As a French-Canadian, I grew up with a slightly different version of the Christmas traditions I have been writing about in this Advent Blog. Nowadays, people recognize the importance of preserving cultural heritage in a fast changing and modernized society and that means, passing down customs, practices and values of our community to the next generation. I am proud that we are keeping our French-Canadian traditions alive in the stories told by my parents and relatives, and by some of the customs we have kept up with our children.
Those who are familiar with a French-Canadian Christmas know that it centres around the “Réveillon”, a celebration that begins on Christmas Eve, includes Midnight Mass, and is followed by merriment into the early hours of Christmas, enjoying music, food and drinks in the company of extended family.
It comes from the French word “reveil” which means “to wake up”. The night of December 24th held a magical feeling because while other households were getting ready for bed, French Canadians were getting geared up in their finest clothes, warming up their cars and pulling their young ones out of bed, to make their way to church for Midnight Mass. Once seated in church, we felt warm and comfortable among friends and one could not resist looking around to see who we knew and waved at them while waiting for the service to start. We listened to the story of the birth of Christ while gazing at the life-size nativity scene in front of the altar, and to the children’s choir singing “Minuit Chretien” (O Holy Night) and “Les Anges dans nos campagnes” (Angels We Have Heard on High) to the congregation.
After the service, we would either return to our home to feast and open presents or make our way to the home of a relative, where a larger family gathering was being held. Coats were dumped on the bed, kids jumped around excitedly because the music had started and food had been laid out.
The food for the Réveillon had been prepared weeks before by our mothers, aunts and grandmothers. The menu varied from family to family, but common dishes included delicious “tourtieres” made of ground pork and beef and served with authentic homemade ketchup (which was a thick pickled relish of tomatoes, onions and maybe cucumbers?) and pickled beets were offered up with “a ragout de pattes de cochon” (pigs feet), ragout de “roulettes” (meatballs), and a hash (which was a modified stuffing recipe), mashed potatoes, carrots, and usually sliced ham, and turkey. Desserts always included pies, often sugar pie, raisin pie, blueberry pie and “sucre a la creme” (maple fudge) and cakes. Many French Canadian tables featured “la buche de noel” as the dessert centrepiece, a cake roll decorated in chocolate and icing sugar to resemble a log, to symbolize the real logs that were traditionally brought by guests to keep the fires warm and burning into the wee hours of the night.
After many hours of celebration, kids and coats would be gathered up we would head back home. If Santa had already stopped by, we would open gifts and if not, then we would execute one last check of the cookies we had left for him and go to bed listening for the reindeer hoofs on the roof.
In our world of nine-to-five nowadays, staying up until 5 a.m. and disrupting kids’ sleep schedules doesn’t make much sense anymore, and the Réveillon has became a Christmas Eve celebration rather than one that starts at midnight. It will still feature some of the traditional foods, and families will still gather and maybe attend mass together, especially if some of the children are in the choir.
Families are smaller now, and more intimate celebrations are held on Christmas Eve. French-Canadian tradition was to give modest presents on New Year’s day, and Christmas was reserved for celebration. Over the years, our customs have changed, and in some families, presents are now opened on Christmas Eve but most will wait til the morning like other households.
Playing the songs and music of our heritage is also important in keeping our traditions alive. Every year at this time, our festive playlists draws from the rich music catalogue of French and Quebec artists including “La Bottine Souriante” , a folk band from Canada, specializing in traditional French Canadian songs from our past, often with a modern twist. The band is known for their high energy French Canadian feel with guitar, violin and accordion, guaranteed to keep you stomping your feet. I encourage you to sample their music and be transported to the gatherings of my past reveillons! Meanwhile, here are some additional artists who have Christmas albums worth listening to.
- Ginette Reno – Un grand Noel d’amour
- Bruno Pelletier – Concert de Noel with l’orchestra symphonique de Montreal (Minuit Chretien is exceptional!)
- Marie-Michele Desrosiers chante noel (Trois anges sont venus is my favourite)
- Mes Aïeux – En famille (Degeneration particular inspiring)
- Noel drole – Compilation of funny Christmas songs by various artists (because it has my daughter and husband rolling on floor laughing ROFL)