Groundhog Day, Valentines Day and, more recently, Islander Day might come to mind as celebratory hallmarks of the shortest month of the year.
But prolific Prince Edward Island author Georges Arsenault has unearthed a rich history of customs and practices surrounding Candlemas Day (La Chandeleur in French) on Feb. 2 that once abounded in the Acadian community.
Now this folklorist and historian has released the English version of his popular French book, Acadian Traditions on Candlemas Day: Candles, Pancakes and House Visits, which explores this cultural heritage.
“It’s part of our social history,” says Arsenault, who began researching Acadian Candlemas traditions while working towards his masters degree in folklore studies at Laval University in Quebec in the mid-1970s.
“I came home and interviewed about 30 people who remembered or had participated in the 1930s and ’40s in that tradition,” he remembers.
Arsenault published a P.E.I.-focused booklet in 1982 on the topic.
His Acadian Traditions on Candlemas Day book expands upon that original research to include the broad range of traditions associated with this religious and social event in the Maritimes, certain regions of Quebec and even the Acadian communities in Newfoundland.
Feb. 2 figures prominently because it is almost exactly the midpoint between the winter solstice and the spring equinox.
For the farmers in Europe, where many of these traditions originated, it signalled that winter was half over.
“In Europe — in France and other western countries — they always kept an eye on the bear or sometimes the wolf. If he came out of his den on the second of February and he saw his shadow that meant that there would still be 40 days of winter. But if it was a cloudy day (and no shadow) then spring was around the corner . . . ,” Arsenault.
“I also found in my research that in the northwestern part of New Brunswick it was the skunk that was the animal that was watched. In other places, it was other animals. But the groundhog has become very popular today.”
There were some religious aspects to Candlemas Day. For example, candles were blessed by the parish priest during a special ceremony and were used throughout the year as special talismans to ward off bad things.
“They were a way of protecting yourself. You used them to protect yourself from lightning (during a storm). When there was somebody dying at home, you’d light the candle . . . ,” Arsenault says.
“I remember as a child the neighbour’s barn caught on fire and some of the neighbours came to our house and they knelt down to say the rosary and they lit the candle to make sure that the neighbour’s house wouldn’t catch fire.”
Candlemas Day also had a strong social side, as Arsenault discovered.
One popular Acadian Feb. 2 tradition was door-to-door collecting, during which groups of people, known as runners, collected for a communal feast or to give to the poor.
“On the Island here, it was usually young men who did that. Often there was an older man who knew about the tradition. He knew the songs, so he would be the leader, the captain, and he carried a cane or pole with a rooster (effigy) on top of it,” Arsenault says.
The enthusiastic crowd would travel from house to house, singing and dancing in exchange for food staples, such as flour, pork, potatoes and carrots.
“People gave accordingly to what those things would be used for. If they were collecting for a poor family, people would give more than if they were only collecting for a party because you didn’t need a ton of potatoes to make the (traditional) rapure (grated potato casserole) for a party,” Arsenault says.
“There was always someone who had a mouth organ in his pocket and they would do a bit of step-dancing and tease the children if there were any children home. They would pretend they were kidnapping them ....
“And then before leaving they had a thank you song ....”
Each school district had a group that went door to door and when they’d finished canvassing the village they would take the donated food to one or two families that needed help and keep some potatoes and pork to make rapure for the post-collection party.
“They would find a house with a big kitchen where they were given permission to dance and they’d invite the girls from the village and they’d have their party,” Arsenault says.
“You have to remember in the 1930s and ’40s there were no cars around and people were looking for entertainment.”
That tradition existed in the Evangeline area until the Second World War.
“In Rustico we know they had that collection, but it seems to have disappeared before 1900. In that area, they used to collect only flour and pork to make pancakes because in the French tradition you have to make pancakes on Feb. 2,” Arsenault says.
“There were some sayings (in West Prince) that if you don’t eat pancakes on Candlemas you’ll get scabies, or in New Brunswick they said you’ll have lice. Others said you had to eat pancakes on Feb. 2 so you would have good crops in the summer.”
Pancake parties were popular in some areas of New Brunswick.
“Friends would get together and they would have an evening of music and song and they would make pancakes. Everyone had to take his turn to flip the pancake. And if it fell on the floor they had to kneel down and eat it on the floor,” Arsenault says.
“What was exciting, in northern New Brunswick especially, they used to put little objects in the pancakes. If you found a penny you would become rich. If it was a (religious) medal you would become a nun or a priest. If it was a ring you would get married in the new year. If it was a rag you would be poor all your life. Things like that.”
This tradition still continues in some areas of New Brunswick.
Regional adaptations of the door-to-door Candlemas collections were also apparent.
“In P.E.I., the leader of the collectors had a pole and on top of it there was a wooden or cardboard rooster with ribbons and a bit of colour,” Arsenault says.
“In New Brunswick, they had a leader, but he didn’t carry a pole with a rooster. He was dressed with a tall hat and a kind of tuxedo with a bow tie.
And in Inverness County in Cape Breton, the leader carried a pole with a big ring on top of it. Every house that made a donation would tie a ribbon to that ring and that was a sign that they had contributed to the party and they could attend.”
The actual significance of the rooster symbol for P.E.I.’s Candlemas had stumped Arsenault since he first learned about it in the 1970s.
In fact, he couldn’t find any place in France where they even had a food collection on Candlemas Day.
“But in some areas during Shrovetide (the days just before Lent), the young boys in some (French) villages would have cock fights. The one who won the fight would take the rooster, put ribbons on him and he would go door-to-door with his friends, announcing who won the fight and asking for donations so they could have a feast,” Arsenault says.
“So I think that rooster (in P.E.I.’s version of Candlemas) is a leftover of that tradition and they would tie ribbons to the tail of the rooster . . . .”
In Cape Breton, there was also the tie-in to that old French tradition with the ring adorned with ribbons, he adds.
In recent years, some of these traditions have been revived in various communities.
“I like people to use these old traditions for helping to build their Acadian identity . . . ,” Arsenault says.
“It’s part of P.E.I. history, Maritime history, P.E.I. history. It shows also the continuation of traditions from the old countries and how they were adapted to the New World.”
AT A GLANCE
Try this at home
Georges Arsenault’s French version of Acadian Traditions on Candlemas Day: Candles, Pancakes and House Visits, published by Acorn Press, was released in 2011.
The English version, which was translated by Sally Ross of Nova Scotia, is now available in regular bookstores and at the Acadian Museum in Miscouche and Centre Belle-Alliance in Summerside. Here’s a recipe from the book:
Pancakes with snow
1 cup flour
1 1/4 cup milk
1/2 tsp salt
1 cup fresh, hard-packed snow
1 cup oil
Mix all the ingredients together to make a smooth dough. Drip a spoonful of the batter into 1 inch (2 cm) of hot fat. Fry for 2-3 minutes on each side.
Serve with molasses or grated maple sugar.
Source: Marielle Boudreau and Melvin Gallant, A Taste of Acadie, translated by Ernest Bauer, Fredericton: Goose Lane, 1991.