New Year’s Day levees are very special events that you may never have attended; you might not even realize they exist. On New Year’s Day the general public is invited to drop by and say hello to officials like the mayor, the heads of the military, church leaders and the Lieutenant Governor. These are feel-good events that are about strengthening the fabric of the community.
The tradition in Canada goes back to the 1600s in New France, and the British kept it going. Apparently this style of New Year’s levee only happens in Canada.
It’s been several decades since I last attended the levees but they have probably not changed much. There will be a list in the paper on December 31st of the times and locations (I’ll add a link when I can locate one).
The times of the major levees are staggered so a little strategic planning is helpful. We would start at Stadacona to meet the admiral, and then go to City Hall and shake hands with the mayor and maybe some councillors. Sometimes the Catholic archbishop was on the route, because it was a chance to see inside the Glebe House at the corner of Barrington and Spring Garden. Then it was across the street to the major line up at Government House to be presented to the Lieutenant Governor.
From the Government House website here is a picture of what it looks like.
All that happens at any of the levees is you stand in line and then say “happy new year” to whoever is receiving. Usually there is an aide or assistant who asks your name and then ‘announces you.” If you have business cards these come in handy. Then there may be beverages and snacks! The Navy used to have good eggnog and at Government House there was traditionally consommé made with sherry (I suspect that has changed).
At the first levees I attended in the late 1970s there were very few women, perhaps some women in the armed forces. These days it is clear that everyone is welcome and all forms of attire would work. It was fun seeing boys who were home for the holidays from the military colleges in their red tunics.
What I particularly enjoyed was watching downtown business and political folks being congenial and reaffirming relationships. It felt like something that had been going on in our tribes for millennia.
I hope you consider taking part in this little ritual, at the very least it is fun getting into buildings like Government House and City Hall. And who knows what exotic sights you will see. An enduring memory I have from 30 years ago is the mass of seemingly identical toe rubbers in the front parlour of Government House that was being used for coats. Made me get out my “rubber” rubber stamp today to give you a sense of the horror (the rubbers were really like the one in the photograph).
- Women did not attend levees until the 1970s (this is also when women started attending the Midtown Tavern). In the 19th century after the levees were over there was a round of visiting lady friends in their homes. A young woman who was staying with the Anglican minister of St Paul’s in 1854 records in her diary that 140 people called at their house on New Year’s Day.
- In 1873 there was an intriguing sounding New Year’s event: a “fat men’s race around the square bounded by Bedford Row, Prince, Hollis and Sackville streets for the stake of an oyster supper.” So much more civilized than that polar bear carry-on.
- Does anyone still wear rubbers, as in the footwear? Are condoms still referred to as “rubbers?” We remember hearing a prominent local developer in about 1980 tell a joke in the Jury Room. He was recalling a winter when one of his children was born in the Grace Maternity Hospital (we all were born there). When he visited the hospital there was a sign in the vestibule that said “Thank you for removing your rubbers.”