Saint-Jean-Baptiste Day: Over 2000 Years of History

La Saint Jean: From Ancient Solstice Ritual to Today's Political Celebration

saint jean baptiste day fete nationale la quebec montreal
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Saint-Jean-Baptiste Day: La Saint Jean, La Fête Nationale

From Pagan rite to Catholic procession to sociopolitical declaration, La Saint-Jean-Baptiste Day—it's called La Fête Nationale in more recent times, though many still call the day La Saint-Jean—is a statutory holiday in Quebec held on June 24, with origins dating back over 2000 years.

Summer Solstice Meets Clovis

Much in the same way the celebration of Jesus Christ's birth was moved near the winter solstice according to select historians, Clovis, the 5th century Frankish king who ruled over what is now France and converted to Catholicism at his wife's insistence, decided that St. John the Baptist's birth would be honored on June 24, within days of the summer solstice, eventually and effectively overshadowing the Pagan festival.

Clovis' Saint-Jean-Baptiste Day also borrowed the bonfire lighting, originally a solstice tradition, and cleverly paralleled the solstice's job—the announcing of summer's light—with John the Baptist's role in the Bible, that of heralding the arrival of the Messiah.

That what was a tradition in France made its way to the new world when French pilgrims set roots in what is today's Quebec should come as no surprise.

New France Celebrates Saint-Jean-Baptiste

The first accounts of Saint-Jean-Baptiste Day celebrations among colonists in New France come from the Jesuits and go back to 1636 on the shores of the St. Lawrence River. By 1646, cannons, muskets as well as bonfires were reportedly lit, heralding the festivities.

Duvernay and the Société

Fast forward almost two hundred years and on June 24, 1834, Ludger Duvernay, owner and editor of La Minerve, an important Montreal newspaper supporting the views of the Patriotes, a political party resistant to British rule, created the Société Aide-toi et le ciel t'aidera. That's French for the Help Yourself and Heaven Will Help You Society which eventually changed names to become the Association Saint-Jean-Baptiste in 1843.

Created to fuel a stronger defense of the French language and culture among other sociopolitical goals, the first "official" Saint-Jean-Baptiste banquet in Montreal was celebrated on June 24, 1834 with a Catholic Mass and procession, taking place in John MacDonnell's private gardens, ​a prominent lawyer at the time whose home located on the grounds of today's Windsor Station in downtown Montreal. About 60 influential Montrealers attended the banquet, Catholic Mass and procession, including:

There were no celebrations from 1838 to 1842 in Montreal as a result of the Lower Canada Rebellion and Duvernay's temporary exile to the United States. But by 1843, Duvernay returned to Montreal and the Société was officially inaugurated the Association Saint-Jean-Baptiste under the motto "to better the nation" ("rendre le peuple meilleur") and the banquet, mass and procession were once again held on June 24. By 1925, the Quebec government made Saint-Jean-Baptiste Day an official holiday.

The Association, now called the Société Saint-Jean-Baptiste, continues to operate in modern times with arguable leanings in favor of Quebec sovereignty and secession from Canada. 

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