IT was formally announced in the Quebec press early last winter that on New Year’s Eve an Association would take charge of the ” Ignolee ” throughout the city, and that its collection would be distributed among the poor on New Year’s day. This revival of an old custom created quite a flutter of excitement throughout the city, and on the eve of New Year everyone was agog to hear, see, and to receive the Ignoleux. The parties assigned for each district were, as a rule, dressed in snowshoe costume, and consisted of four or five singers of the ignolee song, which is repeated over and over, for, in this way the coming of the ignoleux is announced; another three or four made the door to door collection, while several drove the sleighs that were necessary to receive the donations. Any and everything was received in the way of food and clothing, besides sums of moneys.
The ignoleux were followed by a curious and interested crowd, but the utmost good order prevailed, and the evening’s efforts resulted in a vast collection of goods and money that was distributed the next morning.
The story of the origin of the Ignolee is most interesting, as is also the story of its observances in different parts of French Canada. It has attracted the attention of several French Canadian writers, such as the Hon. P. O. Chauveau, Mr. J. C. Tache, and particularly Mr. Ernest Gagnon, the able editor of “Les Chansons Canadiennes” to whom I make acknowledgment for some portions of the present paper.
“The word Ignolee,” says Mr. Tache, “means both a custom and a song, brought from France by our ancestors, which today has almost entirely fallen into oblivion. The custom consisted on New Year’s Eve, of a house-to-house collection for the poor(in some places they gathered wax for the altar candles)at the same time singing a refrain which varied according to locality, a refrain in which occurred the word La Ignolee, Guillonne, la Guillanee, Aguilanlen, in the dialects of the different provinces in France where this old Gaulish custom was preserved.”
Mr. Amperes, reports to the committee of the Language and Arts of France, and says on the subject of this song: “A refrain, probably the only, trace of memory going back to the Druidic epoque. There can be no doubt of the fact this custom and this song had its first origin at the gathering of the Mistletoe from the oak in the sacred forest, and the cry of the priest of Druidic Gaul, ‘To the New Year Mistletoe’ when the sacred plant fell from the golden sickle of the Druids. In our country it was always a collection for the poor, that was made, of which the choicest gift was a piece of pork cut from the back with the tail still hanging to it, that was called `l’echignee’ or `la chignee.’ Children called out in advance of the procession `here comes the Ignolee.’ Then the people prepared on a table a meal for those who wanted it, and gifts for the poor. The Ignoleux arrived at a house, knocked on the door with long sticks to the measure of the song, never entering a house before the master and mistress or some one on their behalf, came to the door, inviting them to come in with great ceremony. They took something themselves, received the donation in their bag that they afterwards emptied into a sleigh or wagon, then followed the band : Then they started on the road to the next house escorted by all the children and dogs of the neighbourhood, of whom the joy was great and general.”
Christianity had accepted the Druid custom and sanctified it by charity as it allowed the members to remain to the crowning of the cross. It is probable that. these strange verses, were perpetuated. We will take the eldest daughter and roast her feet for her, are among the other allusions to the human sacrifices of the ancient faith of the Gaul. That reminds us of Velleda’s song in the ” Martyrs ” of Chateaubriand. Yentates wished for blood …. on the first day of the year …. he spoke among the Druid oaks (” Soirées Canadiennes”, année 1863.) The air to which these fragments are sung consist of some musical phrases to which the poetry is adjusted as well as can be, now on one, now on the other of these phrases without regular order. Everyone knows the first verse but nothing more.
All the French authors that I have been able to consult on the subject agree in giving a Gaulic origin to the custom and the songs called Guignolée or Guillannée. Today, in the Province of Perche (where a great many ancestors of our Canadian families come from,) New Year’s presents are still called “les éguilas”. Now the Druidic custom was to distribute the New Year mistletoe in the way of a gift ; it is evident that from them comes the name “éguilas” (or éguilables as they call it in Chartres), given to New Year’s presents.
31st December, at evening, bands of children, by the light of a torch, go from door to door, in the country as well as cities, begging a present in honour of the New Year, chanting complaints or legends in bad French, ending all by these words; “Give us a New Year’s Gift.” (The presents given consisted sometimes of money, more often eatables, fruits, pork, etc.
This old custom so auspiciously and successfully revived in Quebec we hope to see continued if under such good guidance as proved to be the case last year.