Slice of Life : St. John’s Feast, Culture Shock Edition

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We have a show called Infoman on Radio Canada, which takes a humourous spin on current events, while still being very informative. It isn’t pure satire, and despite the main animator’s obvious tongue-in-cheek questions to the people he interviews, he’s usually respectful and therefore well-liked by the celebrities and politicians he interviews, even when he gently pokes fun at them. They are also often in on the joke prior to the interview, which I’m sure helps.

For their last show of the season, which was lengthened due to the coverage of the pandemic, they did a skit about all the activities and festivals that are cancelled, this summer, because of Covid-19. This included a solo man playing, dancing and running with cake sparklers in lieu of the fireworks competition that occurs each summer, but also, a grown actor, in a curly blonde wig, wearing a short white tunic and shorts, stomping down the street while holding a stuffed lamb toy, and wondering where the crowds were.

Cue me laughing like a maniac. The Meadmaster looked at me, confused, and I had to explain the joke.

The Meadmaster and I are both pagan, he of the Heathen persuasion, while I’m a Gallo-Norse polytheist, myself. He was brought up nominally Anglican, and I was brought up semi-practicing Roman Catholic (of the very liberal brand that is practiced by most French Canadians), which included a hefty dose of the French Canadian version of Folk Catholicism, which I am realizing as I age.

This meant that my family observed St. John’s Feast from both the semi-religious/folk religious – Saint John the Baptist is the Patron Saint of French Canadians – and the cultural points of view, since the Feast day was turned into an identity holiday in Quebec. My parents didn’t go to church for it, but my baby-sitter did attend St. John’s Feast mass, and would bring me along, if the holiday fell on a day I was in her care, since my mother worked a job that often required her to work on holidays.

Bonfire was usually on the evening of the 23rd of June, and was ALWAYS on the shore of the St. Lawrence, in my small town, with mass, family activities and festivities, concerts, fireworks in the evening, and the pièce de résistance, the St. John’s Feast parade.

The parade was always during the day, but was the main event. Community organizations and businesses had floats or walkers with banners, bands would play, baton twirlers would do their thing, jugglers would juggle, all that in the early summer heat, which was usually less intense then, than it is now. The last float was always the same: a young boy, usually between 7 and 10 years of age, with either natural blonde curls or a blonde, curly wig, dressed in real or fake sheep pelts, holding a shepherd staff topped with a cross, with either a live or stuffed animal lamb, depending on the year and if they could get a live lamb that wouldn’t get spooked. That boy was known as le Petit Saint-Jean-Baptiste (Little Saint John the Baptist), and was a symbolic stand-in for Saint-John the Baptist. He wasn’t alone on the float, I believe representatives of the committee for the parade were on it, and I vaguely remember that a priest or deacon might have been on it, blessing the spectators.

Le Petit Saint-Jean-Baptiste, with lamb.

I haven’t been to a St. John’s Feast parade in decades, because I have distanced myself from the more and more separatist tone of the holiday, although, depending on region and local organizers of the festivities, it can be very inclusive to all, no matter your ethnic or linguistic background. I have no idea if le Petit Sain-Jean-Baptiste is still part of the regional parades or not. He isn’t, in Montreal, that I know, and hasn’t been since the 1960s. But the tradition was still alive and well into the 1990s in my hometown.

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