St Jean Baptiste – Fête Nationale … What is it?

st jean baptiste day

Growing up, the only thing I knew about St. Jean Baptiste Day was that it meant the school year was over. I never remember learning about it in school, and I moved to the USA when I was in eight grade. I could tell you almost anything you wanted to know about North Carolina and American history though. I often wondered if I wasn’t as aware of the holiday as I should be a younger child because I grew up in an anglophone and protestant town.
Asking my mother, who is French Canadian, gave me the answer … “It’s Québec’s birthday”.
Okay, but why the Saint?
I thought Québec and Canada were proud of their secularism?! Was that the day that Québec was founded? I was the kind of kid who wanted to know more.

The History Behind Saint-Jean-Baptiste Day

Held yearly on June 24th, Saint Jean Baptiste Day is now known in Québec as la Fête Nationale du Québec. It has been a statutory holiday in Québec since 1925, although it had been celebrated in North America since the early days of New France.
Originally, it was celebrated as a religious holiday.
It coincides with the summer solstice. Pagans would light fires to commemorate the longest day of the year. In typical early Christian fashion, they took over the celebration and re-branded it, associating it with St John the Baptist.

In Québec as early as 1843, it started as a religiously led political celebration. There would be a mass, a banquet and a parade led by member of Saint Jean Baptiste Societies. It evolved over time to include other cultural organizations, students and professional orders. The last float would usually have a curly headed young child representing St John, and children dressed up as Jacques Cartier and an aboriginal person. Over time, more people from early French Canadian history were added.
In 1908, Saint John the Baptist was named the patron saint of Québec.

During the 1960s and 70s Québec started to move away from the relgious aspect of the holiday and began to focus on the arts and culture. The name was actually changed to la Fête Nationale du Québec in 1977 to remove the religious connotations.

quebec flag
Fête de la Saint-Jean-Baptiste © Morgan/ Flickr

These days (well maybe not this year, thanks COVID 19) la Fête Nationale is still sometimes called La Saint Jean and is a day for proudly displaying the blue-and-white fleur-de-lys flag. Celebrations include parades, festivals, outdoor concerts, parties, and fireworks. It marks the beginning of the summer season with the end of school, camping trips and get togethers.

So now I know, if my kids ever ask, I can give them more of a background on the holiday. Google Calendar calls it St. Jean Baptiste.

history of st jean baptiste day