Mikael Dumont has devoted his doctoral studies to looking at how festive traditions developed in North America’s rural francophone communities.
Turkey, meat pie and roast meat for the main dish, croquignoles (small crispy biscuits) for dessert — for more than two centuries, that was the menu enjoyed after midnight mass by Francophones in North America. “Alcohol was always served with the meal in rural areas when people could afford it, “ said Mikael Dumont, who is writing his PhD thesis in Université de Montréal’s Department of History on the festive traditions of rural francophone communities in North America in the 18th and 19th centuries. “Before the British Conquest, there was only homemade beer and spruce beer; afterwards there was rum and whisky, but wine was rare.”
Dumont has compared the traditional festive rituals of four regions of colonial North America where there was a high concentration of Francophones: the Saint Lawrence Valley, Louisiana, Illinois and the area around Detroit. And as far back as can be traced, Christmas, the religious holiday par excellence, was an occasion for people to express their faith around a good meal with their family. Although fiddles and spoons were often brought out in the middle of the night, Christmas festivities were modest in comparison with New Year’s Day and Epiphany twelve days later. “Gifts were exchanged on New Year’s Eve, and the next day the men would take the opportunity to kiss the ladies while families visited one another and wished each other a happy new year,” Dumont said. “They partook heartily, and once again alcohol was part of the celebrations, to the point where some revellers fell drunk before reaching the last houses of the village.”
From one end of the continent to another, Francophones maintained their holiday meal traditions. Meat (pork, beef and poultry) was on the menu since the 18th century during the holiday season. Pâté à la viande preceded cipaille and tourtière (all various kinds of meat pies) in the 19th century. And sweet desserts were a favourite, including doughnuts, croquignoles and cakes. For the women, it was a time to wear new clothes bought at the general store or, if they were lucky, in the big city. “Stripes appeared on dresses at the end of the 18th century, and colours such as blue and green,” said Dumont.
While ornaments and jewellery were reserved for the elite, women from more humble backgrounds also fussed over their looks and put on their best attire. They took out their embroidered skirts and coloured blouses; they wore their hair stylishly. And the men? They wore their usual garb. “Men’s attire during holiday activities was given no particular attention. Men wore their flannel shirts, canvas trousers and moccasins,” said Dumont.
Priests spoil the party
The method he used to document this little-explored subject of North American historiography is somewhat original. In addition to the collections of correspondences, travel accounts, biographies and diaries of the elite that he was able to cull from university libraries, Dumont examined the writings of parish priests. “When they wanted to denounce attacks on morals, priests wrote to their bishop, and these documents are among the best testimonials of the holidays at the time," said the researcher.
Dances where men and women intermingled, and alcohol-fuelled debauchery, did not sit well with the Church. “It is not uncommon, in the middle of the afternoon, to see churches filled with the vomit of people who have come inside. A great number of drunks lie along the sides of the streets,” commented one 18th century priest, quoted in Sur la terre comme au ciel, a book by Dumont’s doctoral supervisor, UdeM historian Ollivier Hubert. Another letter, dated 1827, from the archives of the Archdiocese of Montreal, mentions the case of a church cantor so inebriated that he threw up in the sacristy while the priest was in the pulpit.
Revolted by this kind of situation, and to curb the merry-making, the Church managed to suppress several patronal feasts, as the celebrations honouring the patron saints were called and which gave rise to village gatherings. “The holiday calendar of the 17th century almost completely disappeared in the middle of the 19th century,” Hubert noted.
What surprised Dumont most in his research was how united these remote and far-flung francophone communities celebrated. “All in all, there were few differences between the rural traditions of the St. Lawrence Valley and those of the American South – for example, in Louisiana,” he said. “Even in the Detroit area, where French colonials were quick to settle, the same traditions continued with small variations here and there. For instance, the Western colony drank cider instead of beer because of the nearby orchards. But the festive spirit remained the same.”
Halfway between ethno-history and sociocultural history, Dumont’s approach takes a fresh look at “the evolution of local popular cultures of French origin by considering not only their inherited characteristics, but also the exchanges and mutations of which they are the product,” the researcher wrote in his grant proposal. He hopes to be able to discover the effects of the festive experience on the personal lives of individuals in terms of their identity, thoughts and emotions, and on their collective experience in terms of social relations, social conventions and group identity.
Yes, there was premarital sex
Dumont’s doctorate deals with six elements of the festive experience in rural populations: alcohol, food, clothing, sexuality, dance, and popular songs and violence. Although his analysis of most of these themes is not yet complete, he has been able to confirm that premarital sex at colonial festivities did sometimes occur. Once again, we can thank the priests for that bit of information.
“If we’re to believe the accounts of priests, men and women intermingled and had sexual relations outside wedlock – this is true for all four regions,” Dumont wrote. “Moreover, the historiography of prenuptial and illegitimate births illustrates that this kind of activity sometimes occurred.”
The Yule log: an age-old tradition
Originally a pagan festival celebrating the return of light, Yuletide has been observed for ages. In Scandinavian countries, people burned an enormous log to invoke the gods to grant a good harvest in the new year. As the tradition spread to other Western countries, it underwent many transformations. In Provence, in southern France, patriarchs were told to sprinkle the burning log in the family fireplace with milk, wine and honey. The appearance of a log-shaped cake is more recent (confectioners believe that its modern form dates back to 1945), but traces of it can be found in records of the 19th century, particularly in the west of France.
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