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Folklore of Nova Scotia
Chapter XIV. Legends Mainly Religious

Christmas.—A legend, traditional among the Acadians, asserts that not only did the dumb animals kneel in their stalls on Christmas night, but that they also spoke among themselves. The ‘‘wise people” forbade anyone to go to the stable to verify this tradition, for the rash individual who would venture to do so was certain to die during the coming year. However, one Christmas night an old school-master who gloried in a certain knowledge of Latin, and who could not be deceived very easily, determined to test its truth. He went into the stable quite boldly, but his bravado did not continue long. Lo and behold! on the stroke of midnight the cock in a soprano voice sang: “Christus natus est; Christ-us natus est!” The ox in a baritone voice began asking, also in Latin: “Ubi? Ubi? Ubi?” a question to which the ass replied in a basso profundo voice: “Bethlehem! Bethlehem!”

The schoolmaster nearly died on the spot with fear. The legend does not relate whether or not he had to pay the penalty of his rashness; but this part of the legend was verified in the case of a Nova Scotia Highlander, who evidently was also skeptical about the tradition. This latter went to the barn shortly before midnight on Christmas night, and took care that the horses would not see him. On the stroke of midnight, his two horses began to speak of the heavy load they would have to carry in two days’ time, when they would have to bear their good, kind master to his grave. They expressed their regret in no uncertain terms. Two days later their master died. (Popular tradition).

It was believed that the power of speech was taken from the animals because they carried so much harmful gossip:

On Christmas night every window in the house had its lighted candle to light Our Blessed Lady on her way to Bethlehem. The old people would not use for this purpose candles that they bought; they did not consider them worthy; so they made their own in molds for that occasion.

Saturday.—It was "piously believed that on Saturday night Our Lady visited every kitchen in the land; consequently, good housewives were very careful that everything was ‘‘spic and span” about their kitchens in anticipation of this visit.

It was believed that even if it rained all the rest of the week, the sun was sure to come out on Saturday, were it only for a few minutes in honor of Our Blessed Lady.

All Souls’ Day.—Christian and pagan elements seem to combine in the practices of this day. The fact that every window was lighted with candles savors of the pagan illumination of houses on the feast of the dead, to light the shades on their return to their own home, and back again to the land of the dead. On this day the old people used to carry, personally, food to their poorer neighbors. There seems to be something quite pagan about the injunctions given and carried out by careful housewives on All Souls’ Night not to throw water out of doors for fear of harming the spirits who might be roaming about. (Popular tradition).

May Day.—It is a custom among Catholic farmers to sprinkle their cattle with holy water early in the morning of this day. In one district at least in Cape Breton, in addition to this usual sprinkling, the hair on the backs of the animal is singed with the flame of a blessed candle. These ceremonies are performed to avert the influence of the Evil Eye. This seems to be a very ancient practice which has been Christianized; for among the Druids, May Day was one of the two great festivals of the year.

The faith of the Acadians in the Blessed Virgin led them to believe that the snow which fell during the month of May had miraculous power. So they carefully collected it. and when it was melted they filtered and bottled it for future use. This water they applied to sores, cuts, bruises, sore throats, ears, etc. — in fact it was a heal-all. This May snow-water was also used as a substitute for holy water, since after the expulsion of the Acadians, the few who remained were without the ministrations of a priest, and their own faith had to supply all that was lacking on this account.

Throughout Nova Scotia generally, the snow or rain that falls on May Day is piously considered a cure for sore eyes.

In Pomquet, Antigonish Co., the Acadians secured May water in a different fashion. Before sunrise on May Day, they went to a brook with a bucket, the mouth of which they had to place in the direction in which the water was flowing. When the bucket was full, they carried it home, sprinkled the feed of the cattle with the water, and bottled the remainder for future use. The water thus collected kept fresh for years. (Popular Tradition.)

Hallowe'en.—The Druidical feast of Samh’in, the second great event of their year, was coincident with Hallowe’en. On this day they kindled the sacred fire and discharged judicial functions with which superstitious usages for divining the future were intermingled. It is probably to these usages that we owe the numerous practices so much enjoyed on this day, such, for instance, as the eating of a salt cake before retiring, in the hope that one’s future husband might appear, with a glass of water, to the thirsty dreamer.

According to popular tradition, Hallowe’en was the only day in the year on which Satan was unchained and allowed to roam about at will, as the story that follows will show.

In Inverness Co. there were two old bachelors named MacD, who had a queer old maid for housekeeper. She had had a reputation for stealing, but before coming to them she had reformed. After some time, however, the MacD’s, who were merchants, began to miss articles from their store; then things from the home began to go. Blame was naturally placed on the old woman. Rory, the elder of the brothers, dismissed her and forbade her to put foot on his premises again. She was highly indignant, but her wrath knew no bounds when the story began to follow her around the country. One day, notwithstanding the prohibition, she appeared before Rory and demanded a certificate of character. “You hadn’t any when you came to us, so go and get it where you lost it,” he said. She brought action against him for defamation of character, and succeeded in getting two magistrates, who were glad to have a fling at Rory, to take up the case. Rather than let the matter go into the courts, Rory paid two hundred dollars, twenty of which the old woman received, and the rest the magistrates divided between themselves.

Soon the two magistrates and the old woman went to the “reward” of their ill-spent lives. The Hallowe’en after their death, Rory had retired to rest, when he heard very fine dance music being played on a violin outside. He got up, raised the blind and looked out. He could not believe his eyes. High in an apple tree sat "the old boy" himself playing the fiddle as hard as he could, and down on the green sward were the two magistrates, the old woman and another female of like character, dancing a four-hand reel. “Get off my premises,” shouted Rory. The next instant there was nothing but the shadow of the trees on the moonlit grass, nothing but the bare branches on the apple-tree.

After the taking of Louisburg by the English, soldiers came upon a French missionary priest near Fort Toulouse (now St. Peter’s) and began questioning him about the movement of the French troops. As he refused to give them any information, they cast him into a hut with a skunk and a porcupine. Here, after untold torture from these animals, he gave up his life. From that day to this no skunk nor porcupine is found on the island of Cape Breton, although they are numerous on the peninsula of Nova Scotia, scarcely a mile away.

Another more popular version of this legend makes the Indians, not the English soldiers, the perpetrators of this crime.

This legend also accounts for the belief which grew up among the people, that no man from Cape Breton could become a priest. In the early days many tried; but in every case, sickness or some other serious reason prevented them from finishing their seminary training. After many years, as the old people would say, “the spell was broken,” and a young man named Maclsaac, became Cape Breton’s first native priest. Since then, there has been a steady stream of vocations to the sacred ministry from this island.

A man was out fishing haddock and caught one between his fingers, but as it was very slippery, it began to elude his grasp. When he felt he could hold it no longer he said, “May the devil take you!” As it slipped away, his finger slid along its back leaving, to his surprise, a black mark. Since then, every haddock wears the devil’s mark on its back. Another version of this story makes the devil the fisherman.

The haddock has two other black marks on either side of its gills, to which the Acadians ascribe this origin. The haddock had the honor of supplying our Lord with the coin of the tribute. The black marks are those made by St. Peter’s fingers when he opened the fish’s mouth. Of course the haddock, a salt water fish, is not to be found in the fresh water Sea of Galilee. But a fish is found there which bears a mark, and local tradition makes it St. Peter’s fish.

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