Many Americans view Bastille Day as the big French holiday, but for Franco-Americans from Canada it’s St. Jean Baptiste Day on June 24.
The holiday dates to medieval Europe, not coincidentally near the summer solstice. It started as a pagan celebration of midsummer. In the 6th century, the French king Clovis Christianized the holiday to celebrate the birth of St. John the Baptist, precursor of Christ and the light of the world. From then the French monarch would light huge bonfires on the night of June 23.
French Catholics continued to celebrate St. Jean Baptiste Day when they came to North America. A pious festival, it featured religious processions in the street. But the celebration lost its importance when the British conquered New France.
St. Jean Baptiste Day Revived
Then in 1834 a newspaper editor named Ludger Duvernay organized a grand patriotic banquet in Montreal on June 24. ‘O Canada’ was sung publicly for the first time at the 1880 St. Jean Baptiste banquet.
By the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th, St. Jean Baptiste Day featured processions in Montreal, Quebec City and Little Canadas in the United States. In 1930, for example, the Willimantic, Conn., L’Union de St. Jean Baptiste celebrated its 50th anniversary with a three-day festival in late June.
Today, Francophone New England celebrates St. Jean Baptiste Day with music, food and dance–at least in disease-free years.
In Lewiston, Maine, for example, the Franco Center often holds a FÊTE de Saint Jean Baptiste Concert: “It’s All About Love,” on the afternoon of June 24. Though canceled in 2020, the event resumed in 2021 with an invitation for all to BE French Canadians. Marie-Line Morin planned to sing songs of love, like Plaisir d’Amour, I Dreamed a Dream and Bring Him Home (from Les Misérables).
Manchester, with one of New England’s preeminent Little Canadas, has an entire Franco-American Day, at least in years free of pandemics. As part of the celebration, the city has staged Poutinefest – a competition among restaurants for the best poutine. For the uninitiated, it’s a traditional comfort food of French fries, cheese curds and gravy. The winner gets to raise the Ceinture de Championnat/Championship Belt.
Winooski, Vt., for also celebrates French Heritage Day in normal times. The town has held it in mid-July with music, food and a tourtiere contest. The Winooski Historical Society Museum and the Heritage Winooski Mill open as well.
Lowell, Mass., celebrates its Franco-American heritage with a week-long festival, Franco-American Week. After a hiatus in 2020, the event resumed in 2021. It usually includes French Masses, church suppers, a French Canadian documentary film, French music and bingo in French.
And in Southern New England
Despite the pandemic, Rhode Island held its 2020 French Heritage Festival in September in Woonsocket (click here), with a farmer’s market, arts and crafts, music and food. No word on whether it will resume in 2021.
St. John the Baptist is also one of the two patron saints of the Freemasons (St. John the Evangelist is the other). In Connecticut, Freemasons celebrate June 24 with a special dinner.