On June 24th each year, Canadians take to the streets in celebration of Saint Jean Baptiste Day. But who is Saint Jean Baptiste, and what is the origin and significance of this holiday?
Upon the Christianization of Europe between one and two thousand years ago, the Catholic Church designated various days as special feast days, or holidays, to honor the saints. The feast day for John the Baptist was placed on June 21 (shifted later to June 24).
June 21 of course is the summer solstice, so there were already celebrations that time of year from pre-Christian times. But as with many Christian holidays, including Christmas itself, the existing pagan celebrations were gradually transformed and reinterpreted to fit the Christian significance, and the pagan elements withered away.
Saint John the Baptist’s feast day became popular throughout Europe, but especially in France for centuries. (“Jean Baptiste” being French for “John the Baptist.”) Following the Enlightenment, the French Revolution, and the secularization of Europe, it faded in importance, though it is still recognized in several European countries, including the Scandinavian nations.
But in the meantime, the holiday had been spread by the French to the New World. There are records of Saint Jean Baptiste Day celebrations as early as 1615 in New France (in what was to become Canada), even though it was actually Saint Joseph (the husband of the Virgin Mary) who was the patron saint of New France. One theory for why John the Baptist’s feast day became more prominent than Saint Joseph’s is that the latter’s feast day is in March, and for reasons of climate, Canadians are more inclined to have outdoor, public celebrations of a holiday in June.
Saint Jean Baptiste Day rose in importance in Canada and took on a decidedly political tone starting in 1834 when French Canadian leader Ludger Duvernay chose the holiday to stage a banquet where sixty prominent guests gathered to discuss ending British rule. The holiday became as much a day of French Canadian pride and nationalism, with plenty of parades and flag waving, as a Catholic saint’s feast day.
The first ever public performance of the song “O Canada,” which was eventually to become the Canadian national anthem, took place in 1880 at a Saint Jean Baptiste Day event in Quebec City.
In 1908, Pope Pius X designated Saint John the Baptist the patron saint of French Canadians (in effect recognizing that he had already unofficially supplanted Saint Joseph in that respect).
In 1925 Saint Jean Baptiste Day was made a legal holiday in the province of Quebec, which it remains to this day. (In the rest of Canada, it is a “day of awareness and recognition,” which is a level below a legal holiday.) This made it a holiday for all Quebecois, though it remains especially enthusiastically celebrated by the French Canadians.
With the surge of Quebec separatist sentiment starting in the 1960s, Saint Jean Baptiste Day became a new symbol for some. In Montreal in 1968, Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau and other Canadian officials, observing a Saint Jean Baptiste Day parade, were pelted with rocks and bottles by separatist protesters. Trudeau’s courage in refusing to leave or take cover as people around him scattered is credited with boosting his popularity and helping his party to victory in elections held shortly thereafter.
Neither as intensely political as it was for a time, nor as religious as it started, today Saint Jean Baptiste Day is still a popular occasion of celebration in Canada, but Quebec especially. Starting the evening before on the 23rd, there are large public rock and jazz concerts, parades, fireworks, street fairs, bonfires, picnics, barbecues, and more. The closest analogue American holiday would be the summer celebration of Independence Day on July 4.