Sunday, January 19, 2014

Thoughts on the New Year's Levee

Thanks to the New Year's Levee, New France edged its way into the mainstream Canadian media quite a bit over the holidays.  Across the country, the governor general, lieutenant governors, municipal officials, police and military officers hosted these customary meet-and-greets with the public.  See for example here,  here, here, or here.  Seeing as January is quickly flying by, I'd better get a few words down on the subject.

In announcing these levees or reporting on them afterwards (more people dropped by Toronto City Hall to see the grotesque Mayor Rob Ford, for example, than had during the previous year's levee), many a journalist alluded to their historical origins.  But for someone who knows something about the history of New France, though, it was tantalizingly confused and confusing, as one could variously read that the New Year's levee was brought to Canada by Charles de Montmagny, governor of New France, in 1646, and/or that it originated with Louis XIV (so, several decades later) and was then brought to the colony by the French governors.  Is there anything to either explanation?  Might the levee's historical trajectory be a little more complicated than either explanation suggests?

The Journal of the Jesuits, a manuscript log of the years 1645-1668 that complements the published and far better know Relations, seems to be the source for the claim that the levee originated with Montmagny in 1646, for it tells us that on January 1st of that year, "On salua Monsieur le Gouverneur, sçavoir la soldatesque avec leur arquebuse; item les habitans en corps." 

I'll point out that the fact that comparably detailed chronicles of daily activities do not stretch further back in time does not constitute basis to call this a first, but merely a first recorded.  Notwithstanding, this description vaguely resembles the levee as we know it today: soldiers and civilians showing their respects to a figure of authority, viz. the governor, on New Year's Day.  But wait!  The emphasis should be on the vaguely, as the Journal then goes on to say that Montmagny and other notables in turn took the time to visit the Jesuits. 

New Year's Day, indeed, was in Old and New France a day on which people visited each other and exchanged gifts (following French tradition, and until relatively recently in French Canada, this, rather than Christmas or Christmas eve, was the time for gift-giving).  The governor received a measure special attention fitting his office, but he was by no means the principal or sole host of the day.  Neighbours and relatives would visit each other to extend their wishes for a happy new year.  All of this well-wishing was overlaid on and around a religious occasion, the Feast of the Circumcision of Christ. 

What about the possible Louis-Quatorizian origins of the levee, then?   As far back as Charlemagne, apparently, French monarchs would meet with familiars as they got out of bed and readied themselves for the day.  The practice took on an increased importance under Louis XIV, whose tightly scheduled day grew to feature an elaborate rising (levée) and retiring (couchée) ceremonial.  Around 7:30, the first Valet de Chambre would awaken the Sun King, and the First Levee would begin.  Doctors, familiars and a few favourites would enter in succession into the monarch's bedchamber as he was washed, combed and shaved. The Grand Levee then followed, with a second set of visitors entering while the monarch was dressed and had breakfast.  The number of people who attended this ceremonial is estimated at around a hundred, all male.  At 11:30 PM, the monarch's retiring was accompanied by an abbreviated version of the morning rigmarole. 

To understand how the practices described above meshed into what we would recognize as the Canadian New Year's Levee, we must take a detour by England.  As early as the 1670s, the court of Charles II adopted the Louis-Quatorzian fashion of the levée.  But, with its accute acent amputated, the levee evolved into a rather different ceremonial altogether.  At St. James Palace, the court levees were not a morning ritual but rather receptions, held later in the day and in suitable audience halls rather than the royal bechamber, at which officials and officers were formally presented to the sovereign.  By the mid-eighteenth century, this custom was being imitated by colonial governors in British America. 

What I take all of this to mean is that the New Year's Levee as we know it in Canada today can most accurately be described not merely as an extension of the French colonial practice, but rather as meshing of the old French-style New Years' Day visits with the English-style levee (which had French roots too, to be sure, but distinct and distant ones).  There's certainly more research to be done here, but I've done my part... at least until next year.


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