Acadian Christmas Traditions

Acadian Christmas Traditions by Georges Arsenault. Acorn Press 2007 ISBN-10: 1894838262;ISBN-13: 978-1894838269

A highly respected and loved member of the PEI Acadian community,author Georges Arsenault has written other books of Acadian lore and stories. Translated by Sally Ross from the French, Acadian Christmas Traditions first appeared as Noel en Acadie, published by éditions La Grande Marée of Tracadie Sheila, NB in 2005.

Arsenault has the happy ability to convey lots of scholarly information and details in a refreshingly unscholarly and personal manner. This book is an easy read, like having a conversation with a knowledgeable and friendly person. His interest in the history of Christmas comes from his mother. She told him the story that St Nicholas was not a wealthy man when she was growing up, he was only able to bring her an apple or an orange or maybe a little pencil box. In this tiny story, we understand the simplicity of the old Christmas customs and the deeply personal relationship people had with Saint Nicholas.

About Acadian Christmas customs before Le Grand Derangement of 1755, very little is known. Celebrations were simple, with some merchants even keeping their shops open on Christmas. Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve was the big event.

Various foods were, and still are, associated with Christmas:
naulet was a large biscuit, shaped like a little man and given to children by their godparents. Predeportation Acadians probably also made croque-cignole, a doughnut-like deep fried pastry. And, of course, pork pies.

I have long been interested in the early French carols sung in Canada. The early Acadians sang “Dans cette étable” and “Ca, bergeres, assemblonsnous.” And“Il Est Né Le Divin Enfant.” These carols are still loved and sung today.

The old belief that animals talk on Christmas Eve at midnight was widespread among the Acadians. You were not supposed to try to hear them; if you did, you would hear them talking about your death.

A fellow had a team of oxen. At midnight on Christmas Eve, he went to their barn to see if it was true that animals talked or knelt or anything like that. He heard one ox say to the other: “What are you doing tomorrow?”

The other replied: “I’m going to take one of my masters to be buried.”

The fellow had no idea who was going to die. During the night, he died and the ox took him to be buried.
Michel Doiron, Pointe-Sapin, NB

After Deportation, new traditions gradually took shape. Spiritual and secular preparations took place during Advent, the Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve, the Crèche, the Réveillon, how Saint Nicholas became Santa Claus and how Santa Claus became Père Noël.

Réveillon is a leisurely dinner, and possibly party, held on the evenings preceding Christmas Day and New Year’s Day; name comes from réveil meaning waking
because participation involves staying awake until midnight and beyond. Ed.)

And Christmas today? The older generation who lived in the days when a single orange constituted a luxury would agree with Johnny Boudreau of Petit-Rocher, New Brunswick: “Nowadays, it is Christmas all year round.”

The book is enchanting. Dedicated to the late, legendary Father Anselme Chiasson, this book should sit on any storyteller’s bookshelf, especially any storyteller with an interest in Canada and Christmas. Kudos to Georges Arsenault and to Laurie Brinklow, the heart and soul of the amazing Acorn Press.

Lorne Brown, Toronto
This review. Originally in Le raconteur Vol 12:02, P. 30 Winter 2008

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