Sunday, 19 December 2010
Wells running with wine, trees growing indoors, animals telling stories.
On Christmas Eve, according to Breton tradition, only man and serpents sleep. Man, because he is forgetful and ungrateful, and the serpent because no evil can take place on this night, so there's nothing to do. On this night no ghosts or witches roam the earth, the fires of hell stop burning, and the wells and fountains run with the finest wine during midnight mass. And also, at midnight animals can speak the language of man. Cows especially are said to take this night to address all of their issues from the past year, to talk to each other of things they've seen and travels they've made, recount stories they've heard, and to discuss things to come.
A few years ago my husband and I came across François-Marie Luzel's Nouvelles Veillées Bretonnes, a book full of folktales from Brittany. Luzel grew up in Brittany in the early 1800s, and spent many long, winter evenings listening to neighbours and visiting storytellers in the glow of the hearth. In his books of veillées (evenings of visiting and stories) he strives to keep the stories he later collected as a folklorist in their original context, as much as is possible in written form, by including the conversations that prompted the stories, trying to sort of transcribe the evenings, rather than just the individual tales. It is in this book that we found the transcriptions of two Christmas Eves, as people sat around their big, oak yule logs talking before going off to midnight mass.
On one of these evenings someone told the story of Arzur, a man who does not believe the tales he has been told of talking animals, and decides to prove everyone wrong by sneaking into a barn on Christmas Eve and spending the night there.
So off Arzur goes, and hides himself away in the hayloft. At first there is nothing out of the ordinary, and he begins to feel quite smug. But as midnight strikes the cows begin to talk. They do not seem to have noticed his presence and start discussing the humble birth of Jesus "between a cow and a donkey", then one cow reproaches another for disobeying the farmer on the previous day, and so on.
By this point Arzur's heart is pounding, he's distraught, he can't believe what he is hearing. But it gets worse for him, and what he next hears makes his blood run cold. One cow asks her brother what they will do on the following day, and he responds: "Tomorrow we will have to pull the hearse so that we can bring the body of Arzur to the parish cemetery to be buried -- poor curious, indiscreet, unbelieving and impious Arzur who is even now in this very barn, listening to us". All of the other cows repeat in a sort of ghastly chorus: "We will draw the body of Arzur to the cemetery!"
Arzur, dying of fright, and thinking that the cows plan to murder him for having spied on them, jumps up from his hiding place and runs home. The cows do nothing to stop him going, acting as if he were never there at all. Shaking with fear, Arzur takes to his bed, and never leaves it again, except to go to the cemetery the following day, his hearse drawn by the very cows that he had heard talking on Christmas Eve.
When I started thinking about Christmas cards this year, this story came back to me. It's not that I am afraid of my loved ones missing church. I have come across other Breton stories about the importance of not skipping out on midnight mass (like the one about a hard-working shoe-maker whose wife warns him to be careful not to lose track of time and miss mass, but he, nevertheless, gets carried away with his work and ends up getting a visit from Ankou, the Breton personification of death). But what I love about this story is not its religious bent, but rather the portrait it paints of a vivid, mysterious world where miracles happen all the time, though it is better not to test them.
So, even though I have been working long hours in the cold recently, and coming home tired, hungry, and frozen every evening, I have forced myself on, filling this apartment with printed card after printed card, until all the tabletops were covered, and strings of cards were hung up like prayer flags. The cards should be flying out into the world on Monday, late I know, but my best wishes for a magical Christmas will be going on ahead of them, and on to you reading this. May your Christmas be full of wonder and stories around flickering fires!