Every country marks Christmas in its own way, but there are notable regional differences too, also in France.
Those in Brittany, in the west of modern France, were once quite peculiar.
One tradition that was once widespread across much of Europe, in Brittany too, was that of the Yule Log, known as the “Kef Nedeleg” (literally, the Christmas trunk in Breton) and, 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 supposedly sacred spring.
In households with children, the fireplace was usually scrubbed clean in honour of the nocturnal visit by Baby 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 he entered the house via the chimney because the doorway was habitually used by those stained with sin, while the chimney was constantly purified by fire.
Interestingly enough, the figure of Santa Claus was almost unheard of in Brittany until around the time of the Second World War!
Either way, lit just before the family set off to attend midnight mass on Christmas Eve, the Kef Nedeleg would burn over several days, and some traditions 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. Moreover, small bags of ash were placed under beds in order to protect the home from lightning strikes and snakes over the year ahead.
However, there were also a conspicuous collection of other ancient beliefs and superstitions were once closely associated with Christmas Eve.
For example, country folk would place straw wreaths around their apple trees in the hope of ensuring a good year’s harvest while, 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 and, at the same time, the water in the sacred fountains became wine.
As the church bell sounded midnight, it was thought one could hear in the wind, the chimes of the church bells of Kêr-Is, the legendary sunken city of Brittany, ringing in the distance.
On the other hand, 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, and its momentary absence revealed a hidden treasure while, in some areas, the menhirs were said to be raised into the air by birds, revealing the secret treasure they guarded.
On Brittany’s north coast, the Grand Rocher massif near Plestin-les-Grèves was said to entomb a splendid 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 some form of black dog, a curious ability he was often held to possess during the period of Advent.
Not by chance, 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.
In some Breton families, it was customary to have the Christmas meal after returning home from mass on the night of Christmas Eve, 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 holy that no evil spirit could act with impunity, but it was also a time for the dead.
In fact, Christmas Eve was one of the three solemn festivals together with 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, and the dead wandered freely in the land of the living.
There is a description by the Breton ethnographer Anatole Le Braz, published in his 1893 book “La Légende de la Mort en Basse-Bretagne”:
“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.”
However, although the beliefs of the past may have forgotten, 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, or Santa Claus, will fill them with gifts.
And this is the modernisation of a practice of 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 simple, sugared sweet.
Nedeleg Laouen ha Bloavezh Mat!
Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!
Images from web – Google Research