Money and its traditions  Share

According to tradition, 2 February is Candlemas Day, a festival widely celebrated in Belgium. What connection can there be between a Museum on the subject of money and pancakes? Quite simply, the traditions relating to money. This month’s object focuses on the various traditions and folklores surrounding the use of money.

The Feast of Candlemas comes at the beginning of February, exactly 40 days after Christmas. It is a Christian festival originating from a Roman and pagan festival known as festa candelarum, in which candlelight had a very important role. This element relating to light was taken up by the Christian churches, which considered that light represented Christ. Candlemas in fact celebrates the presentation of the infant Jesus at the temple. Similarly, the Celts had a festival on 1 February celebrating the goddess Brigit, to encourage the fertility of the soil. Tradition has it that the circular shape of the pancake refers to the sun, a symbol that winter is over. According to other traditions, it evokes the Celtic solar wheel or cross. There is an old saying that: “At Candlemas, winter either ends or returns with a vengeance.” However, it is also the time to wish for good fortune for the whole year ahead. The custom is to toss pancakes with the right hand while holding a coin – originally gold – in the left. If the pancake falls back neatly into the pan, there will be no lack of money in the coming year. Some people go further, rolling the first pancake around the coin and placing it on top of the cupboard. According to tradition, the coin has to be retrieved from the remains of the pancake the next year, because the coin will not deteriorate, and you have to give it to the first poor person that you see.

During the cold days at the turn of the year there is a widespread tradition concerning special brioche pastries with various names: cougnole or cougnou in Wallonia and vollaard in Flanders. The decoration also varies from one region to another, but the commonest type originates from the north of the country and involves decorating the brioche with circles of terracotta. These circles are called patagons and were originally silver coins made in the reign of the Archduke Albert and Archduchess Isabella. These coins were used to decorate the vollaards until they went out of circulation. Since the coins were very valuable, the less well-off preferred to replace them with terracotta patagons. The name stuck, but there are other names to describe this decoration, such as schild, plak or maan.

Postkaart met étrennes © Museum van de Nationale Bank

Postcard depicting New Year gifts © Museum of the National Bank

The Christmas and New Year festivities bring another tradition familiar to everyone: gifts, sometimes called étrennes of dringaie. These are presents, often in the form of money, given at New Year. The etymology of the word étrennes probably goes back to the Roman goddess Strena, whose feast day was 1 January.  In the same vein, in the Antwerp region and in Hageland children traditionally go and sing to their neighbours or relations on New Year’s Eve or New Year’s Day and are given sweets or money.

Apart from Candlemas, there is another Belgian tradition for ensuring financial security in the coming year: the New Year sauerkraut at Liège. On 1 January it is the custom to start the year with a meal of sauerkraut,  but the important thing is to place a coin under the plate first.

Driekoningen te Geel, 1936 © Nieuwsblad van Geel

Epiphany at Geel, 1936 © Nieuwsblad van Geel

The Feast of the Epiphany takes place in Belgium on 6 January to celebrate the coming of the Magi. It is customary to conceal a bean in the “galette des rois” [a special cake], but in some regions a coin is used instead. At Epiphany, particularly in Flemish Campine, children dress up as the Magi who, so the story goes, brought gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh for the newborn Jesus Christ. The children go from house to house singing a song and being given small amounts of money. The words of the song vary from one region to another, but according to the Kempisch Erfoged, the Campine heritage association, the words are as follows:

Driekoningen, Driekoningen,………………………………Epiphany, Epiphany

geef mij ’ne nieuwen hoed;………………………………Give me a new hat

M’nen ouwen is verslete,………………………………My old one is worn out

ons moeder mag ’t nie weten………………………………Our mother mustn’t find out

Onze vaoder heget gèld………………………………Our father counts

op de rooster geteld………………………………His pennies

This tradition first emerged in the 15th century. In those days it concerned not children but beggars.  The period between Christmas and Epiphany was a time when people were considered to be generous, enabling the very poor to take part in the festivities. This tradition is also found in other countries such as the Netherlands, Luxembourg, Germany, Switzerland and Poland.

Kinderen die het Driekoningenlied zingen in Retie © Kempische erfgoedcel k.ERF

Children singing Epiphany at Retie © Kempische erfgoedcel k.ERF

All these traditions so far have been linked to the calendar, but the tradition that we are interested in now has no specific date and is familiar to all children. It is the tradition of the tooth fairy [the “Little Mouse” in French]. When a milk tooth falls out, the child has to place it under his pillow, and during the night the tooth fairy will come and take it away, replacing it with a coin.     This dates from a French story written in the 17th century by Marie-Catherine d’Aulnoy called La Bonne Petite Souris [the Good Little Mouse]. In the story, Baroness d’Aulnoy tells of a queen who was abducted by a wicked king so that he could take her daughter. Though the queen was hungry she gave food to a little mouse who turned out to be a fairy, testing her good faith. To help the queen, the mouse hid under the king’s pillow and tormented him.

There is one other last tradition on this subject, again from Liège: the çan di batème, or christening pennies. At a christening, the godparents had to have ready some coins, mainly centimes, to throw to the local children or their families attending the ceremony. If the tradition was not respected, the children called the godparents pèlé pårin, meaning stingy, and that brought bad luck for the godchild.

Baptiste Cuvelier,
Museum Guide

Sources :

Thanks to Baptiste Frankinet for his contribution on the tradition of çan di batème.

Thanks to Niels Schalley and Janna Lefevere of the k.ERF for their help, information and photos concerning Epiphany in Campine.