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La Saint-Jean-Baptiste: celebrating cultural identity

Saint-Jean-Baptiste Day is a statutory holiday in Quebec—and a day of festivities for Francophone communities across the nation. What are the origins and importance of this holiday?

The name Saint-Jean-Baptiste, of course, refers to St. John the Baptist, the Christian saint and prophet whose feast day is celebrated on June 24. The Baptist was named the patron saint of French-speaking Canadians in 1908, but festivities surrounding his feast go back centuries before that.

In ancient times, bonfires were lit to honour the summer solstice on or about June 21. With the spread of Christianity in ancient France in the fifth century, the focus shifted to honouring St. John the Baptist. Bonfires in the saint's honour were traditionally lit on the eve of June 24. French colonists brought this tradition to Canada; by 1646, celebrations included a bonfire on the banks of the Saint Lawrence and the firing of cannon and muskets.

Although the festival declined in importance over time, it was revived in 1834 as a patriotic celebration for the people of Quebec. At a banquet in Montréal organized by newspaper publisher Ludger Duvernay, a gathering of about sixty Francophones and Anglophones decided to promote the feast day as a patriotic holiday. Festivities became much more elaborate, with special religious celebrations, processions and parades, floats, choirs, bands, concerts and dances. Musicians even wrote special compositions for the feast.

In 1880, the Société Saint-Jean-Baptiste founded by Duvernay organized the first Congrès national des Canadiens français to coincide with the festivities. That event marked the first performance of a new song composed by Calixa Lavallée and Adolphe-Basile Routhier. The composition was “O Canada,” which was to become our national anthem in 1980, almost exactly a century later.

Over time, Saint-Jean-Baptiste Day moved away from its religious beginnings. The day became a statutory holiday in Quebec in 1977; it is now officially the Fête nationale du Québec (Quebec national holiday), although informally it is still known as la Saint-Jean. While it is an official holiday only in Quebec, Francophones in other provinces and even in the United States like to celebrate on this day.

Today this feast is a celebration of Francophone identity, culture, history and achievements. This June 24, remember to wish your French-speaking friends “Bonne Saint-Jean-Baptiste!