Quebec City rules for Yuletide charms
Written byTaylor Ireland
It’s hard to imagine a more Christmassy place on this side of the world than Quebec City. The kind of things typically associated with the season – snow, sleigh bells, fireplaces, sparkling lights, fir trees, beautiful churches, fabulous food and drink – are to be found by the sack-full in this city.
The authenticity and splendour of a Quebec City Christmas has not escaped the attention of world-wide travel watchers. Last year, for example, CNN named the Old City one of the top 15 places in the world to spend the holidays, and it’s certainly the snowiest on a list that includes Barcelona and Honolulu.
A word that pops up often to describe how the city transforms itself into a winter wonderland at this time of year is “Dickensian.” It’s really not hard to imagine Charles Dickens’s Christmas tales happening in the snowy, cobblestone streets of the city, with the clip-clop of horse-drawn carriages, and marvellous goods on display in the glowing, ice-rimmed windows of the little shoppes. Indeed, Dickens himself was overwhelmed by the charms of the city when he made a whirlwind stop in 1842, although it was during the month of May when, presumably, all the snow had melted.
You might say Quebec City’s very origins have a Christmas-like theme of light and hope in the deep darkness of winter. Christian missionary work, like it or not, was one of the driving forces behind the establishment of the French colony in the wilderness of the New World. The evidence of that historic presence, with churches, chapels and monasteries, is found around almost every corner in the Old City. Several very wonderfully presented museums pay tribute to the remarkable and courageous work of religious orders in Canada.
By the same token, the museum in the Huron village of Wendake north of the city offers another fascinating First Nation’s perspective on the early days of European settlement of Quebec. The Hurons, coincidentally, inspired the Huron Carol, what is said to be Canada’s oldest Christmas song, written by a Jesuit priest in 1642 and based on Huron religious and cultural concepts.
While we’re on the topic of song, it is almost impossible to count the number and variety of Christmas music performed at this time of year, in churches, concert halls and chapels, not to mention hardy buskers and carollers singing in the city streets. Pretty much all of these musical events help raise money for the many charities that count on the generosity of people in more favourable circumstances at this time of year.
One of the most noteworthy aspects of Quebec City as the holidays approach is the presence of Christmas markets. This year, one of the most magical of these events, the German Christmas Market, celebrates its tenth anniversary. Located in an idyllic setting next to City Hall, the market offers a wunderbar variety of authentic German food, drink and handicrafts, as well as a warm and festive ambiance in the heart of the Old City.
There is also the ever-popular Marché de Noël in the old port, where all kinds of goods for the table or under the tree are on offer – as well as Christmas trees themselves, sold by – you guessed it – Monsieur Noël.
Of course, besides all the sacred and seasonal music, there is some good old fashioned Christmas cheer, or revelry, if you prefer. And this year, following on the huge success in its inaugural run last year, the city’s popular Grande Allée strip will be closed to traffic, creating a huge street party, with restaurants and bars offering outdoor service (as well as indoors) starting on Dec. 27.
On New Year’s Eve, a relatively new tradition is taking off, with a spectacular party in the park in front of the National Assembly featuring a celebrity DJ and spectacular fireworks upon the flip of the calendar. No matter what the weather, ringing in the new year in the Old City is one of the hottest attractions of the holidays.
For those who prefer a more traditional Quebec Christmas celebration, it’s hard to beat the Réveillon, which literally means to wake up. Typically, family and friends gather at someone’s home on Christmas Eve, then head out to the local church for a late night mass. When they return to hearth and home they partake of a feast centering on the traditional tortière meat pie and all the side dishes, followed by another rich Christmas treat, la bûche de noël – a cake in the shape of a log. Then folks crawl off to sleep with bellies full, only to wake up a few hours later to open presents around the Christmas tree.
If you don’t get yourself invited to a Réveillon, some restaurants in the city offer pretty much the same menu on Christmas Eve.
If you think les fêtes are all about reckless abandon in a city built to party, you might be interested to know Quebec City is the birthplace of one of the greatest Christmas ideas since smooching under the mistletoe – with consent of course.
Operation Nez Rouge – Red Nose, as in Rudolph the reindeer – is a service which offers people who’ve had a few too many at a party or a bar a safe ride home by trained and screened volunteers for themselves and their vehicle. The service, funded by donations and sponsorships, is now available in more than 100 towns and cities across Canada. There’s no way of knowing how much tragedy and damage Nez Rouge has spared families during the holidays, but its popularity speaks for itself.
If you need further proof Quebec City is the ultimate “Noëlville,” we must draw your attention to the year-round Christmas store in the Old City, La Boutique de Noël. Entering this mesmerizing place is like being swept into some wild Christmas dream, with elves, Santas, angels, reindeer of every imaginable variety tempting Christmas decoration shoppers of all kinds from wide-eyed children to serious collectors.
That’s a quick look at why Quebec City rules as a Yuletide holiday haven. And we haven’t even gone for a skate or ski or tucked into a tasty meal. More on that later.