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Each year on June 24th, Quebec and French speaking communities across North America celebrate St. Jean Baptiste Day with local festivities, traditional parades and even mega variety shows including the largest one which is held on the Plains of Abraham in Quebec City.
The origins of the St. Jean-Baptiste Feast can be traced back to ancient times, when civilizations across the world, including the Gauls (ancestors of the French), celebrated the summer solstice. These agrarian and solar festivities often included bonfires in honour of the regenerative and healing powers of the sun. As was the case with many pagan feasts, this one was Christianized in the 4th century AD and placed under the patronage of St. John the Baptist. It was in this context that the feast was brought to America where French settlers first celebrated it on the shores of Newfoundland in 1606. In those days, St. Jean-Baptiste Day was more steeped in popular customs, such as the curative virtues of water, than in religious or political beliefs.
In Canada, the feast was celebrated as such until 1834 when the Patriots of Lower Canada made it into the patron saint day of all Canadians of French ancestry. Ludger Duvernay, the publisher of Le Minerve, was the first in 1834 to organize a banquet in Montreal to celebrate St. Jean-Baptiste Day. His example was soon to be followed by many other Quebec towns and villages. These annual banquets provided occasions to deliver speeches and create new patriotic symbols. This is how the maple leaf and the beaver came to be adopted as national emblem symbols. The year 1834 is also that of the foundation of the first Société Saint-Jean-Baptiste in Montreal, followed by the creation of a similar one in Quebec City in 1842. It should be noted however that it was only in 1908 that St. Jean-Baptiste officially replaced St. Joseph as the patron saint of French Canadians and in 1925 that the Quebec provincial government officially decreed the 24th June to be a statutory holiday.
The St. Jean-Baptiste parade in Montreal, 1924. This float represents Ludger Duvernay, the founder and first president of the Société Saint-Jean-Baptiste de Montréal, 1834.
Bill : An Act to incorporate the St. Jean Baptiste Society of the City of Quebec, 1849. This society was established seven years earlier by a group of high-ranking French speaking residents of Quebec City.
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But these gatherings also brought about dissensions. Under the aegis of the Catholic Church, the annual banquets gradually gave way to the celebration of masses and to religious processions which, in turn, would give way in 1874 to the first parades with floats including one representing St. John the Baptist as a young curly-haired child with a small lamb.
St. Jean-Baptiste Day parade leaving the Saint-Sauveur presbytery, in Quebec City, on June 23, 1912.
In this document, extracted from the December 29, 1879 issue of Le Canadien, the catholic episcopate of the province of Quebec assures the President of the Société Saint-Jean-Baptiste de Québec of the support of its clergy during the upcoming St. Jean-Baptiste Day in June 1880.
In 1880, St. Jean-Baptiste Day gave rise to great festivities in Quebec City. It was on June 24th of that year that the citizens of Quebec City were to hear for the first time a song called Ô Canada. That song, written by Adolphe Basile Routhier and composed by Calixa Lavallée, became so popular that it was soon referred to as the “French Canadian national anthem” before becoming one century later (1st July 1980) Canada’s official national anthem.
The music score of ”Ô Canada, terre de nos aïeux, chant national / paroles de l'Honorable juge Routhier; musique de Calixa Lavallée” which was to become Canada’s national anthem in 1980.
This is the music score of another patriotic song entitled ”Chant national dédié à la Société St.-Jean-Baptiste de Québec à l'occasion de la grande fête nationale chômée à Québec le 24 juin 1880 / paroles et musique de Célestin Lavigueur” and heard for the first time in Quebec City in 1880.
Fête nationale des Canadiens-français, célébrée à Québec en 1880 : histoire, discours, rapports, statistiques, documents, messe, procession, banquet, convention / par H. J. J. B. Chouinard. - This publication offers a complete account of the different activities surrounding the celebration of the St. Jean-Baptiste Day in Quebec City on June 24, 1880.
With the advent of the Quiet Revolution in the 1960’s, the political atmosphere profoundly transformed the symbolism of the feast. In 1964, the curly-haired St. Jean-Baptiste child and his lamb were replaced by a unique and more mature figure of Saint-Jean-Baptiste. Then, the festivities were sometimes witness to acts of violence (1968-1970), bringing about the end of the Montreal traditional parade up until 1990. On the other hand, more and more local festivities were being organised, and later on, big variety shows were to take place. St. Jean-Baptist Day was slowly becoming less and less politicised, and more festive and communal. In 1977, St. Jean-Baptiste Day was proclaimed Quebec’s national holiday, that is to say a holiday for all Quebecers regardless of their ancestry and religion.
But St. Jean-Baptiste Day is not only celebrated in the province of Quebec. It is also celebrated during the Franco-Ontarian Festival which takes place every year in Ottawa, as well as in many small towns located in Northern Ontario such as Hearst and Kapuskasing, in several French speaking communities in Manitoba and, to a lesser degree, in Acadia. The cities of St. John’s, Newfoundland (1497) and Saint John, New Brunswick (1604) were both named in honour of Saint John the Baptist.
The June 28, 1916 issue of La Liberté (p. 5) contains a wonderful description of the St. Jean-Baptiste Day festivities held in the parish of Notre-Dame de Lourdes, a small French Canadian community located in Southern Manitoba. There is even mention of a Belgian musical band from Brussels which was invited to participate in the festivities.
Those who are interested in researching this topic further will find numerous books, articles and photos on Canadiana.org’s two main portals - Early Canadiana Online and the Canadiana Discovery Portal.