A Canadian Family

Natives, French Canadians & Acadians

An Acadian Christmas in Port Royal: The “Buche de Noel” or Yule Log

This is a late 19th-century fictionalized account of an early Christmas in Acadia.


An Acadian Christmas, in the olden days as now, had many a point of difference Irom the typical Christmas of France.

The Norse blood in their veins gave importance to the Yule Log in old Acadian eyes ; and the Acadian of this later time, having breathed for generations the eclectic New World air, has suffered his Christmas to be touched by his Christmas-loving Anglo-Saxon neighbors.

On this side of the water it has never been, as in Paris, one of the more carelessly regarded Jours de Fete, distinguished merely by the scenic splendor of the midnight masses upon its vigil ; nor has New Year’s Day ever wholly usurped its role as the day of giving and loving, of forgiving and feasting and being glad.

Parisian Christmas has always seemed to me a thing consisting somewhat of eau sucre and colored tissue-paper ; but Acadian winters are not propitious to any such light stuff. A glance back two centuries and a half will show us a Christmas which no rejoicings could make mirthful ; and in the Acadian cottage of to-day we find at Christmas the hearty and rugged merriment of a people that has reached its simple prosperity through a hard fight and a thousand bitter trials.

It is December 25th, 1610 Anno Domini ; and the tiny French colony at Port Royal is five years old. The sun has risen just clear of an encircling range of hills, white with new snow. The whiteness is cut sharply here and there by sturdy firtrees, that have shaken the snow from their overladen boughs and.now tower erect in the sparkling air, while their feebler fellows bend to earth uider the weight of their snowy copes.

Were we nearer we should find these unimprisoned trees girt about with a tangle of rabbit tracks and the dainty footprints of squirrels, the snow beneath the branches spotted red with half-gnawed fragments of fir cones. The level sunshine streams down the valley to the little palisaded fort at whose gate we are standing; it dazzles over miles of white plain, then out upon the bosom of the land-locked harbor of Port Royal. In the distance, and out of our ken, beats the tide-chafed mother of fogs, the Bay of Fundy.

The blue and golden surface of the harbor is flecked with ice-cakes from the Port Royal river (the Dauphin) which is soughing in its channel close beside us. The tide is out, and the stream’s bed is choked with ice-cakes, huddled thick together ; but along high-water mark the ice is laid in order, like mighty armor-plates of crystal, soiled at the edges, and weather-eaten. The sobbing in mid-channel, the low noises of grinding and crumbling, are the signs of the incoming tide, lifting the ice. At the head of yonder little island the floes have shouldered one another above tidelevel, and with their clear facets have built up a mighty cluster of prisms.

The snow that has wrapped up everything, climbing the palisades of the fort, hiding the ditch, curving over the low eaves of our poor half-dozen cabins, is trodden well down before the door of the forge, and strewn with great, fragrant, yellow chips. The forge fire is out today, black as the store of charcoal heaped behind the anvil, and firewood in liberal lengths is piled up higher than the eaves. As we mark each detail of this one live spot in the expanse of gleaming desolation, and note how the smoke from fort and cabin rolls dusky orange against the hard blue sky, a restless-looking, dark man, in deerskin tunic and creased”voluminous boots, conies out of the fort and plies the ax with vigor upon a huge trunk of dry pine.

At the sound of the ax-strokes an Indian cur comes in stealthily, and sits down in front of the chopper to observe his work. As the chips fly thick and fast the dog moves to a safer distance. Then a cabin door opens, and the inviting roar of a fire streams out into the frost. The chopper hesitates, leaves the log unsevered, enters, and shuts the door behind him ; while stealthily as it came glides away the Indian”cur.

This is the quiet of Christmas morning at Port Royal, 264 years ago. No clamoring of bells, no laughing, shrill voices, no idly hurried crowds as in their own dear Picardie and Normandy. Jean de Biencourt, Baron Poutrincourt, has with him twenty-three persons in this little lonely colony. No need of work or haste this Christmas morning. There is nothing to hasten for, and their work is, for a few days, done. T

hey have drawn in the Yule log, with abundance of cut firewood, and though they have by no means too much venison in store, they have worn themselves out in the hunt, and need not take it up again till tomorrow. So they idle about, and

Dream of fatherland.
Of child, and wife ,

till it shall be time to gather in the chief room of the fort, and eat their apology for a Christmas dinner.

They are depending almost wholly now upon such fish as they can catch through the ice of the inland lakes, and on the venison they capture for themselves or buy from the friendly Micmacs encamped near at hand. Their grain—corn and barley, and a little wheat—is all but gone ; the longed-for vessel from France still delays ; and it is doubtful if they can succeed in staving off absolute famine. But on this one day at least they will not stint themselves, though venison and fish become cruelly monotonous to their palates.

Last night they had lighted the Yule log with brave cheerfulness and good-fellowship, had welcomed in the Feast with firing of guns, and had initialed the convert Memberton with his braves into the blessed Mysteries of the Season.

Father Flesche had summoned them in toward midnight, and mass had been celebrated with single-hearted fervor indeed, but ah, with what a difference from the services even then, as they knew, being offered up in lighted aisle and chancel far away. They had thought of the sea of upturned faces, rapt and moveless, as the shepherd-priests came forward reverently, and the curtain was drawn back to show the Virgin and the Child. Again in their ears rang the soaring, flawless treble of the hidden

boy, singing, as an angel, the ” Gloria in Excelsis.” Again, as they chanted with closed eyes, they heard the full responses, the clanging of swung censers ; they saw the ranks of surpliced priests and singers bow together ; and the aromatic breath of the incense stole into their nostrils. But it was only a handful of exiled and weary men, singing at midnight in a rude, half-lighted room ; outside their walls the limitless Acadian ^wilderness, and a thousand miles of wild seas between themselves and home.

Then for some, as they turned to their blankets, what aching of heart to see no little shoe, set out in prim order before the fireplace, expectant of toys and sweetmeats from Jsus Bambin! And for all of them the coming festival could be but a season of longing and looking back.

This was their Christmas Eve.

To-day, as the hours wear on, the stories they have been telling come to an end ; the pine trunk by the forge door has been more than once or twice attacked spasmodically, till it bears no remotest resemblance to its former self; and the savors of venison and fish, and hot cakes of broken wheat, attract attention

The fire in the chief room blazes higher and higher. Snow-shoes hang on the walls, or stand in the corners in a confusion of muskets and hand-nets and long ashen paddles.

Over the windows are moose-hides tanned with the hair on, heavy black bear skins, and furs of lynx and loup cervur, out of which, as a faint gust stirs them, gleam polished claws and white, snarling teeth. The warriors invited to the feast squat at one side on their deer-skins, and the sober revel begins. The courses are few and little varied, but the dinner is by no means one of herbs.

Yet is it a feast where love is, and the red guests pledge to their entertainers unending fealty,—a pledge destined never to be broken. Then follow stories, and encounters of wit, and remembrances, and toasts ; speeches are made prophetic of a new and mighty nation to spring from the heroic effort of their own small band; and “A la Claire Fontaine” is raised, with other loved old songs.

As night falls a wind roars in from the sea, full of drift and the sounds of crashing ice, and lashes wildly roof and palisade. Some paddles and snow-shoes fall to the floor with loud clatter. Then the fire on the wide hearth leaps up redder than ever, hissing and sparking fitfully ; the company draw closer to the blaze, shutting off the light from the draughty further corners ; dark faces glow and moist eyes gleam as they watch the flame intently, fallen in silence ; and our picture fades out into the dimness of three centuries ago.

In Madawaska County, New Brunswick, leagues inland from the beating of sea winds, on fertile banks of the St. John and Green River, the Madawaska, Quisibis, and other lovely streams, the Acadian now builds snugly his wide-eaved cottage, setting an orchard about it, amid fields of flax and buckwheat, and painting his broad barn doors, and the vans of his inevitable windmill, of the crudest ochre-ish red.

At Christmas the snow has fallen all around him to a depth of five or six feet, his fences and boundaries are obliterated, his roofs scarcely rise above the white encompassing levels.

Indoors the fire lights up his shelves-full of blue and white dishes, and glimmers in the wood of walls and doors. There is no chilly plaster to be seen. The ceiling is of wood, darkened with years and smoke; the one partition, dividing his abode into living room and sleeping-room, is of wood, polished, like the walls, by the rubbing of hands and shoulders. The massive square bed ; the square cradle that rocks with dreadful thud, loud enough to keep a baby wakeful a whole lifetime ; the square lockers; the square table ; the square chairs ; the square loom ; the spinning-wheel that could not well be square ;—all are of the same brown, solid, shining wood.

On Christmas Eve there are the guns and showng, the drive in the pung, half-filled with quilts and straw, to mass at the little chapel miles away.

And on Christmas Day the fiddle reigns supreme. Neighbors flock in, and moccasined feet dance indefatigably, morn and noon and night. Huge slices of sweet bread, which has been made for this feast out of plain dough kneaded up with molasses and spotted with dried huckleberries, are washed down with a wholesome beer brewed from spruce boughs and juniper.

Sometimes the national beverage of Canada, rye whisky, plays a quiet part in the proceedings ; but our Acadian does not make a beast of himself. Not seldom, as it grows late, the dancing palls, and the singing. Then, as of old, all gather around the fire ; and if, as often happens, a modern cooking stove has supplanted the open hearth, they provide themselves with large raw potatoes, from which, with their clasp knives, they shave their slices artistically, and fry them to a turn on the hot black covers; and the sizzling and aroma fill the air.

If the hearth still holds sway each arms himself with a slim green sapling, whereon he toasts red herrings for the damsel of his choice, who sits beside him. The children of the house meanwhile, from under particolored coverlets, look through the open door with unwinking eyes, too early exiled from the circle, but solaced with peppermints and like delicacies, which the good angel, acquainted with the nearest grocery, has brought them in their sleep the night before. So the day, and the night, draw to a close.

And if the mood of the party has been a merry one the cocks perchance are crowing under the snow muffled sheds, the last stars fading out in the biting, gray-blue sky of dawn, as the guests race away in a confusion of jangling bells and steam and snorting of the ponies.

Source: The Current, 1884


Related Posts:

Index: Christmas in Canada Through Historical Images

November 5, 2012 - Posted by | . | , ,

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