The annual New Year’s Day Levée, hosted by the Governor General, the Lieutenant Governor, military establishments, municipalities and other institutions, has an unusual and interesting origin.
The word Levée is derived from the French verb lever – to rise (specifically from one’s bed) – and has its origins in the Levée du Soleil or Rising of the Sun instituted by King Louis XIV (1643 – 1715) whose custom it was to receive his male subjects in the Royal bedchamber just after arising, a practice which subsequently spread throughout Europe.
The Levée crossed the English Channel in the 18th Century, and in Great Britain and Ireland became a formal Court assembly (reception) given by the Sovereign or his/her representative in the forenoon or early afternoon, at which only men were received.
In the New World colonies, the Levée was held by the Governor acting on behalf of the Monarch. Because settlers were widely scattered, and separated from the seat of Government, the annual Levée was a very important event, and attendance by village leaders and public dignitaries was compulsory.
It was in Canada that the Levée became associated with New Year’s Day. The holding of a Levée by the Governor General and Lieutenant Governors on New Year’s Day is not a continuation of the precedent set by the Sovereign they represent, but rather perpetuates an ancient custom of this country, dating from the days of the fur trade. The people of the trade traditionally paid their respects to their representative of government – the Master of the Fort – on New Year’s Day.
The first recorded Levée in Canada was held on January 1st, 1646 in the Château St. Louis by Charles Huault de Montmagny, Governor of New France (later Québec) from 1636 to 1648. In addition to shaking hands and wishing a Happy New Year to citizens presenting themselves at the Château, the Governor informed guests of significant events in the Mother Country, as well as the state of affairs within the colony. (This tradition is carried on today within The Commonwealth in the form of The Queen’s New Year’s Message. The State-of-the-Union address by the President of the United States, although not delivered on New Year’s Day, has similar origins.) In turn, the settlers were expected to pledge anew their allegiance to the Crown.
The Levée tradition was continued by British Colonial Governors in Canada, and subsequently by Governors General and Lieutenant Governors, and continues to the present day.
Although receptions hosted by the President of the United States of America are occasionally referred to as Levées, over the years, the Levée has become almost solely a Canadian observance.
Today, the word Levée describes 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 advent of another year and to provide an opportunity for the public to pay their respects.
The Levée has a long tradition in the Canadian Forces as one of the activities associated with New Year’s Day. In years past, Military Commanders garrisoned throughout the vast expanse of Canada held local Levées since, as Commissioned Officers, they were expected to act on behalf of the Crown on such occasions.
Today, as in bygone years, members of the various Canadian Forces units and Headquarters across Canada receive and greet visiting military and civilian guests in the convivial spirit of the first day of the New Year.
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 indicted 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 1st, 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 flagons of rum and some cakes. A full allowance of Buffalo meat was served out to them and a pint of spirits for each man”.
In military messes, hospitality is dispensed in a variety of forms, from the Moose Milk (with rum often substituted for whisky), and the special flaming punch of the Royal Canadian Hussars of Montreal – a concoction bequeathed to the regiment by the old 1st Motor Machine Gun Brigade, and requiring a month to prepare – to the famed Athole Brose, the brew of oatmeal, honey and whisky of the Seaforth Highlanders of Canada, Vancouver.
Historically, the Levée has been largely a male preserve having its origins, as previously mentioned, in the Royal bedchamber. This custom persisted, in part, because of societal practices of earlier days, and quite possibly the fact that it was an occasion enlivened by quantities of rum or other spirits, and thus was often a raucous celebration.
During the Second World War, Levées were attended by female officers of the Armed Forces, and since then the “men only” tradition has given way to Levées attended by both men and women.
From the rather boisterous celebrations of early times to the somewhat more sedate, if informal, event of today, the Levée has evolved into an occasion to call upon representatives of the Sovereign, military, and municipal governments, to exchange New Year’s greetings and best wishes for the coming year, and to renew old acquaintances and meet new friends in a convivial atmosphere. It is also an opportunity to reflect on the events of the past year and to welcome in the challenges and opportunities of the New Year.
Manitoba’s fist Lieutenant Governor, The Honourable Adams Archibald, held a reception at Upper Fort Garry on September 6, 1870, just days after arriving in the province, so he could meet the general populace. It marked the first of many social events presided over by Manitoba’s Lieutenant Governors.
Lieutenant Governor Archibald hosted his first New Year’s Levée on January 2, 1871 at Upper Fort Garry, where he established residence. Construction of Government House at 10 Kennedy Street was completed in the fall of 1883 and the first New Year’s Levée was held there in 1884, hosted by Manitoba’s fourth Lieutenant Governor, The Honourable James Aikins.
The 1884 Levée began at four o’clock in the afternoon and lasted for more than two hours. Premier John Norquay and Cabinet Ministers C.P. Brown and A.A.C. LaRivière assisted the Lieutenant Governor and Mrs. Aikins. In addition to the general public, a number of distinguished guests attended. American Consul James Wickes Taylor and Archbishop Robert Machray were among those who presented their calling cards before joining the reception. The main table in the dining room was generously laid out with garnished platters of turkey, prairie chicken, partridge, duck, venison and other dishes for the enjoyment of the guests.
Over the years, the Lieutenant Governor’s New Year’s Levée drew an ever-increasing number of citizens until eventually the crowd could no longer be accommodated in Government House. Starting in 1971, the public Levée on New Year’s Day was switched from Government House to the more commodious corridors of the Legislative Building where Their Honours greet their guests.
The main Levée continues to be held on January 1st in Winnipeg, the provincial capital, but the Lieutenant Governor also hosts Levées in rural communities throughout the year.
In May of 2008, the Honourable John Harvard, Lieutenant Governor decided to move the public Levée to the weekend following the Victoria Day Long Weekend when the weather was more agreeable for hosting an outdoor event. Approximately 800 guests attended the outdoor event held on the grounds of Government House. Tours of the 125 year old House were offered as well as refreshments and entertainment.
On January 1, 2010 the Honourable Philip Lee returned to hosting the traditional public New Year’s Levée at the Manitoba Legislative Building.