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A New Year is Begun

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.

New Year Traditions - Brittany - New Year's Day

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.

New Year Traditions - Brittany - New Year's Day

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.

New Year Traditions - Brittany - New Year's Day

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.

New Year Traditions - Brittany - New Year's Day

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!

Superstitions - New Years Day - Mistletoe

Published by Bon Repos Gites

Enjoying life in Kalon Breizh - the Heart of Brittany.

196 thoughts on “A New Year is Begun

  1. Belated Happy New Year,. Growing up in the North of England, reveillon was surely the best poart of Christmas, neighbours not a problem, because they were all invited.
    This year ? A 12th C local church advertised ‘ Midnight Mass’
    Then we read the small print. Virtual only, via Facebook.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I think the old customs stayed with us longest in the countryside and remote areas and I am sure that some still survive. 🤞 Midnight Mass in a 12th century church sounds quite wonderful and immediately brings to mind images of the people who have made that same journey down through the ages! A zoom meeting or live-streamed service only on Facebook seems a rather cold alternative to me 😦 I hope that you had a good Christmas and wish you a happy new year ahead! 🙏😊


  2. I was surprised to see that girls were allowed to visit on New Years Day to wish people well wishes, here in America. Only men and boys are wanted or allowed communal visitation. It’s believed that girls bring bad luck.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for sharing that little piece of information! I did not know that!
      Yes, the girls would go out on the morning of New Years and, by all accounts, collect as much as the boys did. Gives one the impression that folks saved and were prepared for the two days – a bit like trick or treaters today?

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I never heard of the custom you wrote about but it sounds fun, just so long as it was not too cold. I suspected each household had saved anticipating the children’s visit. It was delightful to read that somewhere in the world a girl’s visit on New Years Day wasn’t seen as a curse or harbinger of bad luck.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. New year/new beginnings

    Interesting that boys rounded out the end of year and girls started the new.

    Mistletoe was a Christmas tradition here but for kissing …

    A man is allowed to kiss any woman if she is standing beneath the mistletoe… bad luck comes to one who says no 😮

    You better watch where standing lol

    Mistletoe was a meaning of peace once 😘❤️

    For me is usually associated with Christmas not New Year’s

    New years is usually Chinese food for New Year… my mom was more traditional but I like the Chinese food for new year lol ✌️ different and new and I like how Chinese define their new year – so I use their food on New Years ❤️😘✌️

    Makes it feel like New ❤️

    Christmas feels dark and cozy

    Where New Year is fresh and new – more bright and sparkly 🙌 ✨

    My mom was more traditional with New Years

    I just like it to feel fresher – “restart” done with the old stuffy holidays by time New Year rolls around.

    I hope your New Year has been amazing so far … omg feels like it’s been forever since New Years but really isn’t 😮😮😮

    I hope you had a great one though 🙌👏✌️ 🥂

    I miss Dick Clark ❤️✌️ is not same without him ☹️

    The New Years Rockin Eve 😉❤️

    The things you attach to lol ❤️✌️

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you! I am glad it evoked some memories! 🙂 🙂
      I had not heard of the Chinese food for new year but can see how it would develop, with its associations, into a family tradition!
      I googled Dick Clark and his new year shows! 😉😊😍

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Well the Chinese food is my own tradition – partly because I wanted something new that felt new… and then I always wanted to master that… so I have Chinese food down now… and makes the new year feel new

        My mom was way more traditional – they like the huge meals like Christmas and thanksgiving… but by new years I can not anymore lol ✌️

        I want to start my year new ❤️ Chinese works perfectly and I have mostly mastered ❤️

        Been doing for years now.

        It’s only me who does that… has not caught on with others 😄 or I don’t know what others do so maybe??

        Yeah Dick Clark was New Year ❤️ is not same without him – now I don’t even look forward to watching the replacements – I only liked him for that.

        But he did that New Years and American top 40 since I can remember.

        No one else has his charisma, personality and charm. By gone era ☹️ miss him there very much!

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Maybe your kids will continue the new year’s tradition 🤞 Like you, my mother was quite traditional and had a big meal on new year’s and I guess I have followed that. Maybe next year, I shall try something fresh and light instead! 😍😍

        Liked by 1 person

      3. I like it – is nice to be different in areas and I like the brand new less heavy feel 😊

        They will take some traditions from childhood – but I’m sure they blend a little of what they want or like, into traditions they know or experience.

        Is awesome to make new tradition or add to – I have a few lol

        Liked by 1 person

    1. Haha, yes, there were so many little pitfalls weren’t there? As crazy a world then as it is now 😉
      Thank you and I appreciate you reading it – very much! 🙂 Happy New Year to you all and I hope it will be a good one!! 🙏🤞

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Interesting customs related to the New Year you have recounted. Thank you! If we look at more communities around the world, there will be more dates that emerge as the New Year, not all based on the solar cycle.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. 🤣 all I can think currently is how the knife coming out of the bread having crumbs means it’s going to be a rainy year- this is clearly the problem in Seattle Washington lol

    Excellent work as always! 💚

    Liked by 1 person

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