Quebec's National Holiday (French: La fete nationale) is a provincial public holiday celebrated annually on June 24, Saint-Jean-Baptiste Day. The festivities occur on June 23 and 24 and, since 1978, are publicly financed and organized by a National Holiday Organizing Committee (Comité organisateur de la fete nationale). The Baptist was named the patron saint of French-speaking Canadians in 1908, but festivities surrounding his feast go back centuries before that.
June 24 is also celebrated as a festival of French Canadian culture in other Canadian provinces and the United States.
The feast day of Saint John the Baptist or Midsummer was a very popular event in the Ancien régime of France, and it is still celebrated as a religious feast day in several countries, like Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Finland, Estonia, Spain, Latvia and Lithuania.
The tradition landed in Canada with the first French colonists. According to the Jesuit Relations, the first celebrations occurred on the banks of the Saint Lawrence River on the evening of June 23, 1636, with a bonfire and five cannon shots.
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 Saint-Jean-Baptiste Society (SSJB). In the spring of 1834, Duvernay and other Patriotes attended the celebrations of the first St. Patrick's Day, the celebration of the Irish diaspora, in Montreal. This would have given him and others the idea of organizing something similar for all the Canadiens and their friends.
On that June 24, 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 in the song refers to Lower Canada, today's southern Quebec. Rounds of toasts went to the Parti patriote, the United States, Ireland, and the Ninety-Two Resolutions.
Two days later, La Minerve concluded: "This holiday, whose goal is to solidify the union of the Canadiens, will not go without bearing fruit. It will be celebrated annually as a national holiday and will not miss producing the happiest results." The celebration recurred in 1835, 1836, 1837.
Following the defeat of the insurrectional movement during the Lower Canada Rebellion and the military repressions which followed, the day was not celebrated for several years.
In 1834, Duvernay established the charitable Association Saint-Jean Baptiste in order to have the Saint-Jean Baptiste celebrated that year. The association was chartered in 1849 with the mission of promoting social and moral progress. (See Saint-Jean-Baptiste Society.)
The celebrations were supported by the Catholic Church and were primarily religious around that time. The lighting of bonfires, a traditional custom on the Nativity of Saint John which ultimately reached back to pre-Christian Midsummer celebrations were still lit at night. In addition, the first Saint-Jean-Baptiste parades were organized. They became an important tradition over time. The procession of allegorical floats was introduced in 1874.
On June 24, 1880, the Saint-Jean-Baptiste Society organized the gathering of all francophone communities across North America. The event was the first National Congress of French Canadians (Congres national des Canadiens français). On this occasion, the citizens of Quebec City were the first ones to hear the "Ô Canada" of Calixa Lavallée, based on a poem by a Quebec Superior Court judge, Adolphe-Basile Routhier. The song was commissioned by the Saint-Jean-Baptiste Society. It was well received but did not become a widely known song for many years. English words were later written for a royal tour in 1901. In 1980, "O Canada" became the official national anthem of Canada.
In 1908, Pope Pius X designated Saint-Jean-Baptiste as the patron saint of French Canadians. From 1914 to 1923 the processions were not held. In 1925, 91 years after the Ludger Duvernay's banquet in Montreal, June 24 became a legal holiday in Quebec.
Today this feast is a celebration of Francophone identity, culture, history and achievements.