Saturday, December 10, 2016

La chasse-galerie – a tale of Christmas


lachassegalerie2Back in the late 19th century, many French-Canadian men spent long winters in remote logging camps to support their families back in the cities and towns. In those days before modern travels, coming back every week or even month for a visit was out of the question. So the men would spend the whole season, including the holidays, far from their loved ones.

One Christmas (or New Year’s) Eve, a group of such men in a lonely camp were feeling homesick and wanted to spend the réveillon with their wives and girlfriends. So they made a deal with the devil: the Prince of Darkness would make their canoe fly over the forests and hills so they could go back to their homes for the night. Old Scratch gave three conditions to respect: they could not swear, they could not touch a church steeple with their canoe while in flight, and they had to be back at camp before 6 o’clock in the morning. If they broke any one of those rules, their souls would be damned to hell forever. Despite the risk, the homesick men agreed and off they flew!

The reunion with their beloveds are joyous indeed and they spend the night drinking and dancing. When they realize the late hour, they hurry back to the canoe to get back to camp before the devilish deadline. Of course, in their inebriated states they are much more prone to swearing or accidentally ramming the craft into a church. And one of them invariably begins to get agitated and comes close to swearing, so his panicked companions gag and tie him up, but he eventually breaks free and swears. The canoe crashes into a tall tree and the passengers are knocked out when they hit the ground.

In the most famous version, by Honoré-Beaugrand, the men wake up the next morning and never speak of the adventure again. However, in other versions they are doomed to fly forever across the sky, their souls never getting to their eternal rest. And they say if you look out on Christmas or New Year’s Eve, you can sometimes get a glimpse of the bewitched canoe.

While a deal with the devil might be an odd choice of theme for a Christmas story, it’s really indicative of the loneliness that develops when hardworking and honest men are forced to spend the holidays on their own, far from their kin.

While the most famous element of the chasse-galerie, the flying canoe, came about in 19th century Québec, it’s actually a newer version of an even older story from France. It is told that a nobleman named the Sieur de Galerie was such an avid hunter that he even skipped church in order to enjoy his favourite sport. The Lord did not take kindly to this and condemned his soul to forever run across the sky pursued by celestial hunters and wolves.


©2016 Linda Sullivan-Simpson
The Past Whispers
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