The Fête nationale du Québec ("Quebec national holiday") is the official day of Quebec. The festivities occur on June 23 and June 24 and are organized by the Comité organisateur de la fête nationale ("national holiday organizing committee"). Originally, June 24 was a holiday honouring the patron saint of French Canada, St. John the Baptist. The day still is in fact very often called la Saint-Jean by the population of Quebec.
The origins of the traditional festivities are more than 2000 years old. Among several European peoples, the summer solstice was the object of pagan celebrations. Fires were lit during the night in this period of the year when the days are longest. With the arrival of Christianity, the celebration of the event remained; however, it took a new spiritual significance. The celebration of the Saint-Jean-Baptiste was a very popular event in the France of the Ancien régime.
In Lower Canada the celebration of Saint-Jean-Baptiste day took a patriotic tone in 1834 on the initiative of one of the founders of the newspaper La Minerve, Ludger Duvernay, who would later become the first president of the Société St-Jean-Baptiste.
It is in 1834 that George-Étienne Cartier's "Ô Canada! mon pays, mes amours" was first sung during a grand patriotic banquet gathering about sixty francophones and anglophones of Montreal in the gardens of lawyer John McDonnell, near the old Windsor station. The Canada of the song is of course French Canada (Lower Canada), today Quebec. Following the defeat of the Patriotss and the military repressions which followed, the day was no longer celebrated for several years.
When it reappeared, it took the form of a primarily religious celebration. Fires were still lit at night, but also the first Saint-Jean-Baptiste parades were organized. They became an important tradition over time. The procession of allegorical floats was introduced in 1874. From 1914 to 1923 the processions were not held.
On June 24, 1880, Quebecers (of Quebec City) were the first ones to hear "Ô Canada", which is very famous today. It quickly became popular and it was even chosen as the national anthem of French Canadians.
The Fête nationale
In 1977 a ministerial decree of the government of René Lévesque made June 24 the national holiday of Quebec. The following year, the Comité organisateur de la fête nationale was created. The committee initially entrusted the organization of the events to the St-Jean-Baptiste Society. In 1984, the organization was entrusted to the Mouvement national des Québécoises et des Québécois.
Saint-Jean-Baptiste day thus became the day of all Quebecers rather than only those of French Canadian origins (74% of Quebecers). Mainly by the actions of the St-Jean-Baptiste Society and the Mouvement national des Québécoises et des Québécois, the festival was gradually secularized and the celebrations of June 23 and 24 became what they are now.
Today the Fête nationale is a popular cultural festival celebrating the achievements and diversity of Quebecers. It is still a tradition to light fires at night.