An ode to levee day: Why the traditional gatherings will be missed this year

·7 min read

Catherine Hennessey grew up in Charlottetown and remembers the days when levees were only for men.

The 87-year-old also remembers when two women she had befriended crashed a levee in the mid-'60s.

"When they cracked the bubble, so to speak, I was appalled that they were doing that," she said.

"It was a man's thing ... the women just bowed to that. They didn't argue."

The levees were originally formal court receptions held by the sovereign and were for men only. On P.E.I., they have been expanding in recent years.

By the '70s, Hennessey, now a historian, was attending levees herself, but she only remembers two events: one hosted by the bishop and the other by the lieutenant-governor.

She has kept up the tradition of leveeing ever since.

"I've gone to them every year," she said. "It's wonderful to see the people that turn out. It's just a cross-section of Islanders in a great way."

'A privilege'

The levee is an annual gathering held on New Year's Day. It comes from the French lever, which means to lift or rise.

For many, the custom of travelling from place to place on Jan. 1 — shaking hands and enjoying refreshments — signals the start of a new year.

"As the French name suggests, the levee has its origins in the elaborate morning rituals of the monarch. To be privy to this portion of the monarch's day was a privilege," said UPEI history Prof. Ed MacDonald in an email.

The earliest reference he found in the digitized collection of P.E.I. newspapers was for a levee held Jan. 3, 1854 at Government House, hosted by the lieutenant-governor.

Laura Meader/CBC
Laura Meader/CBC

Though a long-standing tradition, P.E.I.'s levees will not go ahead this year.

Early in December, the Chief Public Health Office recommended against any large holiday gatherings, and specifically levees.

"New Year's Day levees are a long-standing tradition in P.E.I. However, the highly social nature of levees makes them inappropriate to hold during a pandemic," officials said in an email.

There were over 40 levee events hosted across the Island in 2020, with some drawing more than 750 people in a few short hours. Popular levee stops include town halls, legions and local bars and restaurants.

On a hunch, MacDonald checked the records to see whether the levees had gone ahead during the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918.

"It was held, though it was less well-attended than usual," he said, adding that the local paper suggested this was because so many young men were still overseas, as the First World War had just come to an end.

"By then, as I recall, the worst was over in Charlottetown, which was hardest hit in October when public gatherings, etc. were banned. By January, the flu was still spreading across rural P.E.I., but Charlottetown had reopened for business."

Open, but a lot more quiet

For Royal Canadian Legion Branch 5 in Summerside, Levee Day is the biggest day of the year after Remembrance Day.

"We're used to having a very bustling, busy day with everybody enjoying their first day of the year and in good spirits," said event organizer Mindy Charleton by phone, from behind the bar at the legion.

"Some of our customers look forward to Levee Day more than they look forward to New Year's Eve."

Laura Meader/CBC
Laura Meader/CBC

It's one of many levee stops in Summerside, and as is customary, it serves complimentary refreshments. For the legion this is moose milk, which is eggnog with a secret ingredient.

Though the legion has cancelled their levee event, it will be open New Year's Day.

"It'll be much quieter. Instead of a band, we'll have our jukebox going and there'll be no dancing, but people can enjoy the music, seated at their seats," Charleton said.

With levees cancelled, many establishments have decided to stay closed Jan. 1, but some other traditional hosts are also providing alternatives. The rink in Tignish will host a Levee Day skate from 1 to 4 p.m. and the town of Stratford plans to post an online greeting from mayor and council.

A tradition filled with optimism

The Town of Kensington will not be hosting anything on Levee Day, something that Mayor Rowan Caseley said will be missed.

"It's a chance where people are looking optimistically forward and everybody's in a good mood and everybody's happy to see everybody and everybody's thinking positive," he said.

"I think everybody is looking forward to something new and that the new year is going to be equal to or better than the last year, and I think we're all kind of looking forward to 2021 being a much better year than 2020."

Nicola MacLeod/CBC
Nicola MacLeod/CBC

Caseley attended his first levee 11 years ago when he became a councillor. He had come from Nova Scotia, where levees are not as popular.

Since then, it's been his Levee Day custom to host the town's levee — where there is a receiving line and presentations of both the good neighbour award and for best Christmas decorations — before making some stops at other levees.

"We're getting used to being different," he said. "We're looking forward to the days when this new normal becomes back to normal."

Next year we'll make up for it — Mary Ellen Callaghan, Benevolent Irish Society

Mary Ellen Callaghan is also a bit of a newcomer-organizer to the P.E.I. levee scene after moving home from British Columbia within the past decade.

She's the president of the Benevolent Irish Society, where her family have been involved for over 100 years, with other relatives holding the executive position before her.

"We've traditionally done a levee at the B.I.S. for many, many years and it's become increasingly popular to come to our levee over the years. Last year, as an example, we had over 600 people in the hall over a period of two hours in the afternoon," she said.

"Bar's open, we serve Guinness and we just generally have a really good time."

Nicola MacLeod/CBC
Nicola MacLeod/CBC

The society has been hosting its levee in its building on North River Road in Charlottetown since the '80s. Live music is the staple of the levee, as it's known to have a fiddler and a roused dance floor.

Callaghan said the event is a way to give back to the community, something that ties into the Benevolent Irish Society's nearly 200-year legacy.

"We're receiving our Irish people of Charlottetown and Prince Edward Island, but also all the greater community, because we used to be very, very heavily involved in benevolent activities," she said.

"For instance, putting a bag of potatoes on the table or helping somebody with rent or helping somebody to buy a coffin."

It's a good tradition and shouldn't be dismissed lightly. — Catherine Hennessey, historian

Callaghan said they enjoy greeting people who they may not see from one year to the next, with special guests like the mayor and provincial government officials.

"Next year we'll make up for it," she said.

"In the year of COVID-19, everything is different. So we just have to suck it up and move on here."

Keeping tradition alive

For 2021, Islanders will have to levee off their memories of past years: seeing friends new and old or waiting in the hours-long lineup to get into the dance at the Charlottetown fire hall at the end of the night, wrapped around the parking lot.

For Hennessey, the memory she holds dear is of watching her father go off to the levees when she was a girl.

"I like the image of my father setting off. It would be 10 o'clock in the morning, you know, and he would set off to go to the levee. I just have that nice picture, warm and fuzzy in my heart."

The events have changed since those days, now being open to all sorts of people: from those wearing their Sunday best to shake the premier's hand at his annual levee to hoards of young people home for the holidays, leaving their families on the first day of the year to gather with their childhood friends.

"I think it's a good tradition and shouldn't be dismissed lightly. Traditions are good," Hennessey said.

"We should never let it die."

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