A few days ago, a dear friend and blogger asked me to send him example of Christmas music from French Canada. The roots of French Canada goes back to 1534 and 1608 with the founding of Quebec City and then Montreal in 1642. There are also at this time the French settlements in the Maritime then known as Acadia from 1600 who have very similar tradition, in food, feasting, music and celebration.
As a child and growing up in Montreal and Quebec City and having uncles and aunts, cousins etc all close relatives numbering about 300, Christmas celebration were steeped in tradition from Old France and New France. Winter of course with lots of snow and cold weather, strong drink, lots of rich food and music surround the Christmas time. Our mother, aunts and grand parents made sure we knew well those traditions. Our schools also reinforced the cultural bond not to mention the Roman Catholic Church who saw itself in French Canada as the protector of French culture and heritage.
The Christmas tree was one tradition and when it would appear in the house. Usually in those days it was in the week after 15 December and would stay up until at least 7 January. There was always lots of stories around selecting a tree and putting it up and then the only acceptable tree was a traditional sapin (evergreen fir tree) symbol of immortality.
The food also was specific to the Holiday. There was never enough dishes it seems, and many came to celebrate en famille. There would be Ragout beef meat balls with pigs feet, a turkey with all the trimmings, tourtières (meat pies) everyone has a recipe on this pie, it was important to compliment the Chef on her tourtière and the crust. Mash potatoes and lots of gravy, peas and carrots. Then came the desserts, an incredible array, from the Bûche de Noël, to fruit cake, pastries stuffed with whipped cream, cookies, and of course chocolates. Everything was made from scratch, these were the days before supermarkets and processed foods. An enormous amount of work for the 25 December. The Eve was spent mostly at home and by 10:30pm it would be time to go to Church for the triple Xmas Mass and you got out around 1am. Usually followed by a Réveillon of rich foods and drink. When we were very young we did not go to Christmas Eve mass, but went to bed early because le Père Noël would be coming and we could not be awake. However when my mother was a child in the 1930’s, in those days the tradition was to give gifts around Epiphany 6 January and not on Christmas morning. A gift in her childhood was a book and an orange which was exotic and expensive and some clothing. How things have changed.
So when it comes to music, none of what you hear today in shopping malls or stores was known or played. Christmas music was at Church, in school concerts or at home in family dinners and gatherings. It was all traditional and we, as kids learned it by heart, you had to be able to sing with everyone else.
All this French Christmas music or most of it was composed based on text from the New Testament, Luke, 2, The birth of Jesus. The music was compose in the 17 and 18th Century to accompany the Roman Catholic Mass. It remains a staple today in a more secular world. It is part of the fundamental culture of French Canada.
You Tube has them all. Marc Hervieux, Tenor from Montreal who also has a music radio show on weekend on Radio-Canada devoted to opera and classical music is probably today one of the best singer in this category.
Here are some titles of the classics: Venez Divin Messie, Il est né le Divin Enfant, Minuit Chrétien, Ca berger assemblons-nous which was originally written in old French but modernized after 1789 with modern French and pronunciation and Les Anges dans nos campagnes which is in Latin and French since Mass was in Latin until 1964. All classics!