Okay it’s probably not a good idea to start the first post of the New Year with a bad pun – and sort of in French to boot. But that is exactly what many Canadians were doing throughout the first day of 2016 – going to a Levée or in some cases several.
What exactly is a Levée? Well any of my opera-inclined friends would tell you that, based on Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier, it’s when a person of standing attends to their toilette (again with the French – it’s going to be a classy year!) and receives requests for patronage, receives offers of services, listens to a guest tenor, and does what we would call today social networking. Of course that was the purpose when the ceremony was codified by Louis XIV and then adopted by most of the courts of Europe. Much of the business of state was conducted in the Royal Bedchamber as the ritual of the royal rising took place.
In Britain the restoration of the monarchy in 1672 brought along Charles II with his Frenchified ways and a form of levée became common at court. By the time of the Hanovers, though the title remained, it had morphed into a formal reception – no toiletry involved, the King being fully dressed – where government officials, diplomats, clergy and military were present and gave their greetings to the monarch. Similarly the representatives of the Motherland would hold levées in their corner of the Empire be it the Viceroy of India, the Governor of Hong Kong or the Governors-General of Ceylon or Canada. In Canada it was to became a New Year’s Day tradition.
But the practice of a New Year’s Day reception was not new in the North American Colonies. The first recorded Levée in Canada was held on January 1st, 1646 in the Château St. Louis by Charles Huault de Montmagny, Governor of New France (later Québec). In addition to shaking hands and wishing a Happy New Year to citizens presenting themselves at the Château, the Governor informed guests of significant events in the Mother Country, as well as the state of affairs within the colony.
After 1760 the tradition was to be continued by the British Governors of the Province of Canada and with Confederation by the Governors-General and their Provincial counterparts. But they were not alone in the practice of New Year’s Day receptions – military, ecclesiastical, civic, and benevolent associations followed the custom of welcoming and entertaining gentlemen guests on January 1st. It should be noted that at the time these events were men-only affairs and over time became “by invitation” rather than open to the general citizenry. Calling cards (a requirement for any gentleman of any standing) were presented, respects and greetings exchanged, and food and drink offered. Old acquaintances would be renewed and new ones forged. And keeping in mind the original purpose of these gatherings a toast would be offered to the health and welfare of the Monarch and the Country.
During the Second World War the men-only restriction was loosened to include female officers in the various forces. After the War many Levées dropped the “gentleman-only” restriction however it was not until 1976 that Governor General Jules Léger and Ontario Lieutenant-Governor Pauline McGibbon opened the vice-regal Levées to women. Over time more and more Levées returned to being public events where everyone was welcomed and they became family affairs.
In many areas of the country the entire day could be spent going from Levée to Levée. The tradition seems to be strongest in the Maritimes particularly in PEI where the first of some 45 Levées began at 0900 this morning. Most are taking place in Charlottetown and they range through the Vice-Regal, Provincial, Municipal, Academic, and Military to Church, Associations, Fraternal Orders, and Businesses (including a local tea shop and an Island brewery). Of course each Province has it’s Vice-Regal reception and almost every municipality is having a community meet and greet of some kind – Toronto’s is a gigantic skating party on the City Hall Rink.
One of the favourite libations at many of the Levées – particularly those of the military – is Moose Milk. Though each branch of the service, and often divisions within a branch, has it’s own “secret” recipe the common ingredients seem to be dark rum, Kahlua, vodka, ice cream and milk. The portions may vary but the potency of the combination is guaranteed. And chances are that many attendees at a Levée where this beverage is offered will be capable of responding to the wake up call of *leve-toi!
On this day in 1772: The first traveler’s cheques, which can be used in 90 European cities, go on sale in London, England.