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Fortress of Louisbourg National Historic Site of Canada
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Extracts of Matters of Historical Interest from "The Huissier, News For and About the Fortress of Louisbourg Heritage Presentation Staff" By The Fortress of Louisbourg Heritage Presentation Staff
(June 21, 2006)
Christmas in Eighteenth Century Louisbourg
By Kenneth Donovan
“Christmas in Eighteenth- Century Louisbourg” by Kenneth Donovan Christmas in Louisbourg, as in France and New France, was a high holy day, a religious event that celebrated the nativity, the birth of the baby Jesus. Louisbourg was the capital and commercial centre of the French colony of Ile Royale, 1713-1758. Although a joyous occasion, Christmas in France, in contrast to England and the German-speaking states, was a solemn occasion, a time for devotion and attendance at Midnight Mass. At Louisbourg they celebrated Midnight Mass in the King’s Bastion Chapel and thus on Christmas Eve 1752 Yacinthe Gabriel Le Bon helped the priest prepare the church for the elaborate service.
Since Christmas Day was meant for devotion, the season of Advent -- the four Sundays before Christmas-- was observed as a period of prayer and fasting. The word advent meant coming and referred to the coming of Jesus on Christmas Day. Advent was so sacred in the church calendar that priests in Louisbourg, France and New France were forbidden to administer the sacrament of marriage from the first Sunday of Advent until Epiphany on 6 January. Epiphany occurred on the twelfth day after Christmas. Thus, almost half of the weddings in Louisbourg (269 of 565) were celebrated in the months of October, November and January.
There were a few references to Christmas Day at Louisbourg but there was no mention of celebrations in any of the documents. Jean Chicot dit Macloux, for instance, a 29-yearold soldier and weaver, testified that he killed a seal on Christmas Day, 1728, at Port Dauphin (St. Ann’s). Two men, Julien Andre and Jean Galon, part-time fishermen on trial for killing livestock, testified at their trial that they had a drink with Monsieur Morain, who took care of IV the governor’s farm, at Ross’s Point on Christmas Eve, 1736. It was not Christmas but the New Year throughout France and New France that ushered in the carnival, a period of jubilation from 1 January until Ash Wednesday.
Unlike the French, there was evidence that the New Englanders and British did something extra on Christmas Day in Louisbourg. (The New Englanders and British had occupied Louisbourg from 1745 to 1749 and 1758 to 1768). Writing from Boston on 7 December 1745, Thomas Hancock, a merchant, wrote to John Bastide, the Louisbourg engineer: “I wish you and Mrs. Bastide a Merry Christmas and Happy New Year and a pleasant winter.” Nathaniel Knap, a soldier from Newbury, Massachusetts, stationed at Louisbourg, wrote in his diary on 25 December 1759: “Monday ye 25, this day it being Christmas Day the Governor gave our Company ye Day for to Divert ourselves. Ye forenoon I went a gunning. It is a fine Pleasant Day, had a good dinner of Roast Beef.”
Another Massachusetts native, ship captain William Pote, was captured near Annapolis Royal on 17 May 1745. Taken overland to Quebec, Pote was imprisoned for two years and eventually freed and sent to Louisbourg in 1747. Pote kept a daily journal and on 25 December 1746 he described his Christmas in a Quebec jail and he highlighted the difference between the New England and French celebration of Christmas. “December ye 25 Christmas. This day some gentlemen had so much regard for us as to send us a couple of gallons of brandy for our room, to celebrate our Christmas with mirth, and forget our sorrows.” Pote noted that the brandy was to celebrate “our Christmas”. On 1 January 1747 the French began their celebrations. Pote wrote: “New Year’s Day with ye French, this morning Monsieur Laurin Sent us two bottles of brandy, and some mutton pies and wished us a happy New Year.” The French did not celebrate Christmas with gifts, decorations and merrymaking and these cultural differences were part of a separate worldview, one Catholic and one Protestant. Even in the English-speaking world, Christmas was primarily a religious festival and in Massachusetts, for example, Christmas was not made a legal holiday until the mid-eighteenth century.
Two French travelers to Britain during the eighteenth century highlighted the differences in Christmas celebrations between the English and the French. Cesar de Sassure, a French-speaking Swiss, noted in 1728 “that the English have many customs that we do not know of. On this festival day the churches, the entrance of houses, rooms, kitchens and halls are decked with laurels, rosemary, and other greenery.” Another French man, Monsieur M. Misson, traveling in England at the beginning of the eighteenth century, described how the English celebrated Christmas by giving treats and presents: “From Christmas Day ‘till after Twelfth Day, is a time of Christian Rejoycing; a mixture of devotion and pleasure. They wish one another Happiness; they give treats, and make it their whole business to drive away melancholy. Whereas little presents from one another are made only the first day of the year in France, they begin here at Christmas.”
Unlike France, Christmas Day in England and the British American Colonies signaled the end of Advent, the month of meditation in preparation for the birth of the Christ child. Christmas Day began the twelve days of secular celebration with special meals, gift giving, fox hunting and other leisure pursuits. In contrast to France, Christmastide also became the season for weddings with many couples being married in the warm comfort of the bride’s home.
Georges Arsenault, in his book, Noel en Acadie (2005), noted that Christmas in Acadia was a simple affair during the eighteenth century with the focus on midnight mass and the crib of the baby Jesus. There was no gift giving, no merrymaking and no parties. All celebrations in Acadia, as in Quebec and France, were reserved for New Year’s Day. The traditions of modern day Christmas with the Christmas tree, Santa Claus, the turkey dinner, the purchase of gifts and the sending of Christmas cards only began in Acadia (Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island) after 1870. The modern-day Christmas came from ancient English and German customs that were common among the Anglo Saxons established throughout Canada and the United States. After 1870 the Acadians in the Maritime Provinces began to move to New England for employment. The New England Christmas traditions soon spread among the Acadians throughout Atlantic Canada. In conclusion, Christmas in eighteenth-century Louisbourg, as in eighteenth-century Acadia, was a solemn holy day.