La Fete de St. Jean-Baptiste: a French-Canadian Tradition
During the War of 1812, there were three St. Jean-Baptiste Days, which occur annually on June 24. In terms of the war in the Upper Mississippi perhaps the most important of these was the one in 1814. This day, a gathering of fur trade employees, was very important in view of the arrival of a force of 61 U.S. regular soldiers and 140 Missouri militia at Prairie du Chien on June 2. No doubt a fertile ground for recruitment of the Mississippi Volunteer companies under Captains Joseph Rolette and Thomas Anderson.
The Feast of Saint John the Baptist dates to the time of Christianity making its inroads into Gaul (France). As was the custom of the early Church, local customs and feasts were assimilated into church-life. Celts, Romans and Franks lit bonfires (feux de joie) in honor of the Summer solstice, fire being associated with the origin of life. By declaring the solstice to coincide with St. Jean-Baptiste Day, the common people simply continued age old traditions but for a different purpose. The fires have since become the focal point of the festivities for they represent the “Light of the World” (Christ) whom John came to announce.
The feast migrated to the New World with the French in the St. Lawrence River area. It has been celebrated in Quebec since the early 1600s. The feux de joie actually form a chain of lights from village to village. Even in the late twentieth-century, more than 15,000 of these fires can be seen on June 24. In 1636, 26 years after the first permanent settlement on the St. Lawrence was established, Jesuit Priests and New France Governor Montmagny (Governor Champlain died December 25, 1635) assembled soldiers at one recorded feast day to fire muskets and cannon. Jesuits, in addition to being a religious and political order, were also a military order. The chances of a militia muster at the fete during the War of 1812 seems likely. It was traditional for the priests to chant the Te Deum and bless the wood.
Another tradition was the petits pains benits (blessed loaves of bread). These bread loafs were shaped either as a star (another announcement of the birth of Christ) or heart (For God so loved the world…). They were then given to the priest. This is not the same as the Lord’s Supper.
From the 150 French residents of New France in 1635, their customs spread with their pursuit of the fur trade. It would have been quite important, particularly since it coincides with the summer collection of furs, and consequently the gathering of employees heretofore isolated during the winter. Large bonfires, singing, fiddle music and dancing are all apart of this festive occasion. The conviver (come together) would have been boisterous with many les santes (toasts) to health and much gunfire and cannon booms. Festivities would last well on through the night.
With such a large gathering at Green Bay, the chances of a memorable time are naturally good. Perhaps the joyful times of this feast were recounted by the Mississippi Volunteers during their garrison duties (Mudduck Sept., 1997).
Our thanks to Lisa Krahn, Site Manager of the Sibley Historic Site in Mendota, Minnesota, for this information.