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

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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.

DUVERNAY It is Ludger Duvernay, a Patriote and the founder of Société Saint-Jean-Baptiste, who was the first to make the event a patriotic one, in 1834. Duvernay wished to unite the "Canadiens" of the day in the celebration of their national pride, in the hopes of bringing on political change and the end of the military British government. He chose the evening of Saint-Jean-Baptiste Day to invite about sixty illustrious guests, both French and English-speakers, to a great banquet where the future of the Canadien people was discussed. From that moment on, the old traditional French celebration became the national patriotic Fête of the people of Québec.

Towards the end of the XIXth century, massive celebrations added themselves to the traditional bonfire. Banners, parades, fanfares and flags became part of the event. In Québec and Montréal, the parades were impressive and attracted huge crowds. On the 24th of June 1880, Québécois hear and sing for the first time the song that was to become the national anthem of French Canada: «Ô Canada». The religious aspect of the event was still very present. In 1908, Pope Pie X officially proclaimed Saint-Jean-Baptiste as the patron saint of the French-Canadian nation. Back then, every parade had its own little Saint-Jean impersonator of the year, a little boy with curly brown hair accompanied by the symbolic sheep.

In 1925, the Québec legislature declared the 24th of June a national holiday. In 1948, the current flag of Québec was adopted and became the nation's rallying symbol at Saint-Jean. The parades celebrated the greatness of Québec, its history, its heroes and its people.

With the Quiet Revolution in the 1960s, the celebration, like everything else in Québec, radically changed. The religious aspect of the celebration and the little boy dressed as Saint-Jean were definitely cast aside. The celebration became solely patriotic. Great popular concerts were organised and the population was invited to come sing and dance with Québec's most popular singers and musicians. These incredibly popular events took place on the Plaines d'Abraham in Québec and on the Mont Royal in Montréal (where they later moved to Maisonneuve Park).

At the end of the 70s, the Fête takes a political twist. Leaders of separatist parties join the festivities and the issue of Québec independence becomes central. More recently, after the 1995 referendum, the event adapts itself once more to the new realities of Québec. Members of Québec's many ethnic groups join the celebrations and the Saint-Jean parade is now a wonderful mix of Caribbean music, of Scottish bagpipes and of traditional Québécois melodies. Just like so many times in the past, this millennia-old celebration has evolved just like the people who's unique identity it celebrates. On thing has remained the same though: everyone has tons of fun!

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