the most hidden treasures, a time when the power of their supernatural guardians was suspended. In northern Brittany, the Grand Rocher massif was said to entomb a magnificent lost city that could be seen through a narrow fissure that only opened up on Christmas Eve once every seven years. The city would be reborn, if someone was brave enough to penetrate to the depths of the mountain at the first stroke of midnight and quick enough to re-emerge unscathed before the death of the twelfth bell.
An old legend tells how, in thanks for a crust of bread that he had received, a beggar revealed to Scouarn, a young Breton farmhand, a way of gaining his happiness and fortune. He told him that in the middle of the Bay of Morlaix there stood a castle inhabited by a princess, as beautiful as a fairy and as rich as the paladins, held captive by the spirits of Hell. At Christmas, on the stroke of midnight, the sea opened and revealed the castle: if someone could enter it and take possession of a magic wand stored in its inner chamber, that bold soul could become the lord of the land. However, it was imperative to gain the wand before the last stroke of midnight; if not, the daring adventurer would be turned to stone and the sea would reclaim the castle.
Scouarn resolved to attempt the quest and Christmas Eve found him in the shadows on the shore when, at midnight, the sea parted like a bed curtain being drawn to reveal a fine castle resplendent with lights. Scouarn ran as fast as he could and quickly reached the castle’s main door. On entering, he saw the first room was filled with precious furniture and massive silver chests; scattered around the room stood the stone statues of those unfortunate men who had been unable to go any further.
A second room was defended by dragons and sharp-toothed monsters but as the sixth stroke of midnight struck, Scouarn succeeded in passing through the enchanted beasts who moved aside at his approach. He now entered a chamber more sumptuous than all the others and where the fairies of the swells were swaying to sweet music. He was about to let himself be drawn into their circular dance when, fortuitously, he saw the magic wand resting on a cabinet set against the back wall; he sprang forward and seized it in triumph as the twelfth stroke of midnight struck.
However, Scouarn had secured his prize; he held the wand aloft without fear. On his command, the roaring sea retreated away from the castle and the spirits of Hell, utterly defeated, fled, uttering cries that made the cold hard rocks tremble. The delivered princess gladly offered her hand to her valiant saviour and it was not long before they enjoyed a most splendid wedding. Having comfortably settled into his new castle, Scouarn, in gratitude for the saints who had protected him, employed half of his newly won wealth to build a grand chapel to the glory of the Archangel Michael.
During Christmas night, the natural order of the world was thought overturned. When the bell announced the elevation during the Midnight Mass, all the beings that shared the earth were simultaneously revealed: the ghosts of the dead and the drowned; the korrigans of the moors; the fairies of the swells; mermaids; the black dogs and werewolves; the treasure-guarding dragons; the phantom washerwomen of the night and other demons of the dark. At that moment, while the faithful were at prayer, all the frightful fantastic creatures that inhabit the Breton night were displayed.
A quite different Breton legend tells us that when the Magi arrived at the stable in Bethlehem, they found the shepherds there who, having nothing else to offer the baby Jesus, had garlanded his crib with wild flowers. Seeing the rich gifts subsequently presented by the Magi, the humble shepherds were concerned at the paucity of their offering but the Divine baby gently pushed aside the riches in front of Him and stretched His hand towards the flowers, plucked a field daisy, and, bringing it to His lips, kissed it. Since that moment, the daisies, which until then were all white, have displayed at the end of their petals, a colour which seems a reflection of the hopeful dawn, and shown at their heart, the golden ray which fell from the lips of the Divine.
The period from Christmas Eve to the Feast of the Epiphany (24 December to 6 January) was once marked by a number of particular customs and superstitions here. On Christmas Eve, the Yule log was anointed with water from a sacred spring and placed in the fireplace where it was carefully burned until New Year’s Day or even Epiphany. The charcoaled embers were subsequently collected as they were believed to hold 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. This ash was also said to preserve wheat from rust diseases and to help cows to calve.
It was also on Christmas Eve that calendar bread was made for consumption on Epiphany, except for a small piece kept in reserve to cure certain ailments. All bread baked on Christmas Eve was said to keep for ten years without spoiling. Another belief surrounding bread can be seen in the once traditional practice for the head of the household to carry a piece of black bread in his pocket before attending Midnight Mass. On his return, he would give a little to each of his animals in order to ensure their health throughout the year ahead: black bread was used here in many rituals of protection against evil spells.
Similarly, to ensure a good harvest of apples, the trees in the orchard were surrounded with a little ring of straw after the Christmas Midnight Mass. In some northern parts of the region, the brightness of the moon illuminating those journeying to and from Midnight Mass was said to predict the prosperity of the following year’s apple harvest.
It was during Christmas night that the world’s secrets were revealed to those that knew how to expose them. In eastern Brittany, if a young girl wanted to see who she was destined to marry, it was necessary for her to place three bay leaves under her eyes before going to sleep on Christmas night while reciting the charm: “Caspar, Balthazar, Melchior, tell me while I sleep, who will be mine for life.”
During Midnight Mass, at the moment of consecration, spectral candles were said to cast light on the locations where hidden treasures could be found. Not all treasures were buried, for it was said that each hazel bush grew a branch which turned into gold on Christmas night. To pick this prize that was believed to make a wand equal in power to that of the greatest fairies, it needed to be cut between the first and last sounds of the midnight bell but whoever did not succeed disappeared forever. The moment of consecration was also said to be the fleeting instant when the waters of the sacred springs were changed to wine.
On Christmas Day, it was thought necessary to avoid eating plums so as to protect oneself from ulcers over the year ahead. The tablecloth used only at Christmas was considered a powerful talisman in which to store wheat seeds that would deliver a plentiful crop and was thus utilised for these purposes each year. It was also a day on which it was possible to predict the future price of wheat: twelve grains of wheat, each named after one of the twelve months, were placed on a shovel heated in the fire; those that jumped on the hot iron indicated the months in which wheat would be most expensive.
If Christmas fell on a Sunday, it was believed to be an auspicious year in which to sell one’s horse or donkey, while Saint Stephen’s Day was a most favourable occasion for bleeding horses. To avoid misfortune, it was advised not to bake bread or do the laundry between Christmas Day and New Year’s Day, with prohibitions against doing the laundry extending to Epiphany. Likewise, eating cabbage on Saint Stephen’s Day also invited misfortune as the saint was thought to have been martyred in a cabbage patch.
During the night of the Epiphany, it was whispered that if one wrote, with their own blood, the names of the three kings, Caspar, Melchior and Balthazar, on their forehead and then looked into a mirror, they would see themselves as they will be at the hour of their death. Truly, the most wonderful time of the year.
Nedeleg Laouen ha Bloavezh Mat! Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!