It is Christmas Eve, well, Christmas morning really as the clock sits at 1:30 a.m. and I am trying to understand a language I don’t speak well while so full of food that the urge to close my eyes is almost over taking me. But I cannot rest, for I have promises to keep and there are miles of presents to go before I sleep.
Welcome to Réveillon.
When I was 16, I met a boy who is Franco-Ontarien and he told me about Réveillon. I married him — for other reasons too, of course — but Réveillon is a good one, let me tell you.
My favourites, the three Fs: Family, Feasting and … Food. I tried to think of another one, but I am writing about Réveillon, so you’ll forgive me if I get a bit distracted by my mouth watering.
But what is Réveillon, really? If you are an Anglophone, but not Francophone-adjacent the way I am, you may not have ever heard of this wonderful celebration.
Allow me to take you on a journey; one that includes tourtière, staying up late no matter how old you are and the joy, laughter and celebration that only a Francophone family can offer — often throughout an entire night.
The roots of the celebration, like many in the Francophone tradition, centre around attending church. Midnight mass to be specific, thought it is rarely at midnight anymore.
The choice of midnight is to ensure that one is in a place of worship for the first moment of the day of the birth of Christ; to ensure the celebrations are centred around ‘reason for the season.’
But the logistics of that can take a toll when you are also planning a party. While mass is often scheduled around 10 p.m. or earlier now, that wasn’t always the case.
My husband remembers his childhood Réveillon celebrations best, when he was excited to be awoken for a feast and the love of family surrounding him while he wore his new pajamas, brought to him by Le Lutin (similar to an elf).
As he says, “Le Lutin always managed to come during my bath time, I was pretty impressed with that.”
Everyone meet my husband, ‘Husband’, who has been coerced into participating in this article.
Traditionally, the celebrations were made by and for farmers, so staying up late was a big deal. If you have been in the fields since 5:30 a.m., going to bed 24 hours later is quite the challenge. Made easier, as many things are, by the labour of women, who would prepare for the meal weeks in advance and sometimes months if you consider harvest and canning.
Husband’s childhood remembrances are of a more modernized version of the event, but still surround staying up late.
Even the smallest of children are awoken for the feast. Outside of the presents, of course, it was Husband’s favourite part. “Staying up late with the adults was my favourite thing,” he says. “And seeing my family.”
He remembers going to mass early in the evening as a child and there are now some masses on Christmas Eve that are geared to families. One of my favourite aspects of attending with him as an adult is seeing the children run up and down the church aisles in their new Christmas outfits, feeling the absolute joy of the season — and the slightly relaxed rules.
When mass was finished, they would return home and he would get ready for bed, and the visit from Le Lutin. When I asked him about Santa – Père Noël — he informs me that to him, Le Lutin was a “Scout,” for the big man.
“When we were getting ready for bed, we had to be really good so that when Le Lutin came to bring our present, he would tell Père Noël that we were getting ready and that it was okay to come soon.”
The small children would go to bed and those who had not been to early mass would then go to church, leaving a few behind to mind the children and the oven.
For the oven, stove, microwave, hot plate, warming trays, slow cooker and every single woman had been working overtime for hours, days and weeks.
It was during this time that Père Noël would arrive. Yes, Anglophone brethren, he would hit up the Francophone houses first.
When the adults who had gone to late mass arrived home, the fun began. The children were awoken from their beds at 1 a.m. on Christmas Morning — technically, anyway — and opened their presents before feasting. (Though some families do this in reverse.)
The word ‘feast’ is the understatement of the century. I can say this because I have been handed a mapped diagram created so that every dish could even fit on the huge table — like a pattern layout or a blueprint — because only one pre-planned combination could work.
Traditional foods would have included tourtière (meat pie) and Bûche de Noël (Yule Log) and it often did for Husband, as well. But it was his grandmother’s perogies, her cookies — which he still fights with his sister over — and his mom’s baked beans he loved best.
I love food, and new food was a great adventure when I met my husband. Tarte au sucre? That’s a thing! A delicious thing! And while traditional Québécois Réveillon might feature Ragoût de pattes de cochon — yes, that’s pig’s foot stew — I much prefer cretons. Not head cheese, oh heaven’s no, not the same thing. Cretons, and only those made by my father-in-law.
Husband knew growing up that there were some families that did not celebrate the same way he did; he just thought they were really missing out. He couldn’t figure out why his friends had to wait so long for presents. Père Noël had already been to his house. Why didn’t he also stop at his neighbour’s houses — the homes of his best friends, Kim and Matt?
Though he is a bit bashful when he says it, he says his explanation came down to his Franco-pride. “I just figured it was because they weren’t French and so not quite as good as me,” he says, smirking his familiar Husband smirk.
But no matter the way you celebrate, whether Réveillon, or actually waiting until Christmas morning the way my brother and I did, when he would sneak into my room while it was still dark out and we would wait for the moment the sun peered over the horizon — this year will be a different one.
If absence makes the heart grow fonder, we shall all meet here again next year more in love with each other than ever. The children who love to wake up with the adults, who love to feast before opening presents and then sleeping in, the families who laugh and tease and love so deeply that you can feel the bonds between them as if they were tangible, will be together again.
Stay safe this year and perhaps wait for next year to celebrate your traditions. We want everyone to be with us, even if that means being without this year. And you better watch out, as Le Lutin, ‘the scout’, is watching and keeping Père Noël updated.
Jenny Lamothe, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Sudbury.com