Today, being the first day of a new year, is, of course, the time for making resolutions and planning for the year ahead. I intend to do this as well, but will be starting properly with my new year tomorrow, after I’ve returned to Halifax from my holidays on Prince Edward Island with my family. I don’t intend to write much today — the roast goose is nearly ready — but I thought I’d describe an Island custom my family have come to appreciate. This is the institution of what are called levees.
This is obviously a French word, and as far as we can tell, it’s an old — probably nineteenth-century, perhaps older — custom; my mother remembers her father going to them in the mid-twentieth century in Sault Ste Marie. We haven’t heard of people doing this elsewhere in the Maritimes, so it may be something that insularity has kept going long after the rest of the country has abandoned old traditions.
The levees are put on by a variety of public figures and institutions: the President of the University of Prince Edward Island hosts one, and the Lieutenant-Governor, and the PEI Regiment; the Mayor of Charlottetown and the Mayor of Cornwall (just outside); the Celtic association and all sorts of others. They last for about two hours each, starting around ten in the morning and continuing through the day: the times are posted in the paper (the Charlottetown Guardian, which ‘covers the Island like the dew’). People make the rounds, going from levee to levee, even arranging busses occasionally so that one can partake of drinks should they be offered.
At a levee, one dresses up, begins with a receiving line to shake the hands of the hosting dignitary — the president of the university, the premier, the lieutenant-governor, the lieutenant colonel — then moves into the room for sandwiches and cookies and coffee, or mimosas or clam chowder or punch. One visits with everyone one knows, wishes all and sundry a happy new year, is glad one isn’t the guards standing at formal attention with their pikes outside the Armouries, then piles into the car — or the bus — and goes to the next one.
For New Year’s Eve we went over to another family’s house for dinner and then formed two groups of euchre. If we’d been playing another card game by candlelight we could have been in a Jane Austen novel . . .