Today is St Jean’s Eve – the traditional Christian church celebration of the Summer Solstice. Yes I know we did that two days ago but we should keep in mind that calculations were a little vaguer back when Mother Church decided to replace the pagan festival of Midsummer with a Saint’s day. And the Saint that lined up perfectly with it was John the Baptist. In the Gospel of St John (no relation) John is quoted as saying: He must increase but I must decrease. (John 3:30). And as we know – and they knew – the days have begun to decrease and will do so until we reach the winter solstice, at which point they will increase. You have to admit they know how to use symbolism.
In much of Europe St John’s Eve was one of those nights when people celebrated with special foods, dancing and general carryings-on. It was also believed that it was a time when the veil between the natural and the supernatural was at its flimsiest. Much like on All-Hallows Eves witches and evil spirits were passing through that veil and bedevilling the innocent. The best way for witches to work their evil was to turn themselves into small bugs and birds and drop potions on the celebrants below. So how to ward them off? Why with bonfires, of course. It was thought that the sparks flying off where the hovering evils ones being consumed by fire. But what did you do if you suspected that you had been doused in one of those damning potions? Why you jumped over the bonfires to cleanse yourself – sometimes several times just to be sure. Though a safer way was to bath in the local river as a remembrance of your baptism and to cleanse your sins.
“So what does this have to do with music?” asks my faithful reader. Well when French settlers came to Canada they brought with them their traditions including the celebration of St John’s Eve. After years of waiting in the wings St Jean-Baptiste was to become the patron saint of French Canada in 1902. Early celebrations were of the traditional sort but in the 1830s a movement was afoot lead by publisher Ludger Duvernay to formalize the festivities. He had seen the St Patrick’s Day parade in Montreal and decided that St Jean-Baptiste should be celebrated in the same manner. In 1934 he formed a charitable association that was to eventually become the Société Saint-Jean-Baptiste (1849). As well as its charitable work it was dedicated to preserving the cultural and historical heritage of French Canada. Each year banquets, dances, public celebrations, religious processions, and parades were on the bill for the enjoyment of the good citizens of Montréal and hosts of visitors from outlying villages and farms.
Which brings us finally to today’s musical selection: La Saint Jean-Baptiste by Québecois singer/songwriter Conrad Gauthier. Gauthier was said to be “a keen re-creator of our old customs” and an “irresistible dispenser of good old-fashioned happiness”. And that certainly is the case with this story of an old farmer (habitant) who finally convinces his wife Catherine to go to Montréal for a once in a life-time visit to celebrate La Saint Jean-Baptiste.
Many of the words and idioms are considered archaic today and the lyrics are peppered with glorious malapropisms but it is a delightful little vignette of its time. When they get to the city they ask for directions to the parade and are confused when they are told to go to the currents of the St Lawrence River. They didn’t think the “procession” took place on water but are relieved to find it is the square in front of the Pied-du-Courant Prison. They join the crowds and marvel at the bands, the floats, the marchers – they have never seen such a display. The old habitant is overjoyed when he recognizes a friend from the village near their farm and tries to cross the barrier to say hello. But he is stopped by a yellow vested official. He’s a little offend – after all he just wanted to wish his friend “une bonne St Jean-Baptiste” but he’ll catch up with him later. And as for his belle Catherine, she is joyful almost to the point of tears when she spy’s the little boy dressed up as le beau St Jean! All and all it is a day they will carry in their memory for the rest of their lives. Gauthier is, indeed a “… re-creator of our old customs” and a “… dispenser of good old-fashioned happiness”.
The songs was recorded in July of 1928 and probably written in that year as part of his collection of 40 Chansons d’autrefois (40 Songs from olden times). Perhaps it was inspired by this parade from a National Archives newsreel from June 24th 1925?
With the decline of the power of the church, the Quiet Revolution, and the advent of the independence movement in Québec both the Société Saint-Jean-Baptiste and the celebration of the day took on a more political tone. In 1977 it was declared as La Fête nationale and lost both it’s religious and historical nature. Today the parades and celebrations are more free-form and nothing like they were back when the old farmer and his wife left their village to make the journey to the big city.
Over at his blog Laurent shares a few of the memories that came back to him as we sat listening to Gauthier sing this little song earlier today.
Check it out at: Larry Muffin – What Amuses Me.
As an interesting sidebar: O Canada was composed in 1880 by Calixa Lavallée based on a poem by a Quebec Superior Court judge, Adolphe-Basile Routhier. The song was commissioned by Société St Jean-Baptiste for the celebrations that year. It was well received but did not become a widely known song for many years. English words were later written for a royal tour in 1901. In 1980, “O Canada” became the official national anthem of Canada.
The word for June 23rd is:
Malapropism /ˈmaləˌpräp izəm/: [noun]
The mistaken use of a word in place of a similar sounding word, often to comic effect.
Mid 19th century: taken from the name of Mrs Malaprop, a character in Sheridan’s The Rivals (1775) + ism.
Sheridan was doing a play on the French phrase mal à propos or “bad (inappropriate) for the purpose”.