The return of the winter carnivals

The time: February. The place: half a hundred Canadian towns. The cast: snow queens, papier-mâché gargoyles, street singers, and assorted moose, goose and coyote-callers. The program: carnival—the parties it pays a town to throw

Ken Johnstone January 7 1961

The return of the winter carnivals

The time: February. The place: half a hundred Canadian towns. The cast: snow queens, papier-mâché gargoyles, street singers, and assorted moose, goose and coyote-callers. The program: carnival—the parties it pays a town to throw

Ken Johnstone January 7 1961

The return of the winter carnivals

The time: February. The place: half a hundred Canadian towns. The cast: snow queens, papier-mâché gargoyles, street singers, and assorted moose, goose and coyote-callers. The program: carnival—the parties it pays a town to throw

Ken Johnstone

In 1894 the city fathers of Quebec proclaimed a snow and ice festival called the Winter Carnival. The idea, they said, was “to relieve the monotony of our dull season." They were neither the first Canadians nor the last to decide that they couldn’t wait till summer to raise a little hell. Samuel de Champlain, halfway through a winter in Acadia, invented L'Ordre de bon Temps—the Order of Good Cheer — to get him through the second half. Three hundred and fifty-six years later the city of Montreal, regarded by outsiders as a lively town summer and winter, decided that it couldn't get through the winter of 1961 without a snow carnival, and has accordingly planned one for February. In the years between, winter carnivals have come and gone. Until the end of the Twenties they mainly came; in the Thirties they went; now they're coming back, with a square-dance festival in the hockey arena at Vernon. B.C.. torchlight skiing at Banff, a Trapper’s Festival at Prince Albert. Sask., scoot-racing at Penetanguishene, Ont., a tommycod derby at Ste. Anne de la Pérade, Que., and at least half a hundred other blowouts in as many hamlets, towns and cities across Canada. Laughter and song will not precisely sweep the land this February, but there will be a good deal more laughing, singing, and dancing in the streets than Champlain wotdd ever have expected to see on

the rimy shores of the new world.

The revels will ring loudest in Quebec City. Quebec's carnival is great fun and better-than-break-even business, which is just what it is supposed to be. Like the other carnivals blossoming in the Canadian winter, the carnival has come back to Quebec not only because people can afford these days to get together and make a little whoopee in the winter, but also because the local merchants can't comfortably afford it if they don't. On New Year's Day 1956. a year after Quebec businessmen reorganized the Winter Carnival. which had been in mothballs since 1930, Archbishop Maurice Roy gave his congregation a pensée about carnivals to come: "There is an effort to attract tourists to our midst to make commercial affairs prosper. This can be an excellent thing, on condition that the city does not hide its Christian face behind a veil of paganism. We must not copy what in other cities may have caused amusements to degenerate into organized debauchery.”

Like most winter carnivals. Quebec’s has a snow queen, and this may have

accounted for the archbishop’s uneasiness. "Is it necessary to recall what happened last year?” an editorial writer asked in L'Action Catholique, a Quebec City newspaper. “Some ecclesiastical personages had to refuse certain invitations in order not to run the risk of being in the presence of scandalously undressed women.” He was speaking of the snow queen and more particularly her maids of honor, “often more déshabillé than [the candidates] themselves." For the carnival crowd, it's safe to say. the pretty girls —déshabillé one minute and playing peek-a-boo through a buffalo robe the next —are, like the ice palace, the ice sculptures, and the choruses of Alouette, a predictable but always pleasurable part of throwing a winter revel. In Quebec's case, though, the girls raise a lot of the money to pay for the balls and banquets they reign over. Seven finalists compete for the queen's tiara and their partisans buy candles in their favorites' names to boost them toward the throne. Last year the profit in candles was a hundred thousand dollars.

But the queen, even at those prices, is just another pretty girl, whereas Bonhomme Carnaval is the only walking. talking snowman in the world. Bonhomme is the ubiquitous master of ceremonies of the Quebec carnival: seven feet tall, with a rosy and slightly inane smile engraved on his papiermàché face. For six years Bonhomme has been played by an anonymous but exceptionally robust hired actor. His snowman outfit, wired for sound with a microphone taped over his heart and a voice amplifier over his ear, weighs about 150 pounds, and he wears it to dog. ski. soapbox, ice-canoe and snowshoe races; parades, street dances, and dinners for gastronomes; symphonies, dramas, and fireworks displays; an art show, a film festival, and any other gathering he can find of more than two people. It's Bonhomme’s merry work to wipe long faces off the streets of Quebec during the three weeks of the carnival, and what he says goes. He has thrown the chief of police into an ice-palace room set aside as a jail, just for forgetting to smile, and on the same charge he once tossed a Toronto judge into the same clink. Even that didn’t make the Toronto man smile.

Bonhomme also squires the queen and her court from revel to revel. He attends them at the head of the big parade, where Bonhomme and the girls are boxed in by a band of capering gargoyles in papier-mâché masks as

The return of the winter carnivals

continued

eccentric as Bonhomme’s own. He opens the balls and masqued dances by circling the floor — or the street — with the queen. Since the archbishop’s warning about the perils of the carnival spirit, to be sure, he has been assisted in this work by a chaperon, euphemistically known as the queen’s lady-in-waiting, who watches to see that the queen and her duchesses drink nothing stronger than ginger ale and get home at a proper hour. She has been outguessed only once, when she dropped a duchess-of-the-moment at her parents’ door around midnight. Next day the carnival’s permanent secretary, a round and jovial man named Louis Paré, got an angry call from the girl’s mother, who denounced him for sending her daughter home singing at five in the morning. A check-up showed that the girl had gone in the front door and tiptoed out the back; by the time the chaperon was on her way so was the daughter, who had been picked up by her boy friend to join in the spirit of the carnival in less conservative company. The lady-in-waiting now rings the door bell when she drops off a duchess.

Despite the sobering influence of the single chaperon, the revellers at Quebec City’s Mardi Gras undeniably party as warmly as the celebrants at a subtropical Mardi Gras in New Orleans or Buenos Aires. "The carnival shakes things up and gets you out of a rut,” a Quebecker told me. “You

start out the evening with a party of six or eight, and before the night is over you’re liable to be in a party of sixty or eighty, and you do things you wouldn’t dream of doing in the other forty-nine weeks of the year. Of course, you then have all Lent to repent in.”

This is an age, though, when the manufacture of gaiety is almost always hard work for somebody. Thirty-eight committees with four hundred active members work most of the year to produce Quebec’s three-week burst of party and song. They muster five thousand volunteers for jobs like parading in costume and canvassing the city from door to door to sell the candles that boost the candidates for queen — twenty-five hundred canvassers do the job in one night, between six and nine. For the parades they build twentyeight elaborate floats, outfit platoons of clowns, drill with army units and brass bands, and string new gut in old snowshoes. With this backstage organization whipped into shape the carnival itself is, according to one of its three initial organizers, Philippe Plamondon, “genuinely a carnival for the people of Quebec and not just a tourist gimmick.” The organizers’ slogan is: “The carnival is everybody’s business.” Last year the business invested a quarter of a million dollars, drew thirty thousand out-of-towners, and cleared a profit of $57,119.27. This year they expect business to be even better.

Nothing succeeds like success, as Plamondon might say. In all but the southern Maritime provinces, where snowfall is spotty, civic corporations that know a good thing when they see one are jumping — or, in the cases of towns that beat Quebec to the jump, staying — on the bandwagon. St. Anthony, Nfld., a hamlet on the island’s bleak northern coast, has thrown a one-day carnival every March for fifty years, ever since Sir Wilfred Grenfell, the saintly doctor of the outports, summoned the winterbound villagers up and down the coast for a day of fellowship and dog-racing on St. Anthony’s frozen harbor. They still race dogs across the bay; the truth is that most of the small-town “carnivals” are winter sports days spiced with as much singing, dancing, and general merrymaking as the contestants and spectators have an appetite for. 'I he sports Quebec leans to are snowshoeing, skiing, ice-canoeing and — the last of the absolutely amateur games — sugaring off. A small-town Ontario sports-day carnival is more apt to be built around a skating festival, with local specialties like the ice-fishing derby at Barrie and the rash of curling bonspiels breaking out this year. On the prairies curling has always been the centrepiece of most small-town carnivals, and in British Columbia the mountain resort towns bill a catholic program of skiing, skating, and curling. Although nobody has

ever counted them, there are now at least fifty towns across the country, and probably more, that call their sports day (or days) winter carnivals, and to the merchants who promote them, the athletes who work out in them, and the spectators who make merry at them, they are carnivals down to the last drop of buttered rum. To the more serious-minded Canadian Tourist Association, on the other hand, they are sports days that have yet to make the grade. The association’s director ot research and publications. Erwin Kreutzweiser, says there are only six carnivals in Canada that really are carnivals down to the last drop: the Winter Carnivals at Quebec, Ste. Agathe, Vernon, and Bañil, the Trappers’ Festival at The Pas. Man., and what the up-to-the-minute burghers of Penetang cali the Winterama.

By and large these are sports days too, but with more frosting on the frost — ice palaces to crown snow queens in. masquerade balls, street singing, and, in most cases, special events for minors. At The Pas they run the 150-mile World Championship dog races (at Prince Albert’s Trappers’ Festival, which the Canadian Tourist Association does not regard as a bona-fide carnival, they run moose, goose, and coyote - calling championships, which seems to bespeak the

want of an eye for color in the CTA). The Pas. to do the CTA justice, also runs a tea-boiling contest and a muskrat-skinning race. At Penetang they run, at 100 mph. what are known as scoot races; a scoot is a small craft driven by an aircraft motor and propeller that can travel over ice or through water. Ste. Agathe, in the Laurentian Mountains north of Montreal. runs harness-horse races on frozen I.ac des Sables. It also runs what must surely be the world’s most formidable obstacle course for trenchermen: every one of the 30.000 revellers who jam into the village on carnival weekends is expected to eat his way through a habitant menu that starts with thick golden pea soup and goes on to tourtières, shallow crusted pies of fine-ground pork: chunks of créions, a jelly - like pâté that looks like headcheese but is made from beef dripping, lean pork and spices; ragoût aux pou lets. a succulent chicken stew-; mounds of baked beans laced w'ith pork and molasses; and sticks of pain sur la sole, the fragrant and flavorsome bread whose history goes back to the vanished stone ovens in the farmyards of old Quebec. To go back farther, there is evidence that even the celebrants at Ste. Agathe are missing something. The evidence is in the diary of Marc Lescarbot, a

French lawyer who joined L'Ordre de bon Temps in 1606. not long after Champlain had moved on. The gustatory adventures of the companions of the order, Lescarbot wrote that year, began with "an abundance of fowl, as mallards, outardes, geese, partridges, and other birds,” and moved on to "elan (stag), caribou, beaver, otter, bear, wildcat . . . and such like.”

When they are not socking it down at the table, the merrymakers at Ste. Agathe can get away from it all bylighting out to one of half a dozen other carnivals in ski-resort villages within half an hour by car. By no coincidence. these towns all celebrate the winter in the same three weeks of February. Their reasoning, according to Erwin Kreutzweiser of the CTA, is that Abraham I incoin’s birthday falls on the twellth of the month, and George Washington’s on the twentysecond. 1 he chances of selling local color to Americans with a day oil’ is better than at an other time of year.

There is another, more ancient, reason why most w inter carnivals stick to February. 1 cut usually falls in March. And carnival, the word, is from the medieval Latin words carne and vale. Translated literally, they mean farewell, my flesh. Or. in a looser translation. eat. drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we fast, ir