Musings on the Day of Fête Nationale & Other Quebec Curios
“Gens du pays, c’est votre tour
De vous laisser parler d’amour.“
(Gilles Vigneault and Gaston Rochon, “Gens du pays”)
Anglos and religious folk know today as St Jean Baptiste Day. Held on none other but the birthday of Saint John the Baptist (famously known as the relative of Jesus who got his head chopped off), fête nationale, as it is officially known, also happens to tumble on the same week as the Midsummer festivals, whose origins date back to Pagan origins but eventually incorporated subtly into Christian traditions.
The celebration has its origins in none other than the St Jean Baptiste Society’s first president, Ludger Duvernay, who helped organise the first event with Francophones and Anglophones alike coming together to celebrate Lower Canada for the first St Jean Baptiste in 1837. During the French-Canadian Patriotes rebellion in the late 1830s, celebrations became more religious, moving away from its celebration of French Canada. It is during one St Jean Baptiste, in 1880, that a simple song, “Ô Canada” composed by Calixa Lavallée, would first be performed; it would later become Canada’s national anthem in 1980, one century later. In 1978, René Lévesque’s Parti Québécois government elected the 24th of June as “fête nationale“, the official day of the Québécois, a quiet manifestation of Quebec nationalism and sovereignty. The French term gradually replaced a once religious festival with more secular connotations, but the English term still sticks.
It is a huge, predominantly French, event in Quebec, including two days of festivities on the 23rd and 24th and free events everywhere from the Place des Festivals to the Plains of Abraham. This year, the theme is “8 millions d’étincelles”, inspired by the number of inhabitants of Quebec, which hit over 8 million people according to Statistics Canada last year. 8 million people, of all languages and cultures, fête nationale is intended for all people of Quebec; it is a celebration of francophone culture first and foremost. Tomorrow, the ultimate day, includes parades all over Quebec; in Montreal, it will start this year on the corner of Boucher and Rue St Denis (a short walk from Laurier metro station). Politics aside, that being perhaps another tale for another time, this year’s fête nationale promises to be another epic feat. Bonne fête nationale.