(extracted verbatim from the July 3, 1903 edition of The Montreal Star)
“The evening parties of Montreal seventy years ago were different in every way from the entertainments of to-day. They commenced at an earlier hour, and included the fathers and mothers and older members of a family, as well as the young, and all entered with spirit and zest into the amusements of the evening. The old ladies and gentlemen danced as much as the young people, and their presence and dancing were regarded with pleasure by the latter – a feeling of independence and equality existed, and the manners were natural, unaffected and dignified, and characteristic of well-bred people.
“Many of dances were slow and stately, even the waltz was in slow time, but cotillions and Sir Roger de Coverley were also danced – particularly after supper. At these reunions there were always card tables for those who preferred this form of amusement, and whist was the game played. After supper the guests prepared for departure, and if it were winter the ladies put on their large padded hoods and cloaks, and the gentlemen their heavy coats and fur caps, and those who did not drive proceeded home with lanterns lighted.
“I must here refer to an old custom, of French origin. I believe, called a charivari, which was practiced more particularly by the French-Canadian people. It was the levying of a tax or subscription for the poor on every widower who married a second time. A number of acquaintances, masked, and dressed in fantastic costume, with musical instruments, proceeded to the residence of the newly married couple, and after a serenade, a demand for the tax was made. The groom generally came forth and paid up, and the charivari was at an end, but if you were obstinate and refused payment the noise was kept up nightly until the demand was satisfied.
“In the earlier days these nightly serenades were carried on in a spirit of fun, and the bridegroom looked at it in that light, and, after paying the tax, he very often asked the crowd in and treated them. But as the town became larger the crowd who formed the procession was composed of a mob, and the unfortunate bridegroom, who was unable or unwilling to meet their demands, was subjected to nightly persecution.
“At the last charivari the crowd became so insulting that the bridegroom became exasperated and fired into it and killed one man and thus ended the custom here.
NEW YEAR’S CALLS
“There was another and very pleasant custom, particularly appreciated by the French-Canadians, and which was adopted by every one, that of exchanging visits on New Year’s Day. It was de rigeur to call on every one with whom you were even slightly acquainted. Visiting commenced at ten in the morning and continued till late in the evening, for three days at least – persons often had two hundred visits to make. It was rather trying on the ladies who were on duty during those days from morning until night. The custom had a good effect, however, and maintained a kindly feeling among all classes
THE CHOLERA DAYS
“In 1832 Montreal was visited by the cholera, a scourge so sudden and fatal in its effects that is resembled the plague of London. The number of deaths daily was very large, and to prevent contagion the bodies had to be buried immediately after death. A man was attacked by the disease in the morning, and within a few hours succumbed, and almost immediately the yellow cart for the collection of the dead called for the corpse, and the body, generally coffined or boxed up, was, with many others, put into the cart, and all were deposited in a very large excavation prepared for the purpose.
“There was no laying out of the dead, no prayers, no ceremony. A man would meet a neighbour in the morning and learn in a few hours that he was dead and buried. Such was the haste for burial that some, it was averred, were buried before life was extinct. The inhabitants of the town were utterly terrorized. Every man feared his neighbour, and even the feelings of humanity seemed, in many cases, stifled, and business of every description was suspended.
“It would hardly be possible at this remote date to give the names of some of the dead, and even if it were, it would serve no good purpose, as it would be painful to surviving relatives to recall the fact that members of their family were victims of this loathsome disease with it attendant horrors. At length the cold weather came, and the disease disappeared, and while those remaining congratulated each other on their escape few among them had not lost a relative or friend. It was a long time before Montreal recovered from this great shock and business was resumed, but the grief of those who lost members of their family was lasting, and intensified by the painful circumstances of their death and burial.
“At this period the best of feeling existed between the French-Canadian and British-Canadian population. As an instance of loyalty, the gentlemen of the Seminary and other French-Canadians were subscribers to the monument to Lord Nelson, which is surrounded by French guns taken from the enemy, and I have been informed on good authority that a Te Deum was sung in the Notre Dame Church after the Battle of Waterloo. So Christian-like was the feeling existing that afterwards, when the Episcopal Church was burned down the Catholic hierarchy offered the Recollet Church for the Episcopal service, and we had for a time the extraordinary and usual sight of a Catholic Church used in the morning for mass and in the afternoon for the Church of England service.
“In 1837 many French-Canadians, disapproving of the manner in which they were governed, determined to obtain what they considered their rights.
“These days were very anxious ones for the British-Canadian population – the men being obliged to leave their families and march long distances and suffer privations in order to meet the rebels, who had formed in large bodies in different localities. I have no desire to enter upon, or discuss, the subject so often commented upon; suffice it to say the rebellion was entirely quelled – and the rebels scattered. A few of the most prominent men were condemned to death, and others were exiled. Among the latter was the distinguished political leader, Sir George E. Cartier, who, during his exile, composed that well known song, Mon pays, mes amours.”
Below, Montreal as pictured in 1832 –