By Greg Clark, February 12, 1927
Batteries thud out their shots into the night. Rockets fleet up and burst in jewels against the vivid starry sky. The Fete de Nuit has begun, Quebec’s night of celebration of winter.
Up the narrow, steep streets of the ancient city flow the crowds, in colored sashes wrapped about their homely workaday clothes, in gay snowshoe costumes of blanket cloth, in ski costume, in furs. And one crowd – a snowshoe club in hooded coats – are singing as they go.
“Vive la Huronne si fiere
De ses Guerriers, de ses grands bois.”
From the old town, from the hotels, from the shops all closing hurriedly, the crowds swarm up the steep streets to the Citadel. The rockets light the snow. From across the St. Lawrence glow the great bonfires on the Levis shore where the villagers hold their lesser celebrations. On the ramparts of the old Citadel, beacon fires leap and flare. The ancient fortress is limmed in a vast gleam of colored light.
Groups of glee singers in their picturesque costumes sing the old voyageur songs. “A la Claire Fontaine,” “La Huronne,” “Alouette,” “Les Montagnards.” Bands play, the ice is massed with skaters, the bob and toboggan runs are crammed with flashing groups, the snowshoe clubs in their various costumes march past, the ski clubs lead the way to the hills where they perform their little miracles of speed and marvelous control, the entries in the coming dog team races bring their huskies to show them off to the crowds, there is a carnival of confusion and music under the beacon fires and the rockets. Then the batteries fling their tumult into the starry night, the rockets make a final frenzy and the crowd seeks out the dance floor of the city, new and old, to close the Fete de Nuit.
What a professional team of half a dozen players does in sport is news. What a whole city does in sport is too big for news. Some day, the story of what Quebec is doing with winter will be written in a book of the social history of Canada.
Quebec does not set aside a day for winter sports. Her city council does not generously donate piece of park land for the celebration. The old city has been long enough on her mighty cliffs to know when the snow comes and when it departs. And for that time of beauty Quebec writes a new calendar.
Most of the cities of Canada are looking shrewdly at winter sports as a scheme for at attracting tourists. They would like to set up a sort of winter amusement park, with a foxy eye on the investment and the probable turnover.
Quebec celebrates winter for herself. And the tourists, tens of thousands of them, come to her for that very reason.
Quebec has something to show every other city in Canada. Neither the Chateau Frontenac nor the Quebec Winter Sports Association cared to make an estimate of the number of tourists, largely American, from New York and the New England states, who come to the old city in the course of the winter to unbend themselves with winter recreation. The lowest estimate was ten thousand, excluding all commercial visitors. The largest estimate was twenty thousand, from November to March. These were people of means, who had time and money to spend in amusing themselves. They are the sort of visitors Canada wants, not merely for the cash they dispense but for the potentialities of their interest in Canada which are likely to result from their visit.
Where Winter is Holiday Time
How has Quebec done It?
For long, long years, Canada has looked upon her winter as a great handicap. From the economic point of view, a liability, a detriment.
At one time in the history of this dominion, the British government was trying to arrange a trade with the French whereby they would give Canada away for a nice, jungly little Island down in the tropics somewhere.
“Canada,” they said, “is a country covered with snow for a large part of the year.”
Most of us remember the shame and indignation that was roused when Kipling published his poem, “Our Lady of the Snows.”
Just lately, the rest of Canada has been gradually, very gradually, changing her mind about snow. Quebec changed her mind a couple of centuries ago. But, of course, Quebec has been there a long time.
A certain Canadian radio station desired to put on a night of Canadian songs. A patriotic night of native songs. They thought of “Alouette” and “A la Claire Fontaine,” And “En Roulant Ma Boule.”
How about some Canadian songs in English? “O Canada,” there was, of course! But no, it too was French, translated. The project had to be abandoned because there were not enough native songs in English. And there were too many in French to suit the somewhat shrewd taste of the management.
It takes time to develop songs. It also takes time to develop something so essentially native and national as Quebec city’s three month long celebration of winter. Quebec has lived with Its winter long enough to know it and love it. And probably because it is something the rest of the world has not got, because it is distinctive, there gradually grew a desire to celebrate it. It was a time for gay clothes. It was a time for fun. Many of the industries were halted by it. The villages had nothing much else to do in winter but amuse themselves. Over two centuries, there emerged the thing they have to-day – a calendar of sports, with something for everybody to do or see for almost every day of the winter.
It is pretty evident, Quebec does not lay out her winter with an eye on the tourists. But the tourists come. Quebec is now, in the opinion of those whose business it is to tell people where to go for recreation, the greatest winter sport centre in America. It is on the grow. The Chateau Frontenac was filed to capacity Christmas and New Years week. One single party came from Boston consisting of three hundred and fifty – a train load. This was not a convention. It was a party of pleasure seekers which has grown from small beginnings, a few Bostoners meeting at the Chateau, deciding to come again, and so on, until after half a dozen years it makes a gay trainload of families, decked out in the garments not of Boston, but the quaint costumes, of Quebec. Dozens of such cumulative parties now come to the Chateau every winter.
“Way I’m looking at it now,” said a New Yorker who had not only his children but his grandchildren with him – you should have seen the old boy with four grandchildren skyhooting around the steep streets of Quebec in a dog sled behind eight huskies… “the average man in this country should have two weeks holiday in summer and one week in winter.”
But then, he was president of a bank.
Months of Carnival
The Fete de Nuit, with its carnival spirit of assembling in the snow night, is not what it might be in Montreal or Toronto. The weeks and months are laid out in a sort of festive calendar. Certain nights are given over to hockey matches, professional and amateur. Then other nights are given to ski competitions, skating races, snow-shoe hikes under the leadership of the various Quebec snowshoe clubs – despite the way the snowshoe is looked upon in this moment of popularity of skiing, it is by far the more picturesque sport, and lends itself to fun and frolic. Other nights are given to bob sled races. The Quebec dog derby is becoming a classic. And towards the end of the season there to a great masquerade of winter which says goodby to winter with the same regret Ontario bids summer farewell.
Quebec has an incomparable lead on the rest of Canada not because she has more or a better winter, but because the recognition of the spirit of winter is rooted right in the people. Not just a few of the people but all the people make definite obeisance to winter. The ice sculpture in front of al the stores is only an indication. The gay red and green sleighs of the merchants and the corporation, the sashes worn by the men over their coate-quaint, woolen sashes of bright color, some of which are old and worth as much as two hundred dollars. Of course you couldn’t live in Quebec without having a spirited and humorous respect for winter. Quebec’s streets run up and down more than north and south or east and west. You have to equipped with humor to walk either up or down one of those streets. For at any moment you are likely to go on your ear.
Can other Canadian cities welcome winter in the same highly profitable fashion Quebec does?
Can Toronto, with her queer scabby, dirty, slushy winter do anything better than scowl at winter?
The Great Lakes cities are rather unfortunate. They are placed against warm bowls which melt winter away. Those old boys who talk of winter not being what it used to be are men born and brought up in towns and cities set in a few miles from the lakes, and who remember their winters of old. The winters in Newmarket, Stratford, Peterborough are just as good as they ever were. Toronto’s winter is pretty much as it always was. Go back a few miles from the lake and you find winter.
Toronto can have winter in all its glory little way up the Metropolitan railway. Hundreds, thousands of people who have summer cottages on Lake Simcoe are already taking annual parties of winter sports enthusiasts up to Lake Simcoe in the winter. The solution of the winter recreation problem for Toronto will undoubtedly be a series of resorts set back from forty to a hundred miles, where there are the trees, hills and snow.
Would Toronto Wear a Sash?
Some of the small towns sleeping away over that ridge that rises a few miles back of Toronto could make a fortune if they undertook to amuse Toronto people with snow. Toronto is no less a sport and recreation city than the average city in America. When winter comes, golf, motoring, tennis, all the familiar sports are ended. There is a leisure class which then goes into sort of steamy hibernation, dancing, playing bridge, going to shows, yet unhappy and restless because the exercise in which they are accustomed in winter id left out of their scheme of things.
They go to Quebec now. They even go to Lake Placid, which is down south. A few are discovering the one or two resorts in Muskoka which have everything Lake Placid has, except the loud voice.
But Toronto is so convinced that winter – in her world, anyway – is a matter of slush, alternating with furious grips of zero weather which hardens the slush for a day or two and then collapses into another flu week, that it will be slow work waking Toronto to the fact that there is beauty only fifty miles away.
If Toronto people were to put on a blanket coat or sash, to which they are as fully entitled as the people of Quebec, there would at once be rumors of a circus in town. The most Toronto will do in the way of releasing the spirit in dress is to wear a small bit of colored feather sticking up in the back of the hat band.
“That’s a beautiful sash,” We remarked to a young man beside us watching the bob sleds racing at tremendous pace down the old Quebec wall.
“Yes,” he said. “Ceinture fleche: my grandmother wove this when she was a girl. It is mine now.”
He has winter-burned the color of leather. He had a hard, lean look, and his eyes were aflame with interest in the fleeting sleds.
“Do you bob?”
“No. Skis,” he said. “After banking hours, skis.”
“Do you jump?”
“Yes. I can do ninety, a hundred. But it’s the ski running that is sport. We picked up fox back six or seven miles in the Laureation the other day. New stuff. A grand sport.”
“More fun even than the summer, eh?”
“Summer! Man, I spend the summer just yearning for winter to come again!”
Ho told us of the fox hunt on skis, the hours working along the ridges, sliding and pawing along the sides of those purple Laurentian hills that rise back of the old city and at last, towards evening, the picking up of a fox on the high ridge, the shouting and view hallo, and the party sweeping and racing over ridge and valley in pursuit of the astounded tox.
“Did you kill him?”
“Kill him! Not he; we drove him to his hole in a rock slide, and left him for another day. We have sent for English hunting horns for the chase, to sound the view hallo.”
This is something Toronto could do. Quebec does a hundred things Ontario could do.
But perhaps the sash would be beyond Toronto.
And in the sash may be the whole appeal.
Skyhoot, also means “scoot”, or to go quickly.
“View Halloo” is the term given to the shout when a hunter spots his target.