Le Réveillon — A Look Back at Franco Holiday Celebrations

This is a woodcut print in an 1881 newspaper showing a large family sitting down by lamplight to enjoy a holiday dinner.

As a new year begins, many of us often take time to reflect back upon the traditions practiced by our families and cultures. Each family partakes in festivities and celebrations passed down through generations—whether it is decorating a Christmas Tree, lighting candles on a Menorah, or kissing on New Year’s Eve. While many of us are familiar with the stories and histories of these traditions, what are some of the customs of French speakers in North America?

A periodical illustration from 1893 showing Santa Claus passing a doll to a young girl.  A line of children wait behind her for their turn.
“L’arbre De Noël : La Distribution Faite Par Papa Santa Claus.”BaNQ Numérique, Le Monde Illustré, collections.
https://numerique.banq.qc.ca/patrimoine/details/52327/2075814?docsearchtext=L%27arbre%20De%20Noel

One widespread tradition is Le Réveillon. The term dates back to 18th Century France where long dinners kept some of the nobility up feasting long into the night. Later, the term was adopted for a celebration that began after midnight mass for French Catholics on Christmas Eve as well as New Year’s Eve. On French Canadian tables, the meal often consisted of tourtière, a spiced meat pie, along with roast beef, soup, dumplings and much more. Families were ready to eat and break the fasting of Advent. Other foods made their way into the holiday festivities like the Acadian naulet.  A naulet was a pastry formed in the shape of a man, and originally it was given specifically by godparents to their godchildren on Christmas Day.

Though Le Réveillon was a staple of Christmas Eve, one also took place on New Year’s Eve. The gathering was always cheerful, but it took more of a somber tone on Christmas because it was seen as a time to be pious and mindful. New Year’s Eve was a time to celebrate and ring in the next year; the festivities were often more raucous and carried on into the early morning.

While Christmas marks one of the most important holidays on a Christian’s calendar, in the 19th century many Franco-Americans considered New Year’s to be similarly important. La Bénédiction Paternelle (The Paternal Blessing) would be bestowed by the paternal figure of the house to his children. It was then followed by a classic New Year’s wish:

“Je vous souhaite une bonne et heureuse année, une bonne santé, et le paradis à la fin de vos jours!”

or

“I wish you a prosperous and happy New Year, good health, and eternal bliss when you pass on!”

This blessing has become common throughout Canada and the Franco-American communities.

This is a full color illustration of the New Years Blessing.  The man of the house is blessing his kneeling relations.
The New Year’s Blessing.
Library and Archives Canada

It was also important to visit one’s friends at the start of the new year. Traditionally men would make a round of short visits to see friends and family; meanwhile, the women would stay home and receive visitors. These days of visiting, however, were stretched between New Year’s Day and la Fête des Rois (The Feast of Kings) on the 6th of January, a celebration of the Epiphany in the Catholic Church. 

There are some who still partake in Le Réveillon throughout Canada, the United States, and Europe. As we reflect on 2020, which has been a particularly difficult year for everyone, it is warming to think that there are some traditions that have endured. Many could not host or visit friends as in years past, but hopefully we can still share stories and look to the many Réveillons yet to come.


Thanks For Reading!

This post was written by Emily Meader. It was produced by Rhumb Line Maps and the University of Maine’s Franco-American Program in January 2021. We would like to give a special thanks to the Bicentennial Grant that made this possible.

Title Image Citation:

“Le réveillon de Noël à la campagne”BaNQ Numérique, L’Opinion publique Vol. 12, no 51.
https://collections.banq.qc.ca/ark:/52327/2069865


Credits

Writer — Emily Meader
Editor — Ben Meader
Media Sources — Library and Archives Canada, BaNQ Numérique
Further Reading
On French Canadian Christmas:
Kujawski , Kim. “A French-Canadian Christmas.” The French-Canadian Genealogist, www.tfcg.ca/french-canadian-christmas-traditions
On Le Réveillon:
“Pass the Tourtiere, C’est Le Reveillon!” New England Historical Society, 31 Dec. 2019, www.newenglandhistoricalsociety.com/pass-the-tourtiere-cest-le-reveillon/
On Paternal Blessing:
L’Heureux, Jacques. “The Franco-American Connection.” La Benédiction Paternelle, www.francoamericanconnection.com/fa-traditions/benediction-paternelle.htm


2 responses to “Le Réveillon — A Look Back at Franco Holiday Celebrations”

  1. Félicitations pour cet article très intéressant. Je suis un franco québécois et les traditions décrites dans votre article sont identiques aux traditions dont je me souviens depuis mon enfance jusqu’à aujourd’hui. La différence est que la musique et les menus ont un peu changé mais il y a encore beaucoup de musique canadienne ( violoneux , accordéon 🪗, musique à bouche ou harmonica, chansons, rigodons et danses carrée ( square dances )

  2. Very well written. Images are terrific. I learned a lot. Thank you!

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