The word levée (from French, noun use of infinitive lever, "rising", from Latin levāre, "to raise") originated in the Levée du Soleil (Rising of the Sun) of King Louis XIV (1643–1715). It was his custom to receive his male subjects in his bedchamber just after arising, a practice that subsequently spread throughout Europe.
In the 18th century the levée in Great Britain and Ireland became a formal court reception given by the sovereign or his/her representative in the forenoon or early afternoon. In the New World colonies the levée was held by the governor acting on behalf of the monarch. Only men were received at these events.
It was in Canada that the levée became associated with New Year's Day. The fur traders had the tradition of paying their respects to the master of the fort (their government representative) on New Year's Day. This custom was adopted by the governor general and lieutenant governors for their levées.
The first recorded levée in Canada was held on January 1, 1646, in the Chateau St. Louis by Charles Huault de Montmagny, Governor of New France from 1636 to 1648. In addition to wishing a happy new year to the citizens the governor informed guests of significant events in France as well as the state of affairs within the colony. In turn, the settlers were expected to renew their pledges of allegiance to the Crown.
The levée tradition was continued by British colonial governors in Canada and subsequently by both the governor general and lieutenant governors. It continues to the present day.
Over the years the levée has become almost solely a Canadian observance.
Today, levées are the receptions (usually, but not necessarily, on New Year's Day) held by the governor general, the lieutenant governors of the provinces, the military and others, to mark the start of another year and to provide an opportunity for the public to pay their respects.
Today the levée has evolved from the earlier, more boisterous party into a more sedate and informal one. It is an occasion to call upon representatives of the monarch, military and municipal governments and to exchange New Year's greetings and best wishes for the new year, to renew old acquaintances and to meet new friends. It is also an opportunity to reflect upon the events of the past year and to welcome the opportunities of the New Year.
The province of Prince Edward Island maintains a more historical approach to celebrating levée day. On New Year's Day, all Legions and bars are opened and offer moosemilk (egg nog and rum) from the early morning until the late night. Though there are still the formal receptions held at Government House and Province House, levée day is not only a formal event. It is something that attracts a large number of Islanders, which is quite unusual in comparison to the other provinces where it has gradually become more subdued. Prince Edward Island levées begin at 9 a.m.
The historic town of Niagara-on-the-Lake (the first capital of Upper Canada) holds a levée complete with firing of a cannon at Navy Hall (a historic building close to Fort George) The levée is well attended by townspeople and visitors. Toasts are made to the queen, "our beloved Canada", the Canadian Armed Forces, veterans, "our fallen comrades", as well as "our American friends and neighbours" (this final toast would not have been made two centuries ago, when the town was founded). Greetings are brought from all levels of government and it is a great community event.
Some religious leaders, such as the Bishop of the Anglican Diocese of Ontario, hold a Levée on New Year's Day.
As has the levée itself, refreshments served at levées have undergone changes (both in importance and variety) over the years.
In colonial times, when the formalities of the levée had been completed, guests were treated to wine and cheeses from the homeland. Wines did not travel well during the long ocean voyage to Canada. To make the cloudy and somewhat sour wine more palatable it was heated with alcohol and spices. The concoction came to be known as le sang du caribou ("reindeer blood").
Under British colonial rule the wine in le sang du caribou was replaced with whisky (which travelled better). This was then mixed with goat's milk and flavoured with nutmeg and cinnamon to produce an Anglicized version called "moose milk". Today's versions of moose milk, in addition to whisky (or rum) and spices may use a combination of eggnog and ice cream, as well as other alcoholic supplements. The exact recipes used by specific groups may be jealously guarded secrets. q.v. External links.
Refreshments were clearly an important element in the New Year's festivities. A report of the New Year's levée held in Brandon House in Manitoba in 1797 indicated that "... in the morning the Canadians (men of the North West Company) make the House and Yard ring with saluting (the firing of rifles). The House then filled with them when they all got a dram each." Simpson's Athabasca Journal reports that on January 1, 1821, "the Festivities of the New Year commenced at four o'clock this morning when the people honoured me with a salute of fire arms, and in half an hour afterwards the whole Inmates of our Garrison assembled in the hall dressed out in their best clothes, and were regaled in a suitable manner with a few flaggon's Rum and some Cakes. A full allowance of Buffaloe meat was served out to them and a pint of spirits for each man."
When residents called upon the governor to pay their respects they expected a party. In 1856 on Vancouver Island, there was "an almighty row" when the colonial governor's levée was not to the attendees' liking.
Municipalities with levées
- Ajijic, Jalisco, Mexico
- Almonte, Ontario
- Bracebridge, Ontario
- Brampton, Ontario
- Brantford, Ontario
- Brockville, Ontario
- Cobourg, Ontario
- Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island
- Grand Manan, New Brunswick
- Edmonton, Alberta
- Elliot Lake, Ontario
- Esquimalt, British Columbia
- Guelph, Ontario
- Halifax, Nova Scotia
- Hamilton, Ontario
- Kingston, Ontario
- Kitchener, Ontario
- Langford, British Columbia
- London, Ontario
- Medicine Hat, Alberta
- Milton, Ontario
- Mississauga, Ontario
- Moncton, New Brunswick
- Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario
- North Saanich, British Columbia
- Oak Bay, British Columbia
- Oakville, Ontario
- Oshawa, Ontario
- Owen Sound, Ontario
- Parrsboro, Nova Scotia
- Pictou, Nova Scotia
- Picton, Ontario
- Redwater, Alberta
- Rivers, Manitoba
- Riverview, New Brunswick
- Saanich, British Columbia
- Shelburne, Nova Scotia
- Sioux Lookout, Ontario
- St. Catharines, Ontario
- Stellarton, Nova Scotia
- Summerside, Prince Edward Island
- Toronto, Ontario
- Victoria, British Columbia
- Windsor, Ontario
- Winnipeg, Manitoba
- Woodstock, New Brunswick
- Yarmouth, Nova Scotia
The levée has a long tradition in the Canadian Forces as one of the activities associated with New Year's Day. Military commanders garrisoned throughout Canada held local levées since, as commissioned officers, they were expected to act on behalf of the Crown on such occasions.
On Vancouver Island (the base for the Royal Navy's Pacific Fleet), levées began in the 1840s.
Today, members of the various Canadian Forces units and headquarters across Canada receive and greet visiting military and civilian guests on the first day of the new year.
In military messes, refreshments take a variety of forms: moose milk (with rum often substituted for whisky); the special flaming punch of the Royal Canadian Hussars of Montreal; the Atholl Brose of the Seaforth Highlanders of Vancouver; "Little Black Devils", (Dark Rum and Creme de menthe) of the Royal Winnipeg Rifles. Members of Le Régiment de Hull use sabres to uncork bottles of champagne.
- "levee". Dictionary.com. Dictionary.com Unabridged. Random House, Inc. Accessed January 10, 2013.
- "Le Lieutenant Gouverneur de la province de Québec recevra les messieurs qui desirement lui faire visite samedi le 1er janvier 1916, de midi a 1 h. p.m., dans la chambre du Conseil Legislatif Hôtel du gouvernment." [The Lieutenant Governor of the Province of Quebec will receive gentlemen who wish to pay him a visit Saturday, January 1, from noon until 1 p.m., in the Legislative Council chamber of the Parliament building.]. L'Action Catholique. December 31, 1915. Retrieved June 3, 2012.
- Legislative Assembly of Alberta:New Year's Levée
- Rukavina, Peter: I Went to the Levée, 2004
- Canada's Navy: MARPAC - Maritime Forces Pacific
- Town of Parrsboro, Nova Scotia Canada
- Town of Yarmouth, Nova Scotia