One of the most important holidays in Quebec, as well as in French Canada more broadly, is Saint-Jean-Baptiste Day. Celebrated annually on June 24th, it’s commonly referred to as La Saint-Jean or La Fête Nationale, and it has a long history that reaches well beyond its early iterations in colonial New France. Here’s what you need to know about the past and present of La Saint-Jean.
The general origin of Saint-Jean-Baptiste Day comes from pre-Christian rituals around the time of the summer solstice (June 21st). As Catholicism spread into France, the summer solstice celebrations evolved during the 5th century into the feast day of John the Baptist. Traditionally, bonfires would take place on the evening of June 24th in order to honor the saint.
Roots in New France
What became a tradition in France would eventually make its way to the so-called new world with the arrival of French settlers in what would become Quebec. The first mention of Saint-Jean-Baptiste Day festivities among colonists in New France can be found in Jesuit accounts from 1636. Within a decade, the modest celebrations along the St. Lawrence River grew to include cannons and muskets in addition to the bonfires that characterized the Saint-Jean-Baptiste Day tradition.
The festival didn’t hold especially high importance until it was re-imagined in 1834 by journalist Ludger Duvernay. Motivated by Montreal’s popular St. Patrick’s Day celebrations, he wanted to produce a similar occasion for French Canadians. Created in a socio-political atmosphere that was resistant to British rule, and to promote Québécois language and culture, the first “official” Saint-Jean-Baptiste festival in Montreal occurred on June 24, 1834. It included a Catholic Mass and procession.
There were no celebrations from 1838 to 1842 in Montreal as a result of the Lower Canada Rebellion, along with Duvernay’s temporary exile to the United States. Upon his return in 1843, however, Duvernay established the Société Saint-Jean-Baptiste as a way to institutionalize its importance, complete with the motto “to better the nation” (rendre le peuple meilleur). In 1880, the organization also planned the first Congrès national des Canadiens français, which coincided with regular Saint-Jean-Baptiste Day celebrations, creating an important connection between the holiday and French-Canadian identity.
In 1908, Saint Jean Baptiste was made the patron saint of French-speaking Canadians. By 1925, St-Jean-Baptiste Day had become a provincial holiday in Quebec. During the Quiet Revolution, the celebrations took on a political character, with riots and protests taking place. Connected to a political atmosphere that favored Quebec sovereignty and secession from Canada, in 1977, the celebration was officially declared as the Fête Nationale du Québec, or Quebec’s national holiday, under the influence of then-premier René Lévesque.
La Saint-Jean today
Nowadays, June 24th is a paid statutory holiday in Quebec, as covered by the Act Respecting Labour Standards. Although the holiday’s Catholic ties have faded, people still refer to June 24th as “La Saint-Jean.” It’s a day for proudly displaying the blue-and-white fleur-de-lys flag, and celebrations include parades, festivals, outdoor concerts, parties, and fireworks, making it a fun and dynamic holiday that also marks the start of the summer season.