June 24, 2009

Saint-Jean-Baptiste Day: Québec's Fête Nationale

Every year, on the 24th of June, all Québécois get together with friends and family to celebrate their Fête Nationale (National Holiday); la Saint-Jean-Baptiste. It is a privileged moment to celebrate our identity, our pride of what we were, of what we are and of what we dream of becoming. But what are the origins of this great national celebration?

The event originated more than 2000 years ago, in pre-Christian Europe, as the pagan celebration of the summer solstice. It was originally held on the 21st, but with the arrival of Christianity, it transformed into Saint-Jean-Baptiste Day, and moved to the 24th. The two events did have several things in common after all. Both celebrated the symbol of "light"; the sun of the summer solstice and Saint-Jean-Baptiste who opens the way for the light of Jesus-Christ. The ancients used to light a great bonfire on the evening of the 24th to honour the sun, a tradition that continued into the Middle Ages.

Before the Revolution, Saint-Jean-Baptiste Day was a very important event in France. In the night between the 23rd and 24th, the king himself used to light a great Saint-Jean bonfire. This tradition was brought to New France by the first colonists. The Jesuits refer to the tradition as soon as 1636. On the 24th of June of that year, the Gouverneur of Québec, Monsieur de Montmagny, had five shots of cannon fired. The first Saint-Jean bonfires in New France date back to 1638. They were accompanied by dancing and singing in every village along the Saint-Laurent river.

In the beginning, Saint-Joseph had been designated as the patron saint of New France (just like Saint-Patrick is to Ireland). The problem was that his Holy day is in March and the Québec climate during that time of the year is not very favourable for celebrating. It is for this very practical reason that Saint-Jean-Baptiste Day became more popular, the end of June being a great time to have fun outside. Today, the holiday has lost its religious meaning but has kept its traditional name.