Le Temps des Fêtes

Le Temps des Fêtes

Sweltering in Brisbane, my Canadienne grandma Madeleine never felt like it was really Christmas.

She never told us much what Christmasses were like for her growing up. Probably because they were pretty depressing. Her father ran off when she was a baby, leaving her twenty-year-old mother with three little girls to support alone in the 1930s. She managed by waitressing in Montrèal and taking restaurant kitchen scraps – fish heads, chicken necks – to make soup, and eventually leaving them at a convent orphanage at Lac Noir.

There was rarely enough food in either of these situations so I don’t imagine there was anything for Christmas food or presents. Decorations back then would have been mainly greenery so they could have collected that when they lived with their mother. The nuns would have had some pretty set ways to organise Christmas at the convent.

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According to my books, Christmas celebrations in Quèbec started with carol singing – Adeste Fideles and Angels We Have Heard On High were favourites – which was followed by a low mass. Apparently  visiting with relatives was a really important part of Christmas and I wonder how much of that Grandma’s little family did. I’m positive her mother would have visited them. She did every chance she could, even though saying good-bye was so hard.

But New Year’s Day was actually a bigger deal. Gerard J Brault says it pretty well in his The French Canadian Heritage in New England:

The family gathered early at the grandparents’ or parents hom, and the eldest son asked for the blessing… it was a solemn and emotional moment… Everyone knelt before the grandfather who gave a benediction similar to that of the priest at the end of mass. As he made the sign of the cross over everyone, or each individual, he said: ‘Que Dieu vous bénisse au nom du Père et du Fils et du Saint Esprit. Amen.‘ Traditionally, this blessing was immediately followed by a wish along the following lines: ‘Je vous souhaite une bonne et heureuse année, une bonne santé, et le paradis à la fin de vos jours!

…After the blessing, everyone rose, kissed or shook hands, and exchanged expressions of good fortune. …The small gifts for children were sometimes given, according to French custom, only on New Year’s Day.

Before and after mass… further greetings and good wishes were exchanged with relatives and friends on the church steps…

At home, after a round or two of drinks during which informal toasts were exchanged with everyone, a hearty and joyous meal was served. This generally consisted of roast beef or turkey; mashed potatoes, peas, pickles, beets, and onions; tourtières; croquignoles and other desserts. A New Year’s Day visit to relatives n the area was customary during the afternoon or evening.

305980233_5864241926_bThe feasts didn’t stop there. The Epiphany was the end of the Christmas season on 6 January and commemorated the arrival of the Magi to visit the baby Jesus. The second of February was Candlemas when people celebrated the Virgin Mary’s ritual post-childbirth cleansing and Jesus’s presentation to his local rabbis by eating crêpes; they sent Valentines – both nice and nasty; and 19 March was Saint Joseph‘s day which had fireworks and marked the beginning of maple tapping.

Then it was Shrovetide and Lent, then Holy Week and Easter, May Day and May was the month of the Holy Virgin. In late May or early June was Corpus Christi and its procession, followed by Saint John the Baptist Day, the Feast of the Assumption, Hallowmas, Saint Catherine’s Day, then Advent and they were back at Christmas again.

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