For many, many years, le reveillon was the way Franco-Americans ushered in New Year’s Day in New England’s Little Canadas.
The reveillon is a long, late dinner preceding a holiday. Tourtiere is central to the meal. The celebrated meat pie, cooked and eaten during the shortest days of winter, often accompanies traditional Franco-American foods such as peas or pea soup, head cheese, croquignoles and ragout.
During the first half of the 19th century, when the first wave of immigrants arrived, New Year’s Day exceeded Christmas in importance. On January 1, Franco-Americans exchanged small gifts, and children found presents under the tree or near the manger in the parlor. Sometimes their parents told them the presents came from le Pere Noel (a skinny version of Santa Claus) or l’Enfant Jesus.
Family and friends visited each other over the holidays, which stretched from Christmas Eve to January 6, the Feast of the Epiphany or la Fete des Rois. Franco-Americans would go to house parties in their neighborhoods in Nashua, Berlin and on the west side of Manchester, N.H. Other cities with vibrant Franco-American neighborhoods included Lewiston and Biddeford, Maine; Warwick and Woonsocket, R.I.; Fall River and Lowell, Mass.; St. Albans and Burlington, Vt.; and Bristol and Waterbury, Conn.
Historian Yves Roby noted that New Year’s was often a sad day for the Quebecois newcomers who worked in the mills. Because it wasn't a federal holiday, the reveillon was replaced by a regular work day. Sometime before World War II, a Franco-American millworker complained,
Next Monday (January 1st), while our brothers and other relatives in Canada are celebrating New Year's Day, we shall be going about our daily occupations.
Holy Day of Obligation
The Roman Catholic parish was central to life in New England’s Little Canadas, and New Year’s Mass was central to the holiday.
On the last Sunday of the year, the local church auctioned off unrented pews and parishioners elected new churchwardens, known as marguilliers.
Catholics celebrate the ‘Solemnity of Mary, the Mother of God’ as a Holy Day of Obligation on New Year’s Day. At the end of the New Year’s Mass, the outgoing officer, along with an altar boy or the sexton holding a lighted candle, led his successor to the marguilliers’ pew.
Sometimes parishioners made a special door-to-door collection for the poor on New Year’s Day.
Many Franco-American families gathered before the reveillon for a solemn and emotional moment. They came to the home of the grandparents or parents, and the oldest son asked for the blessing. In The French-Canadian Heritage in New England, Gerard Breault wrote in 1986,
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 benisse au nom du Pere et du Fils et du Saint Esprit. Amen."
Then, wrote Breault, the blessing was followed by the classic Franco-American New Year’s wish: Je vous souhaite une bonne et heureuse annee, une bonne sante, et le paradis a la fin de vos jours! , or
I wish you a prosperous and happy New Year, good health, and eternal bliss when you pass on.
After the blessing, everyone stood up, kissed or shook hands and wished each other good fortune.
Le reveillon, translated, means ‘the awakening.’ For some, that signifies a religious awakening. For others it means staying up all night for neighborhood house parties during the holiday season.
In the early 20th century, Franco-American families in Winooski, Vt.., celebrated New Year’s with le reveillon. They ate tourtiere, head cheese, pea soup, pickled beets, roast beef and dumplings boiled in maple syrup. For dessert, they had pies and fudge. But always the tourtiere.
"Reveillon had to have tourtiere. That was a must," Claire Chase, 91, told the Burlington Free Press in 2011.
Then came the late-night parties, called veillees.
There were sets carres – traditional dances -- often accompanied by a fiddler, an accordionist, or maybe a piano, a mandolin, or a mouth organ. Family and friends would sing traditional songs like Minuit Chretien and Alouette. Maybe they’d have a glass of dandelion wine.
The traditional reveillon began to vanish after World War II. Today, even the last vestiges are disappearing. In Lowell, though, the Lowell Holy Ghost Society is holding a reveillon on December 31 to welcome the New Year.
With thanks to The French-Canadian Heritage in New England by Gerard J. Brault and Franco-Americans of New England: Dreams and Realities by Yves Roby. Tourtiere by Mack Male. This story was updated in 2017.