The folk customs and traditions regarding the celebration of Christmas differ from region to region in France, as elsewhere, and those in Brittany were once quite distinctive.
An echo of the region’s Celtic past, sacred springs were commonplace throughout Brittany with miraculous qualities attributed to many and were an important part of daily life even after the Catholic counter-reformation.
The Phantom Washerwomen of the Night stand out as one of the most striking and baleful characters in the rich folklore of Brittany; spectral women doomed to spend eternity labouring over their laundry from sunset to sunrise, terrifying unfortunate souls in the darkness.
One of the most commonly found creatures in the rich canon of Breton folklore are the korrigans; a race of capricious and contradictory magical dwarves.
A sketch of some traditional folklore from Brittany relating to death and the afterlife
In Brittany, the miller enjoyed a rather ambivalent reputation. His trade brought him into regular contact with a wide range of people across the community; guaranteeing any visitor would leave the mill with all the latest news of any importance. Admired for his hard-work and often his skill at resetting broken or dislocated bones, the miller was also viewed with some suspicion and a once popular saying told that nothing was bolder than a miller’s shirt because every morning it caught a thief.
Mysterious magical plants can be found scattered throughout the folklore and popular superstitions of Brittany. Noted for their extreme rareness, long and patient efforts were required to locate these mystical growths. A quest that would only have hopes of success if performed by certain select people or on the most propitious days of the year. The diligent seeker could hope to be rewarded with good fortune, vigorous health or true love.
Deified and demonised across the world throughout the ages, the dragon of yore also left its footprints upon the lives, legends and landscapes of Brittany. Indeed, Breton lore once held that the peninsula of Brittany itself was the body of the enormous dragon slain by the archangel Michael.
To talk of the soul is, to some, to touch on the very essence of existence. First century authors noted that the ancient Celts believed in the indestructibility and inevitable transmigration of the human soul and, despite the march of Christian dogma, such beliefs remained in the Breton tradition where there was no significant separation between the living and the dead; both dwelt in discrete worlds that were in perpetual relation with one another. The souls of the dead surrounded the living, wandering the skies and sunken paths of the land as black dogs, petrels, horses or hares.
The lives of those who inhabited the rural Brittany of yesteryear were guided by the seasons and the precious hours of daylight. For them, the unpredictable year was punctuated by the key dates of the agrarian and liturgical calendar. With harvest well underway here in today’s Brittany, a look at some of the old rituals, beliefs and superstitions once associated with the agricultural cycle here might be timely.