July 02, 2005

St-Jean-Baptiste, Quebec National Holiday

On June 24th, I spent the afternoon and evening in Ste-Hyacinth, serving beers to party goers and enjoying the local show of french-canadian music. It was fun to renew with my Quebecer identity and to enjoy the French Canadian way of partying. The whole thing started at 3PM and ended with seemingly cool (well, what I could see from behind the tree) fireworks. No traditionnal bonfire, though, as apparently some Einstein decided to jump in the last bonfire that was made, years ago.

Some may question the existence of a nationalist holiday in a province, but to put all this in perspective, according to a CROP survey, in june, 55% of quebecers would have voted YES to a referendum. Even without ventilation of the indecise, sovereignty would have passed with a meager 52 % based on the 1995 question, which involved a political and economical partership with Canada. Where do I stand ? I don't know. I've been away during most of the events that stand behind such an increase, (the Gomery commission investigating corruption in the federal Liberal party and the student strike contesting modifications to financial aid to students), so I do feel less involved than I might otherwise be. Nevertheless, I am first and foremost a francophone and do feel simpathy for the cause, even if I don't feel that my opinions are strong enough to go along with the new majority.

So anyway, for those who wonder, what is "La Fete Nationale" ? here's a quick wrap-up which also gives you a 101 on French Canadian history. (Thanks, http://www.genealogyforum.rootsweb.com/gfaol/resource/Canada/StJean.htm).

Of European origins...

"While the orgin of the holiday in France was the pagan celebration of the summer soltice; a celebration of light and a symbol of hope. In the reign of the French King Clovis, the annual event was christianized and became a religious celebration of the birth of John the Baptist, who is known as the Precursor of Christ, the light of the world – thus the link with the soltice and the bonfires.

The festival of Jean Baptiste had particular importance for all the Catholics of Europe, especially those of France. The King of France would light the bonfire in the nights of June 23 and 24 in Paris.

...a custom which travelled to Quebec...

Once in America, the French continued to celebrate this event, but it was then a very pious, religious festival with processions in the streets of Quebec City.
St-Jean Baptiste came to be know as the patron saint of French Canadians as a result of centuries of recognition of the influence he had on New France as new colony was developing from the time of early colonization.

It was on 24 June 1615 that the first St-Jean-Baptiste mass was celebrated in New France, though mass had been celebrated since the times of Jacques Cartier. The religious authorities found that the day coincided with the summer soltice and the birthdate of Jean Baptiste, thus the symbolism of the baptism of New France.

From the 150 French residents of New France in 1635, their customs spread with their pursuit of the fur trade. It was quite important, particularly since it coincides with the summer collection of furs and the gathering of employees who had been isolated during the winter. Large bonfires, singing, fiddle music and dancing are all a part of this festive occasion. The conviver (come together) was boisterous with many les santés (toasts) to health and much gunfire and cannon booms. Festivities lasted throughout the night.

French residents in the St. Lawrence River area formed a chain of bonfire lights from village to village. Even in the late 20th Century, more than 15,000 of these fires could be seen on 24 June. Soldiers mustered to fire cannon and muskets as a part of the provincal.

Which survived the British conquest...

After the conquest of New France by the British, the celebration of St-Jean Baptiste lost some of its importance. It was just over two centuries later on 24 June 1834 when Ludger Dunvernay, a newspaper editor, and about 60 people decided during a banquet to turn that day into an event that would unite all French Canadians. The festival grew in size and importance to French Canadians.

A great number of English-Speaking Montrealers took part in the national banquet, which was held in the gardens of a prominent lawyer, John McDonnell. While the enthusiasm for the annual event were put on hold during and after the Patriot’s Rebellion in 1837-38, Celebration of the Fête de la Saint-Jean as it was named, reappeared in Quebec City in 1842 as a religious festival with a great procession. Montreal followed suit in 1843.

... and was declared a statutory holiday...

The annual celebration grew and in 1925 the Quebec legislature declared June 24 as a holiday.
(...) The usual order of activities would open with a mass to commemorate St-Jean Baptiste. A parade would follow the streets of the villages with a band, baton twirlers, people dressed in period costumes and floats. The last float would represent St-Jean Baptiste with a blonde and curly haired child wearing sheep skin, holding a cane. One or more lambs would signify a shepherd and his flock of sheep.

After the parade there was a banquet with entertainment, folkloric dances and the day would end with a great bonfire and fireworks.

...with nationalistic meaning...

The evolution of St-Jean-Baptiste Day from a religious to a nationalist celebration was complete by 1975. In 1976, the Province of Quebec government passed legislation making it the official national holiday of Quebec and an official paid holiday. The name of the holiday was then changed to la Fete Nationale, though many still refer to it as St-Jean-Baptiste Day.
At the beginning of the 19th century, in towns and villages along the St-Lawrence River, it was customary to take the first swim of the year on the even of St-Jean-Baptiste Day. Even today most swimming pools in Quebec open for the season around that day.
Another tradition was the petits pains benits (blessed loaves of bread). These bread loaves were shaped either as a star (another announcement of the birth of Christ) or heart (For God so loved the world). They were then given to the priest. This is not the same as the Lord’s Supper.

Many other French-speaking villages in other provinces celebrate St-Jean-Baptiste Day and several of them have churches named for the patron saint. And there are villages named for St. Jean Baptiste—one in Manitoba is known as the soup pea capital of Canada. Several are in the Province of Quebec."

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