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St. Jean-Baptiste: The Evolution of a Québecois Holiday


June 24th rings the bells of celebration across the province of Québec each year. As the Québec diaspora has expanded beyond the province itself, the holiday has taken on an important place in the lives of many Franco-Americans as well. This day is officially called both the Fête Nationale du Québec and St. Jean-Baptiste. What is the difference between these two names and how has the history of this holiday evolved throughout time?



Saint Jean-Baptiste

            During the era of New France, when France had control over the dominion of Canada, St. Jean-Baptiste was an important religious celebration. The holiday was established to coincide with the pagan observance of the Summer Solstice; it was co-opted to celebrate a religious figure by the Christian Church (much like the history of Christmas). St. Jean-Baptiste was the biblical cousin of Jesus. Much like the pagan holiday, the original celebrations of St. Jean-Baptiste involved large bonfires that started on the evening of the 23rd and continued through the 24th. This celebration, an important cultural phenomenon in France, was spread alongside France’s colonization efforts.

 

Québec Pride

            As the rule of Canada came to fall under the British Monarchy, the religious connotations of St. Jean-Baptiste seemed to fade a little. As Canada became increasingly Anglophone (English-speaking), there was a concentrated effort to protect and celebrate a Franco-Canadian identity. The religious undertones of the holiday were still present during this era, however, as attending mass and the consumption of consecrated bread remained crucial activities on June 24th. Especially in Québec, this Franco-Canadian identity became increasingly important with the British influence (and eventually American influence) continuing. This strong sense of Francophone and Québec pride served to shift the narrative of this celebration.


St. Jean Parade

 

Ludger Duvernay

            In 1834, Ludger Duvernay, a journalist and editor of La Minerve, started to bring the holiday to the public. Duvernay held a banquet on Saint-Antoine Street in Montréal. The banquet was held to celebrate a Franco-Québec identity. The banquet was adorned with many symbols we associate with Québec and Canada today, such as the Fleurdelisé flag and a maple leaf. Duvernay later created an organization called “Aide-toi et le ciel t’aidera” (Help yourself and heaven will help you) to plan future events and organize the celebration into an official holiday. The name of the organization was inspired by a secret society formed during the French Revolution.

Ludger Duvernay

The first parades for St. Jean-Baptiste were held nine years later in 1843. According to many, the parades were inspired by celebrations of St. Patrick in Montréal. Originally, the parades had upwards of four to five depictions of St. Jean-Baptiste, all unique to the float creator. The patron of the holiday was officially Jacques Cartier, a Frenchman and Aboriginal Canadian, until 1908 when they declared St. Jean-Baptiste as the patron saint of Québec. In 1908, Pope Pius X also proclaimed St. Jean-Baptiste as the patron saint of French Canadians. Around this time, the original society founded by Duvernay was renamed the “Société Saint-Jean-Baptiste.”

 

René Lévesque

            As the celebrations of St. Jean-Baptiste became a large-scale promotion of Québec identity, the tone began to shift. While religion remained a central purpose for many people, the younger generation seemed to identify the day more with joyous celebrations of national identity. In 1925, the holiday was officially recognized in Québec as St. Jean-Baptiste Day. Giles Vigneault first performed his song about his national identity “Gens du pays,” at a parade for St. Jean-Baptiste. On June 24th, 1977, René Lévesque declared the holiday as “Fête Nationale du Québec” (National Holiday of Québec). During the 1980s and 90s, repeated independence referendums in Québec (in 1980 and 1995) inspired the holiday to further embrace Québecois identity. The holiday is also loving nicknamed “la St-Jean” in everyday conversation, a classic Québec contraction of words. If you travel to Québec during this time, you'll probably hear someone ask "Tu fais quoi pour la St.-Jean?" (What are you doing for St. Jean?).

St. Jean Parade

            Today, St. Jean-Baptiste is regarded as akin to another celebratory holiday: St. Patrick’s Day. While there are religious undertones and some continue to follow these practices, the holiday has evolved into a celebration of national pride for the Québecois people, like St. Patrick’s Day is now widely regarded as a celebration of Irish culture. Every June 24th, the streets of all cities across Québec are lined with people waving flags, singing songs of Québec identity, and watching extravagant parades. Many also enter churches and maintain the religious tones that the holiday was founded upon. Across the Franco-Canadian diaspora, St. Jean-Baptiste Day (or Fête Nationale) has become a moment to bring the community together and celebrate their common heritage.

 

Québec Flag at Boston City Hall

A Note on St. Jean Baptiste for Franco-American Communities

            Within the Franco-American community, especially in New England where the roots of this connection are connected to Québec identity, St. Jean Baptiste continues to be a celebration of Francophone identity. Celebrations of St. Jean Baptiste have a long history across New England, always tying back to the ideas of identity and community. Some stories of local celebrations can be found in this blog. Last year, the mayor of Boston even declared the holiday (although it was instead celebrated on the 21st of June) and flew a Québec flag over the City Hall.  

























Written by Kaleb Houle-Lawrence

University Intern




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