The Levees, God Bless ‘Em! – Sunday column, January 9, 2011
The queue began on Barrington Street, snaked down the driveway past four busby-topped Scots Guards and vanished into Government House. The crowd was cheerful and colourful – military officers encrusted with gold braid and medals, young couples towing velvet-clad little girls and toting swaddled babies, elegant toffs in striped pants and swallow-tailed jackets, stout Scots with swirling kilts, matrons in mink, and Knights of Columbus sporting satin robes of crimson, gold, emerald and azure. Their plumed hats bore the legend “K of C.” No, said one Knight, “it doesn’t stand for Kentucky Fried Chicken.”
The woman from Ontario wore sneakers, jeans and a ski jacket. “I didn’t know you were supposed to dress up,” she said. “My family’s from here, but I don’t know anything about the Maritimes.”
Elsewhere, New Year’s Day is for sleeping late, nursing hangovers and shuddering at the onset of January. In Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island, particularly in Halifax, New Year’s Day is made festive by the levees – formal morning receptions hosted by government, the armed forces, the churches, service clubs and civil society. You can pay your respects to everyone from Her Honour The Lieutenant-Governor of Nova Scotia and the Archbishop of Nova Scotia to the various military messes, the Royal Canadian Legion in St. Margarets Bay, the Sackville Firefighters and the Royal Order of Buffaloes in Eastern Passage.
Marjorie and I had family from Vancouver this New Year’s – and what better way to share this grand old province than by touring the levees, visiting great buildings and wishing a Happy New Year to our distinguished hosts and genial fellow guests?
At 9:30 AM we made our way to City Hall, shaking hands with a long line of councillors and ending up with Mayor Peter Kelly, resplendent in his chain of office. A quick drink, a spring roll, a chat with friends, and we were off to the stately Wardroom at CFB Stadacona for a slice of cake and a mug of moosemilk.
The origins of moosemilk go back to the levees held in New France in the mid-1600s, where guests at the Governor’s levee were treated to a kind of super-charged mulled wine known as “le sang du caribou,” caribou blood. After the conquest of Quebec, the new British rulers retained the levees but replaced the wine with whisky, and added nutmeg, cinnamon and goat’s milk. Today’s moosemilk is a wickedly smooth ambrosia with ingredients that typically include soft ice cream, milk, eggs, rum and Tia Maria.
The levees themselves originated in the court of Louis XIV, the Sun King, who developed the habit of receiving his male courtiers in his bedchamber soon after rising, a rite that became known as the “levée du Soleil,” the Rising of the Sun. The French royal government brought the custom to Canada, the British adopted it, the French Republic abandoned it, and it is today almost uniquely a Canadian custom. Levees are hosted by the Governor-General, by all the Lieutenant-Governors, and by scattered messes and municipalities. But only in the Maritimes have the levees become a huge distributed party, the oldest-established permanent floating meet-up of the year.
We moseyed on from Stadacona to Government House – the first time I’d visited that elegant building since its extended renovation. After greeting Her Honour Mayann Francis and enjoying a hot cider, we moved up the harbour to the cramped wardroom of HMCS Sackville, Canada’s last World War II corvette, for a bowl of excellent chowder and another dipper of moosemilk. I heard it was excellent. I wouldn’t know: I was driving.
At noon we set off for the charming old clubhouse of the Royal Nova Scotia Yacht Squadron, where we were welcomed by commodore Mathew Murphy and plied with eggnog. And there we met Jim McBurney, the commodore of the Armdale Yacht Club, to which we belong. The AYC levee began at 2:00. Surely we were coming? Surely, I said. We’ll just go home and feed the dog first.
Once home, however, my crew mutinied. The levees had been delightful, but they were not disposed to make another sortie. And then everyone fell asleep.
Sorry, Jim. Next year we’ll start training earlier. In the meantime, Happy New Year!