The constant sequence of religious and secular festivals and seasonal practices forms an endless, familiar, chain that repeats itself around our lives each year. This continual renewal marks a completion of the annual cycle but where should we rightly place the beginning and the end? In much of Europe, the first day of January has been viewed as the first day of the year since the days of the Roman Empire.
However, following the fall of Rome in the 5th century, many nations subsequently adapted the inherited calendar to better reflect local sensibilities. Thus, New Year’s Day transferred to 25 March (the Feast of the Annunciation or Lady Day) or, in some cases, 25 December (Christmas Day).
Major changes to the calendar were instituted by Pope Gregory XIII in 1582 and one of the chief revisions restored the first of January as the start of the New Year. However, while countries such as France and Spain immediately adopted the new calendar, some countries such as the Netherlands and Great Britain were reluctant to do so. Indeed, for 170 years, those hardy souls that travelled between Barcelona and Boston, England or Boston, Massachusetts or between Paris and London were effectively time travellers able to celebrate Christmas on 25 December in France and again, on the same date, in England, ten days later. The difference in the celebration of New Year’s Day was even more marked: it being some 84 days adrift.
For economies that were totally ingrained into the agricultural cycle, the first of January did not correspond with any major point in the life of the rural peasants of Brittany and elsewhere. To them, a more practical and natural start to the year would likely have been a significant communal event such as the first ploughing or the last harvest. However, a papal bull decreed that the new year begin on 1 January and so, over time, the date developed its own traditions and superstitious practices.
In Brittany, the turn of the year was marked most by the children of the community. On the last day of the year, groups of two or three boys would visit each house in the commune while holding a pilgrim’s staff in their right hand. Typically, they would stop outside the front door of a house and sing a Christmas carol followed by the recitation of a short verse wishing the inhabitants a happy, healthy and prosperous new year and entry to Heaven at the end of their natural days. The boys would then receive thanks by way of gifts of coins or apples, according to the means of the household visited. On New Year’s Day, the girls of the community took their turn to offer their good wishes and collect their rewards.
Although a public holiday here, popular attendance at Mass was not noticeably larger than on any other weekday. However, the day was considered special as it was given over to visiting friends and relations and crowned with a family meal consisting of chotenn (half a pig’s head that had been slowly baked in the communal bread oven).
In the same western regions of Brittany, New Year’s Day was also popularly marked with offerings of buttered bread at the sacred springs; each member of the family offered a piece of bread to the water and the way it floated or sank was regarded as a good or bad omen for the coming year. It was also once customary at New Year to butter as many pieces of bread as there were members of the household. The head of the family would then name each person and toss the bread into the air; whoever’s piece of bread landed on the buttered side was said to die within the year.
Another New Year’s custom thought to allow one to learn the secrets of the forthcoming year called for the curious to stare into a cold bread oven and listen carefully to the noises they heard. More prosaically, if a knife that had been inserted into a fresh loaf on New Year’s Eve was withdrawn and found to have crumbs attached to it, a rainy year ahead was forecast but a year of famine could be expected if the withdrawn blade was wet.
Mistletoe was also once a key part of the new year celebrations and was cut and offered, on New Year’s Day, as a symbol of prosperity and long life, usually accompanied by a spoken charm to assure their onset. Children would run through the streets proclaiming: ‘On Mistletoe, the New Year’. Even into the early 20th century, beggars and children would call from house to house offering a little mistletoe and their best wishes for happiness for the household over the year ahead; being rewarded with a little food or some coins for their efforts.
In several north European traditions, mistletoe was a symbol of fertility and in some places, young women once placed a sprig of mistletoe under their bed in expectation of seeing their future husband in their dreams. In Brittany, kissing under the mistletoe, as a mark of love and affection, was a New Year’s Day not Christmas tradition and a ceremony that often announced a proposed marriage. Perhaps some of the old traditions are due a reboot in the 21st century?
Many thanks to all who have supported this blog over the last year – your willingness to take the time to read what I have written and to then share your thoughts have been much appreciated! I sincerely hope that you all enjoy a healthy and happy new year! Bonne année et Bloavezh Mat!