Many Americans view Bastille Day as the big French holiday, but for Franco-Americans from Canada it’s St. Jean Baptiste Day on June 24.
The holiday dates to medieval Europe, not coincidentally near the summer solstice. It started as a pagan celebration of midsummer. In the 6th century, the French king Clovis Christianized the holiday to celebrate the birth of St. John the Baptist, precursor of Christ and the light of the world. From then the French monarch would light huge bonfires on the night of June 23.
French Catholics continued to celebrate St. Jean Baptiste Day when they came to North America. A pious festival, it featured religious processions in the street. But the celebration lost its importance when the British conquered New France.
St. Jean Baptiste Day Revived
Then in 1834 a newspaper editor named Ludger Duvernay organized a grand patriotic banquet in Montreal on June 24. ‘O Canada’ was sung publicly for the first time at the 1880 St. Jean Baptiste banquet.
By the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th, St. Jean Baptiste Day featured processions in Montreal, Quebec City and Little Canadas in the United States. In 1930, for example, the Willimantic, Conn., L’Union de St. Jean Baptiste celebrated its 50th anniversary with a three-day festival in late June.
Today, St. Jean Baptiste Day celebrations have evolved into seasonal festivals that don’t necessarily take place on June 24.
In Lewiston, Maine, for example, the Franco Center has often held a FÊTE de Saint Jean Baptiste Concert.
Manchester, with one of New England’s preeminent Little Canadas, has an entire Franco-American Day. As part of the celebration, the city stages Poutinefest – a competition among restaurants for the best poutine. For the uninitiated, it’s a traditional comfort food of French fries, cheese curds and gravy. The winner gets to raise the Ceinture de Championnat/Championship Belt. In 2023 it was scheduled for October.
Winooski, Vt., also celebrates French Heritage Day. The town has held it in mid-July with music, food and a tourtiere contest. The Winooski Historical Society Museum and the Heritage Winooski Mill open as well.
Lowell, Mass., celebrates its Franco-American heritage with a French Mass and a week-long festival, Franco-American Week. After a hiatus in 2020, the event resumed in 2021. It usually includes church suppers, a French Canadian documentary film, French music and bingo in French.
Photo: PoutineBy Yuri Long from Arlington, VA, USA – road_trip-9349.jpg, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=19029778. Carillon flag by C.P. Champion via Wikipedia. Poutine in featured image By Camelia.boban – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=62105616. This story was updated in 2023.