Culture and Tradition

Stories

In traditional Acadian society, storytelling is an important part of social diversion. Acadians seem to possess a knack for telling all kinds of magnificent and imaginary stories and many storytellers are adept at keeping their audience on the edge of their seats for hours on end. Every wood camp and every village get-together has its story teller.

In addition to master story tellers who often perform in public, every family has its own tradition where stories are passed on to children by their parents and grand-parents. These persons then acquire the art of narration by observing those who master the art in public settings. Master storytellers develop their own style and may end up performing in public settings, while others will prefer to share their stories with loved ones without necessarily resorting to special effects such as dramatic or comedic style.

Today, the folklore archives of the Université de Moncton’s Centre d’études acadiennes in New Brunswick contain approximately 1,000 Acadian stories. Other major depositories are the folklore archives at Université Laval in Québec, the Canadian Centre for studies on traditional culture at the Canadian Museum of Civilizations in Ottawa, Ontario and the French Newfoundlanders Study Centre at Memorial University of Newfoundland. In spite of the important tradition of storytelling in Acadie, only four compilations have been published to date.

The transmission of stories has been greatly affected by the development of electronic means of entertainment such as television. In Acadie, as elsewhere in the western world, stories are no longer part of a living tradition. Yet, while in some areas storytellers have all but disappeared, there are still many in Acadie. One of the main reasons for the survival of the art of storytelling is probably because of the importance of the forestry industry in Atlantic Canada.

Why wolves have a short tail

One day, a fox and a wolf were together. The fox had invited the wolf for supper to eat some good trout. The wolf said:

  • Can you tell me where you get your trout? You always have good trout and I can never find any.
  • I catch it, I catch it.
  • How do you catch it?
  • I catch it through a hole in the ice. I catch it with my tail.
  • Can you show me how?
  • Come tomorrow. I will show you.

The next morning, it was frightfully cold. The wolf and the fox go to the river and the fox helps the wolf break a hole in the ice. Once the hole is big enough, the fox tells the wolf: Put your tail in the hole, and when you feel it pulling – it could take some time – give a sharp pull and you will have plenty of trout. The wolf sits with his tail in the ice and waits and waits. The fox keeps circling around, then asks:

  • What, you have no trout yet?
  • No, it isn’t pulling.
  • Wait another hour.

He waits, waits, waits. The wolf says to the fox:

  • I think I must have quite a few. I feel it pulling.
  • There. Pull hard and you will have a good one.

There, he gives a sharp pull and his tail breaks. Since that time, wolves have a short tail.

Traditional dance in Acadie

Dance is a means of expressing the multiple feelings of human experience. Often, it is also a spontaneous reaction in certain situations. Dance is a way to respond to a certain cultural need to express oneself physically, musically and poetically.

The inspiration for traditional Acadian dances is mainly found in dances of French, British and American origin and these dances are practiced in most joyous celebrations. Swing, round dances, quadrilles, cotillions and square dances are all dances that are typically found in the Acadian traditional dance repertoire. Swings and round dances are dances that are performed by turning in a circle and the round dance is accompanied by a song. The quadrille and the cotillion, ancestors of the square dance, all form part of a family of dances called quadrille. There is also the jig, which comprises a set of fast, vigorous dance steps consisting of scraping and tapping of the heel, and the soles of the feet.

In former times, dance was often banned by ecclesiastical authorities who stated that the act of dancing caused many disorders such as abusive drinking and arguments, sometimes leading to violence. The Roman Catholic Church identified three types of dances: honest, dangerous and bad. The dance itself was not the problem, but rather the context in which it was practiced (circumstances, time, location, people, costumes, styles). In the mid-1900’s, the Catholic Church changed its thoughts on morality issues. Thus, the traditional Acadian dance became acceptable and, to this day, can be admired

The costume

Acadians originally wore the costume of their province of origin in France and they remained faithful to their ancient costume during the 19th century and, in some regions, until the beginning of the 20th century. Acadian women often made the clothing and also the material which served as the basic for the textiles. Woollen materials were prickly and linens were strong and durable, though rough. These materials had the advantage of having insulating qualities, both for heat and cold. When the clothes became too worn, they were recycled, either by tearing them into strips that were woven into blankets or carded with new wool to be made into blankets.

The female costume included a skirt, a short cape or mantelet, a neck kerchief and a bonnet usually covered by a black veil. The mantelet was a type of blouse or dress top made of material or, more often, covered in Indian cotton. With home-spun material made with natural hand-dyed wool, women made the « fly-pants » worn by the men. The fly was a panel on the front of the pants held together by buttons. The women also made short vests as well as full shirts made of home-spun linen. Most farmers owned a cobbler’s bench on which they made moccasins, called « hide shoes », which, like clogs, were worn by both men and women. During the 19th century, cobbler’s shops opened in larger villages and people began buying more refined footwear.

Food

By practicing agriculture, farming, hunting and, in coastal communities, fishing, Acadians generally had a balanced diet. However, where farmlands were of poor quality in certain areas, they sometimes had to depend on salt herring and potatoes for their survival.

Food conservation was assured thanks to the abundant use of salt. When animals were put down in the fall, families ate a few meals of fresh pork before the rest of the meat was salted to last the winter months. Fish was also kept that way as were some vegetables such as cabbage. Most vegetables were served boiled except the potato, a main staple in Acadie, that could be boiled, fried, grilled or grated such as in the making of poutines râpées and rappie pie (râpure).

By practicing agriculture, farming, hunting and, in coastal communities, fishing, Acadians generally had a balanced diet. However, where farmlands were of poor quality in certain areas, they sometimes had to depend on salt herring and potatoes for their survival.

Food conservation was assured thanks to the abundant use of salt. When animals were put down in the fall, families ate a few meals of fresh pork before the rest of the meat was salted to last the winter months. Fish was also kept that way as were some vegetables such as cabbage. Most vegetables were served boiled except the potato, a main staple in Acadie, that could be boiled, fried, grilled or grated such as in the making of poutines râpées and rappie pie (râpure).

Traditional cooking

Acadians inherited a diversified cooking tradition because their ancestors had easy access to products from the farm, the sea and the forest (wildlife and berries). The quantity of meat and fish consumed by a family depended on whether they owned a farm or made their living from the sea. In many cases, families carried out both occupations.

Until the mid 1900’s, pork was the most readily available meat in the region because most families raised at least one pig. Pig roasts and stews often found their way to the table. Pigs were killed in December and most of the meat ended up in a salt bin. Then, blood pudding and head cheese were made. While blood pudding is no longer made, some people continue to make head cheese and pig sauce (blood pudding sauce) from the blood, the head and the internal organs of the animal which they get from the butcher shop.

Fish and seafood are an important part of the Acadian dining table. They come in a wide variety: herring, cod, smelt, tommy-cod, trout, eel, lobster, bar and bay clams, and oysters. More recently, Acadians also eat flatfish, crab and mussels. Fish is generally boiled or fried. Crustaceans are cooked in boiling water while molluscs are generally cooked with steam. They are eaten as is or used in fricots (a type of chunky soup) and sauces.

The potato is a basic ingredient in traditional Acadian cuisine. Used in many recipes, it is also used as a vegetable for main meals. It is often forgotten that Acadians did not grow potatoes before the Deportation. They adopted it during the first few years under the British regime, also adopting several recipes from British or American settlers who lived near them.

Among these recipes are dishes made from grated potatoes such as rapie pie, poutines and potato pancakes. It is believed that Acadians would have obtained these recipes from Loyalists of German descent who settled in Acadie during the American Revolution. Versions of these dishes that are unknown in France and in Great Britain appear in traditional German and

Sunday mass

Among the official religious practices for Acadians, Sunday mass remains a privileged moment for the community, even today. Above all a religious obligation, this gathering also allows parishioners to hear, from the pulpit, recent news from the community as well as from elsewhere.

Following the Deportation and for a half century thereafter, despite an almost total absence of missionaries, Acadians continued to gather for Sunday mass whenever possible. Because there was no pastor, a man (usually the one with the highest level of education) was chosen to celebrate what was then called a « white mass ».

After 1800 and the establishment of the first parish structures, Sunday mass became increasingly regular; however, it was still impossible for smaller outlying settlements to receive the visit of a priest. Many inhabitants and their families did not hesitate to travel great distances, by foot, by horse, or often by boat since the majority of the population lived along the shore.

The liturgical cycle

The ritual provided for 42 obligatory or work-free holidays per year. The liturgical calendar corresponded more or less to the agricultural calendar in that there were more holidays in winter than in summer during fishing and farming season. The liturgical year began with Advent on December 8, feast of the Immaculate Conception, formerly Our Lady of the Advents, which coincided more or less with the first snowfall. Advent was a time for prayers and penance in preparation for Christmas. Nevertheless, quiet evening get-togethers and card parties were held between friends and neighbours.

Christmas is synonymous with the fir tree, Santa Claus, greeting cards and gifts. It is also a time for the traditional meal called réveillon, which follows midnight mass. Many of these practices appeared at the beginning of the 18th century, mainly due to American influence. The midnight mass held a major symbolic value and parents as well as the eldest children went to church on foot or in winter carts

Years ago, gift exchanges were held on New Year’s Day, accompanied in certain regions by the blessing of the family by the father. In many Acadian regions, numerous gatherings of family and friends continued until the feast of the Kings on January 6. People played cards, sang and danced, usually while having a drink. Sometimes the storytellers and the elderly spoke of the Deportation, the difficulties encountered while settling the area, great sea disasters or chose lighter topics such as hunting moose.

Shrove Tuesday or Mardi gras was the last opportunity to feast and to eat before lent, a 40-day period of fasting and mortification. It was also, in some areas, a feast similar to that of Candlemas, when participants asked for food which was then used to celebrate in a designated home. Palm Sunday inaugurated holy week and was characterized by the blessing of the palms, represented by cedar or fir branches. This feast was important for the faithful because these blessed objects would then be displayed in their homes to protect their property and themselves, as well as the fishing boats. Since Easter was the end of the period of fasting, it was then allowed to eat meat again, as well as sugar and maple taffy. On Easter morning people ate all the boiled eggs they wanted. Card parties and dances also resumed at that time.

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