Crosses are usually more closely associated with Good Friday than with Christmas, with death rather than birth. But Montréal’s landmark cross, the giant illuminated one on top of Mount Royal, is a monument to the first Christmas ever celebrated in the city. It’s also a potent reminder of the hardships and challenges the first French settlers faced when they arrived here.
That first Christmas in 1642 was anything but peaceful. The settlers, huddled behind the wooden palisade of Fort Ville-Marie, faced disaster. Their homes were built on Pointe à Callière at the confluence of the St. Lawrence and Petite Rivière – the site occupied today by the Musée d’archéologie et d’histoire de Montréal.
The rising waters of the Petite Rivière threatened to flood the tiny settlement, and the pioneers spent much of the day on their knees praying that their efforts would not be wiped out. So grave was the danger, in fact, that Paul Chomedy de Maisonneuve, the settlers’ leader and the city’s founder, planted a cross on the shores of the river and vowed that if the Good Lod saved his people and their homes, he would plant a much larger one on the top of Mount Royal. The settlers’ and their leader’s prayers were answered, and de Maisonneuve erected the first cross on the top of Mount Royal in 1643.
Obviously, the one that dominates the heights of the mountain today is a little more recent. It was , in fact, inaugurated on December 24, 1924. It was erected by the Société Saint-Jean-Baptiste on the suggestion of a Sulpician priest named Pierre Dupaigne. The plans for the 31.4-metre-high cross were drawn up by the architectural firm of Gascon et Parent.
And in 1992, the lighting system was completely revamped, with high tech optic fibres replacing the old incandescent bulbs. But despite the modern innovations, the cross stands as a reminder of the early days of French settlement on the Island of Montréal.
Christmas in New France
From the beginning, the colonists of New France celebrated Christmas according to the tradition of their homeland. The Ursuline nuns built a creche adorned with spruce trees to represent the Holy Family, the angels and the shepherds. This particular tradition made a big impression on the Huron Indians.
The harsh winter conditions and the precariousness of the settlers’ lives pretty much ruled out the kind of ostentatious festivities we associate with Christmas today. But the settlers’ deep religious commitment and the missionary spirit that guided them gave the day a great importance. The solemn Christmas liturgies often included music and a re-enactment of the Nativity, another ceremony that made a great impression on the settlers’ Huron neighbours.
As time passed and the settlement became more secure, Christmas festivities in New France became less austère and a little more sumptuous, especially after the settlers and the local natives had signed the Great Peace of Montreal in 1701, which coincided with a period of growing prosperity.
The highlight of the Christmas festivities at this time was midnight mass, which began precisely at the stroke of 12 with a sustained volley of musket fire to salute the birth of the saviour. After that had died down, the solemn mass began with chanting and incense. Parishioners joined in, singing hymns and carols, including some that are still sung today such as Ça bergers and Les anges dans nos campagnes.
After the final blessing, the faithful would make their way home through the snowy streets to enjoy a frugal reveillon meal with their neighbours. Singing and dancing were also part of those early-morning festivities. Gift-giving, however, was not. In the early days of New France, gifts were for New Year’s Day, not Christmas.
It wasn’t until the 1850s, when Christmas morphed from a primarily religious feast into a family celebration, that gifts became a central part of the day.
The original Santa Claus
One of the enduring legends associated with Christmas is that of St. Nicholas, who is the original Santa Claus. Nicholas was, in fact, a fourth-century Christian bishop in what is now Turkey. According to the old chronicles, he inherited a fortune, which he used to help people in need. He was also considered the protector of children.
According to historian Yvan Fortier of Parks Canada, the cult of St. Nicholas took hold in Western Europe in the 12th century and he crossed the Atlantic to North America in the days of New France. The notion of St. Nicholas as a generous and saintly bishop persisted in Quebec well into the 20th century, but he was eventually elbowed aside by his modern counterpart, Père Noël, or Santa Claus, who has become the central symbol of Christmas.