Food & Drink » Glenda Bartosh on Food

Food and drink: Long live St. Jean Baptiste Day

A time to fete all things du Québec



It was a very warm, very humid summer's night on the little streets near ByWard Market in Ottawa that I first rubbed shoulders with St. Jean Baptiste Day.

We'd checked into our room near midnight and, given the blast furnace conditions, decided to wander about. All of a sudden we stumbled onto this fantastic scene. Okay, I admit the lights were a tip-off, but we had no idea we'd find...

Street theatre with great, tall performers with wings all glittery on stilts, and bands blasting Québécois music along with the Krieg lights shooting silver into the night sky. The crowd was literally dancing in the street, fuelled by street food and plenty of beer.

And that was just the tail end of the local St. Jean Baptiste celebrations.

St. Jean Baptiste Day, celebrated June 24, is a huge deal for Québecers - it's their national holiday. However, it remains pretty much a mystery for most Anglophones, including myself. So here's a mini-intro to SJBD 101 and popular culture in Québec, besides poutine and tourtière.

To start, St. Jean Baptiste Day is an amalgamation of two ancient celebrations by the French rolled into one - summer solstice or midsummer and the feast day for St. John the Baptist, who became a major religious figure, baptizing Christ and ultimately becoming a martyr, his head served on a platter to King Herod's daughter, Salome, as per her request.

Settlers from France brought St. Jean Baptiste traditions to the banks of the St. Lawrence in the early 1600s. Celebrations stayed largely religious with maybe a bonfire or two until the early 1800s, when a local newspaper owner got people celebrating with nationalist fervor, a pointed message to the British.

Today, June 24 has morphed into more of a proud cultural celebration, so anywhere you find Québecers you're bound to see "their colours" - the blue and white of Québec's flag.

At Whistler, Dusty's is celebrating St. Jean Baptiste Day with a party that will probably last as long as the one in Ottawa. Before that, get out your blue and white for Thursday's Toonie Ride. It's sponsored by Creekbread and ...cole la Passerelle, Whistler's French immersion school, which has grown from eight students when it started in 1988 to 81 students next year.

For the past five years, staff at ...cole la Passerelle have volunteered for the Toonie Ride held closest to St. Jean Baptiste Day.

"It just so happens this year the Thursday is right on St. Jean Baptiste Day, so were going to show our colours," says Céline Forand, school secretary for ...cole la Passerelle and a big mountain biking fan.

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