Why French-Canadians kick off Christmas with an all-night feast

For many English-speaking Ontarians, opening presents marks the start of Christmas. But for francophones, the celebrations start much earlier — and go much later
By Daniel Kitts - Published on Oct 29, 2020
The tourtière, a pie made of pork and beef or veal, is a signature French-Canadian dish. (Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail)

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If you grew up celebrating Christmas in Canada, you probably remember running downstairs as early as possible on Dec. 25 to unwrap the gifts under the tree, then eating a big turkey dinner that evening.

But while you were playing with your new toys, your French-Canadian neighbours were likely fast asleep — because they’d stayed up all night praying, singing, dancing, and above all, eating. This celebration is known as the réveillon, and the traditions and foods associated with it speak to the history of francophones in Ontario and across Canada.

Origins in a different time

“Réveillon” comes from the French word “réveil,” meaning “to wake up.” In the 19th century, it was practically required of all good French Catholics to stay up late and attend midnight mass — to be in church the moment Christmas Day began and hear the hymn “Minuit, chrétiens” (known in English as “O Holy Night”). After the service, families would return home to feast and make merry until dawn.

The tradition developed at a time when most men were farmers or manual labourers who started work early and went to bed early, says Michel Prévost, chief archivist at the University of Ottawa. It was also an era without electric lighting. These factors, Prévost explains, made staying up late a truly exceptional occasion.

“It was undoubtedly the only time of the year where young children would be woken in the middle of the night so they could take part in the celebrations,” he says.

I know something about this, having grown up in a mixed English-French family. I still have a vague memory of groggily climbing out of my grandparents’ bed so I could take part in the réveillon one year.

By the time I was a young boy, in the late 1970s and early ’80s, opening presents had become a huge part of my family’s réveillon experience (it was, of course, my favourite part). But gift-giving was not traditionally a component of the celebration.

Prévost says French-Canadians viewed Christmas as primarily a religious holiday — not a commercial one — far longer than the English did. Typically, francophone extended families would gather to exchange gifts on New Year’s Day instead.

Abundance in an age of scarcity

The main focus of the traditional réveillon was the food. The menu varied from family to family, but common dishes included tourtière (a meat pie made with pork and beef or veal), ragoût de boulettes (meatballs in brown gravy), les pattes de porc (pigs’ feet cooked slowly until incredibly tender), and potatoes. For dessert, a popular choice was homemade donuts served with jam.

Most of the food was home-cooked, and women would work for weeks in advance to make sure the dinner table was filled with as many options as possible. But the réveillon, and the importance of the meal to the celebration, had its origins in a less prosperous era — one in which French-Canadians were generally poorer than their anglophone counterparts.

“In a society where we now live in abundance, it’s very different,” Prévost says. “Today, we can look at the way we eat today and say, ‘It’s Christmas every day.’

“Back then, if there were oranges for the feast it was very exceptional. Now, you can buy winter strawberries and all the produce that comes from the United States. For young people, it’s difficult to understand [how it used to be].”

And although Catholic prudishness discouraged drinking, the réveillon was an opportunity for French-Canadians to let loose a bit, Prévost says: men would indulge in hard liquor, particularly rum and whisky, while women would often enjoy a bit of sweet wine (and if they were wealthy, higher quality wine from France).

Still, Prévost says, it wasn’t all about food and drink: “After the meal, people were very active — singing, dancing, telling stories. That was a big part of the réveillon, too.”

A fading tradition?

According to Prévost, the réveillon began to change in the 1960s and ’70s following the Quiet Revolution, when church attendance declined dramatically and Christmas came to be seen as a more secular, commercial holiday. It was around this time that people started to exchange gifts as part of the celebrations.

Réveillon also became a Christmas Eve celebration rather than one that took place after midnight. I saw this change in my own family: my parents, aunts, and uncles weren’t farmers or labourers like many of their ancestors, but university-educated professionals and office workers. In this nine-to-five world, staying up until 5 a.m. and disrupting kids’ sleep schedules made less sense. By the time I was a teenager, the family gathering would start around 9 p.m. on Dec. 24, and all was said and done sometime between 1 a.m. and 3 a.m. — still late, but hardly an all-nighter. And there was no dancing or singing; chatting and watching TV were the main activities.

“Today, there are almost no midnight masses,” Prévost says. “We went from services at midnight to masses at 11 p.m., 10 p.m., 9 p.m. — and now I see there are ‘midnight masses’ scheduled for 6 p.m.” (I’ve attended Christmas mass as early as 4 p.m. on Dec. 24.)

In my own family, my grandparents were the glue that held the réveillon together. As long as they were around, the whole clan, about 25 of us in total, would cram into a single room to take part in the late-night feast. But my grandfather died, aged 95, in 2013. My grandmother is still with us, but requires near-constant care and is no longer able to enjoy family gatherings as much as she used to. Last year, for the first time, my parents held réveillon for me, my siblings, and our spouses only. We had the same foods and stayed up late, just like always. But it was different. Our connection to the era when the réveillon first emerged has become that much more tenuous — although I’m certain the tradition will continue to be an important part of my family’s Christmas celebrations.

“The réveillon that started late at night and went all night, where folks danced and sang and drank — that’s mostly ended. There are surely some exceptions," Prévost says. “But it’s a tradition that is undoubtedly disappearing.”

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