New Year’s Levee

JANUARY 1, 1859

“The Finest Room in the Colony”

The Basilica Museum Library. The “Finest Room in the Colony.”

There was a tradition in St. John’s that encouraged the leading citizens of the town to host a New Years Day Levee.  This levee was a reception that was held early in the afternoon of New Years Day, typically at the residence of the host.  Attending these levee’s was an annual ritual in the town.

The first recorded levée in Canada was held on January 1st, 1646 in the Château St. Louis by Charles Huault de Montmagny, Governor of New France (later Québec).  In addition to shaking hands and wishing a Happy New Year to citizens presenting themselves at the Château, the Governor informed guests of significant events in the Mother Country, as well as the state of affairs within the colony.  This tradition is carried on today within The Commonwealth in the form of The Queen’s New Year’s Message.

The Levée tradition was continued by British Colonial Governors in Canada, and subsequently by Governors General and Lieutenant Governors, and continues to the present day.

One of the leading citizens that was expected to host a levee was the Roman Catholic bishop. Typically citizens would call upon the bishop on New Years Day at the Episcopal Library (now the home of the Basilica Museum) to wish him a Happy New Year. Persons attending, dressed in their finest, would upon arrival stand in cue, sign a guest book and would then be introduced to the bishop.  The introduction would be followed by refreshments.

In 1859 Bishop John Thomas Mullock of St. John’s hosted his New Years Day Levee in the newly established Episcopal Library. Among the guests invited on this day was Lt-Col. R. B. McCrea, a Battery Commander and later Garrison Commander at Fort Townsend (now the site of The Rooms.)

McCrea was most impressed by the levee and the newly established library.   Ten years later in 1869 McCrea wrote a book about his experiences in Newfoundlandentitled “Lost Amid The Fogs: Sketches of Life in Newfoundland, England’s Ancient Colony.”  He wrote about the New Years Day levee

“Then to His Lordship (Bishop John Thomas  Mullock) we paid our respects and congratulations as was right and proper. A hearty reciprocation and a glass of champagne were his return for the compliments, to say nothing of taking us around his noble library, the finest room in the Colony.

McCrea was impressed by the library but he was not so impressed by the living quarters of the bishop and priests. He wrote:

This reception room was handsome, adorned with statuary from Italy, but for himself and the priests that lived with him, the little room below with its deal chairs and common delf would have been probably scorned by a layman. So strange is the contrast which presents in the attributes of his daily life and the profession he upholds.”

On Thursday, 01 January 2015 from 3:00 to 4:30 p.m., His Honour the Honourable Frank F. Fagan, Lieutenant Governor of Newfoundland and Labrador and Her Honour Patricia Fagan will welcome members of the public to the traditional New Year’s Levee at Government House.

Recommended Reading: “Lost Amid The Fogs: Sketches of Life in Newfoundland, England’s Ancient Colony.” 

Recommended Website: The History of the Basilica: