A Canadian Family

First Nations, French Canadians & Acadians

Christmas Tide in Canada (1883)


Seasons of festivity, both sacred and secular, have never lacked zealous observance in Canada. The earliest colonists were essentially a religious people. Even when at sea Jacques Cartier was mindful of his calendar, and the great river that was expected to bear the adventurers to far Cathay was named after the valiant deacon who defied the power of heathen Rome.

Something of the crusading spirit as well as chivalry still lingered in the minds of Frenchmen, and even Basque and Breton sailors aspired to share the labors of the missionary. Such men were not likely to allow fast or festival to pass unnoticed. And, as they came of a gay and sociable race, in any plan of life that they might adopt merriment and good cheer were pretty sure to have recognition.

The beginning of their career on this continent was fitly marked by the union of solemn rite with simple festivity. They were eager to convert the savages, but in the intercourse between their leaders and the Indian chiefs there was, excepting the interruption of war, a certain courtly courtesy.

Amid his preaching and baptizing, the versatile Lescarbat did not neglect the rules of the Ordre de Bontemps, which Champlain found more healthful and profitable than any medicine. Later on we find the Jesuit fathers recording, amid graver .occurrences, the paying of New Year’s compliments and the exchange of New Year’s gifts. Christmas Eve had its midnight mass and consecrated bread and anthems duly sung.

We learn from Le Journal des Jesuites for 1645, that the first bell for the midnight service sounded at eleven o’clock; again at a little before half past eleven the warning note was heard and the choristers began to chant the ” Venez, mon Dieu ” and ” Chantons Noel.” Even the names of those who led the choir are commemorated. Monsieur de la Ferte took the bass, while Saint Martin (Martin Boubat) played the violin. There was also a German flute which went well with the other music. Then a few minutes before midnight the Te Dcum was sung; while the devout strains were ascending the cannon announced the hour of twelve, and the mass began. On the same occasion the consecrated bread was distributed—the first time we are told for several years, rivalries as to precedence having induced the clergy to discontinue the custom.

During the last quarter of a century a similar interdict had been placed on the midnight mass in the city of Montreal, but for different reasons. The denial to devout Catholics of a religious service which they so highly prize, on account of the levity or irreverence of a portion of the community, was, however, so much taken to heart that orders were given for its resumption, and of late years it has formed one of the chief attractions of Christmas tide, not only to Roman Catholics, but to Protestants.

There is no ceremony more imposing, or which brings more fully into play what is grand, picturesque, and pathetic in the Church of Rome, than the midnight mass in such a temple as Notre Dame of Montreal, when crowded through its fair proportions with from 12,000 to 15,000 eager worshipers. Such a sight, once seen, is never forgotten. It is then, indeed, that Notre Dame is seen in all its magnificence and beauty, enhanced by all that the church has of joyous splendor and its visible influence on the human heart.

The midnight mass in the quiet country village or isolated parish hamlet has a different kind of attraction, but it has also an impressiveness peculiar to itself. The souls of the worshipers are permeated by the one thought of the awful reality of the presence in which they stand. There is in the city, no doubt, faith as implicit in the doctrine taught, as vivid a feeling of the divine mysteriously but actually present, as it was present in the stable of Bethlehem centuries ago. But it is confined to comparatively few. In the country, the country of the French Canadians, doubt has not yet made its home, and in matters of religion men and women are children still. There is at the rural ceremony, moreover, a homely, hearty sense of oneness, of sacred’kinship, that conies of universal acquaintance, which is absent from the heterogeneous city gathering.

Then there are the parties made up for the occasion, and the pleasant sleigh drive and the best of good fellowship, only temporarily doffed for the demeanor which is de rigueur before the altar. The midnight mass in Notre Dame is a spectacle to be seen once and remembered ever after. But the midnight mass in the village church is more in harmony with its surroundings, those of a Norman community of the early days of Louis XIV., which has lain perdu for two centuries amid the stir and noise of go-ahead America.

It is the brother of a bishop who writes thus: ” A Quebec, on a cru pouvoir maintenir l’antique et touchante tradition de la nuit de Noel, ct e’est une ressemblance de plus avec ces vieilles villes bretonnes ou normandes d’ou nos peres partirent pour venir si loin. Jeudi soir, on se serait cru a Rouen, a Naintes ou a Rennes, il y a deux siecles.” And if the comparison holds good of city with city, much more can it be maintained between the Canadian village of to-day and the French village of two hundred years ago.

Socially there is little difference between the observance of Christmas by French Canadians and of that which finds favor with their English neighbors. The Christmas tree is in vogue among both sections of the population. The children hang up their stockings, expecting them to contain gifts in the morning, when they are sure to awake betimes. But it is to ” e petit Jesus,” not to St.Nicholas, that French Canadian boys and girls look for the bounty.

Some old beliefs that once existed among the habitants are, Mr. Le May, the translator of Evangeline, tells us, fast dying away.

One of them was that of the temporary resurrection of the last cure’ of the parish, who, with his dead flock around him, recited the office for the day, his ghostly audience repeating the responses.

Another tradition is that on Christmas night the light of the stars penetrates the opened recesses of the earth, sometimes revealing hidden treasures.

The genuflexions of the oxen are common to most Christian communities.

With Christmas among the French Canadians, as among other peoples, are connected many curious rhymes which have been handed down from generation to generation. The strangest of these is what is known as La Guignolle, of which there are several versions. It is more immediately associated with New Year’s Day than with Christmas, but formerly the two holidays were closely connected. The Christmas season may, indeed, be said to terminate only with Epiphany, which by many is still called old Christmas Day. The origin of the La Guignolde is unknown, though the explanation au gui, fan neuf! is the one generally given. This would carry the custom back to the Druids and the gathering of the sacred mistletoe {gui, viscuni) to which Pliny makes reference (Hist. Nat. xvi., 249). The custom is still kept up, Mr. Suite says, in some parishes of the Province of Quebec, of singing the GuignoUe on the evening of St. Sylvester’s day, that is New Year’s eve. As the words of this ancient invocation may be new to some of the readers of this Magazine, I append one of the versions contained in the Chansons Populaires dn Canada of Mr. Ernest Gagnou :

Bonjour le maitre et la maitresse

Et tout le mont tie la maison.

Pour le dernier jour de l’annee

La Ignolg vous nous devez.

Le vous voulez rien nous donnez


Ou emmenera seulement

La fille ain£e

Ou lui fera faire bonne chere,

Ou lui fera chauffer les pieds.

Ou vous demande seulement

Une chignee,

De vingt a trente pied de long

Si vous voulez-e.

La Ignotee, la Ignoloche,

Mettez du lard dedans ma poche !

Quand nous fum’s au milieu du bois.

Nous fum’s a l’ombre ;

J’entendais chanter le coucou

Et la coulombe.

Rossignolet du vert bocage

Rossignolet du bois joli.

Et va-t-en dire a ma mattresse

Que je meurs pour ses beaux yeux.

Tout’ fille ciui n’a pas d’amant,

Comment vit-elle ?

Elle vit toujours en soupirant

Et toujours veille.

In the winter carnival Montreal has now a festival season in which all sections of the community can join with good will, undeterred by religious scruples. It has the merit of combining all that is worth preserving in Canada’s popular amusements. Could there be a greater conquest of civilization than to turn the rigors of a northern climate into shapes of beauty and incitements to healthful pleasure; there is good reason to believe that what last year was only an experiment, has already become an  “institution.”

Preparations for the present winter’s carnival are in progress. The Ice Palace, as before, will form the center of attraction, and there is every ground to hope that the entire display will be of a character and on a scale to satisfy the expectations of even the most sanguine.

It need scarcely be added that all Americans are cordially invited.

Source: The Magazine of American history

with notes and queries, 1883


John Austin Stevens, Benjamin Franklin DeCosta, Henry Phelps Johnston, Martha Joanna Lamb, Nathan Gillett Pond

http://books.google.ca/books?id=dHFIAAAAYAAJ&dq=canadian+indian+christmas&sitesec=reviews0 Reviews

A. S. Barnes., 1883

December 31, 2014 - Posted by | . |

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