Gone are the old-time Christmases, when the sleigh glided over the powdery snow to bring the whole family, bundled up in blankets, to midnight mass!
Gone are the old-time Christmases when people would go from door to door collecting food and money to provide some holiday cheer to the most destitute. It was cold, and as a matter of course the lady of the house would set out little glasses of whisky or spiced apple cider to warm everyone up. The further the groupe progressed with its canvassing, the louder the singing became, and the more spirited the celebrations.
But the Christmas tree bending under the weight of its decorations, the presents piled up underneath, the réveillon feast: these traditions have not been lost.
Canada is a big country and Canadians come from many ethnic backgrounds. Christmas tradition not only vary from province to province but from house to house. In Labrador, turnips are saved from the summer harvest and are given to children, with a lighted candle pushed into a hollowed out hole to light the Christmas night.
At the Sucrerie de la Montagne, the table is set with the utmost care. The tablecloth, hand-embroidered with dark red thread by nimble-fingered grandmothers, sets off the white china. Large glasses are set next to the small ones in which an apéritif will be poured: caribou, this time a mixture of red and white wines, blueberry wine and white whisky which has been made in Canada since the days of the first settlers. It is drunk iced, accompanied by delicious fresh shrimp.
The return to our roots on this Christmas night begins with country-style pea soup: yellow peas (a kind of split pea), enriched with pork and flavoured with sage and chopped parsley. A spoon can almost stand up in it by itself: true comfort food!
Throughout the afternoon, Sandra has overseen the making of the cipâte, a thick pie filled with various layers of meat (rabbit, turkey, chicken, pork, wild duck, partridge or pheasant), seasoned with herbs and cooked on a thick pastry base in a cast-iron pot, and separated by layers of onions browned with bread crumbs. The whole dish is covered with pastry, and brushed with egg yolk to give it a beautiful golden colour.
It takes several hours in a slow oven before the guests can sample this dish, one brought over by cooks from the France of Louis XIV, and refined over the course of the centuries. It is one of the treasures (when it turns out!) of Québec cuisine.
Then comes the stuffed turkey, beautifully golden, surrounded by steamed red cabbage moistened with juice from the turkey, and creamy, buttery mashed potatoes, accompanied by a warm blueberry sauce... and of course (otherwise this wouldn't be Québec!) old-fashioned baked beans: white beans cooked with fried onion, molasses and a few rashers of salt pork.
The bells are rung. The little parish church of Sainte-Madeleine-de-Rigaud is filled with excitement. As in the old days, the crèche is softly lit, and carols expressing love and hope rise up to heaven. As the religious celebration ends, there is a joyful roar outside as those who have driven here go out to "warm up the car." The temperature has dropped even further, the air is becoming more and more biting, and the horses are encouraged to trot a little faster. On the edge of the woods, a cabin almost hidden under snow is waiting. Just as in the good old days of the trappers, frost-covered coats are shaken off, boots are removed and everyone settles in for the best part of the evening.
So that no one faints with hunger, while in front of the maple logs blazing in the fireplace guests enjoy a piece of tarte à la farlouche, a pie made with cream and brown sugar, which is brought steaming out of the wood-stove. Then there are "grand-pères" to sample, doughnuts cooked in boiling syrup, or else the little Christmas tree shaped buns that Guylaine always makes for Christmas, all washed down with hot milky tea, or a drop of home-brew, during which everyone listens raptly to the folk-tale of the chasse-galerie, the devil's flying sleigh, which rounds off this memorable night.
A very long time ago, young lumberjacks used to go to work at lumber camps far from their homes. The story has it that on Christmas Eve, melancholy and homesick, they dreamed of returning home. Then the devil offered them a deal: he would take them home on the condition that they not utter one curse (every good Quebecker's vocabulary contains a few!); otherwise the miserable men would risk damnation. What an impossible choice! Nonetheless, they agreed to watch their language. They could then take off in the chasse-galerie, the devil's flying sleigh, which would take them to midnight mass in their home villages. How imagination can transform even winter into poetry! The chasse-galerie epic takes the cruelty of the elements and transforms it into a dream. Hush! Our gentle Christmas night is coming to a close…
Photos : Première Moisson
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