Having had the most uneventful New Year’s Eve on the planet, in bed by 10 p.m., I sprung out of bed on the first day of the New Year at about 6:30 a.m., a typical time for me. Well, you know what they say about consistency and routine and sleep! I’m on it.
I wanted to partake in something I’d heard about the year before which was the New Year’s Day Levee hosted at Government House with the Lieutenant Governor, Janet Austin, in attendance.
The word levee (from French, noun use of infinitive lever, “rising”, from Latin lev?re, “to raise”) originated in the levée du soleil (rising of the sun) of King Louis XIV (1643–1715). … It was in Canada that the levee became associated with New Year’s Day.
I didn’t know what was going to happen at this levee but I was looking to get some exercise and the 45 minute walk from James Bay to Government House fit the bill. It was a beautiful morning and the streets and Beacon Hill Park weren’t completely empty but they were silent. Just the odd dog walker and photographer there the way early mornings are on a holiday.
The event started at 10 a.m. with advisement to go early. By the time I walked through the gates of Government House, I had it in my head that surely I would be one of the first to arrive. As the house came into view I saw a huge line of people, two by two and three by three, including one of my coworkers and his partner, standing in a snake of a bloody long line that wound around the front of the old regal place right on up onto the red carpeted entrance. I couldn’t believe it. I got in line behind two women who either said they’d come every single year or hadn’t ever been in spite of having lived in Victoria most of their adult lives. One of them was the President of the Victoria Bluegrass Society.
We eventually stepped over the threshold in a consistently moving line and were directed down the red carpeted stairs into the basement, past the Susan Point prints that flanked each side of the staircase, past the official necklace on display, past a billiards and games room, snaking back around on the other side of the hall. Then back upstairs and through the main entryway again, past the collection box to drop a donation into for The Cridge Centre for the Family and eventually past an attractive police officer who appeared to be high ranking, for all I know he may have been the Chief of Police for Victoria.
Next there was another man dripping with medals who asked my name and proceeded to repeat my name to the Lieutenant Governor by way of formal introduction who proceeded to wish me a happy new year as I did to her as she shook my hand.
When I woke up that morning, having no idea what I was about to partake in, focused mainly on getting some exercise, I threw on my sweat pants, was still wearing the T-shirt I’d slept in the night before under my Gore-Tex jacket and laced up my MEC lace-up boots.
I wasn’t anticipating being up close and personal with a government dignitary, The Honourable Janet Austin, before 10:30 am on New Year’s Day. That poor woman! She had to shake more than, and I’m guessing here, 500 hands first thing on Near Year’s Day and one can only imagine the names that came at her, forcing her to attempt them or just let them slide by, the number of syllables so many, no point in even trying, a smile and a greeting having to suffice.
After that, we entered a gracious wooden room, grand staircases sweeping up to the landings on either side that ran the full length. I could hear a military band playing but couldn’t see where the music was coming from. I looked up and more uniforms with instruments were crammed into the very front of the second floor, like the prow on a ship, the light from the big windows gleaming off their shiny bits. I felt like I was on the Titanic.
There was a grandiose feeling of anticipation. More and more people were streaming in. The sound of bagpipes were wafting in from some distant part of the building. There were tables lined with cups (Styrofoam I might add. Change that for next year if you please!). The right side of the table was set out with alcoholic punch and the left, non-alcoholic, the Styrofoam cups filled and ready for the taking.
Further on there was another busy table with little bags being set out like gifts, and staff replenishing the bags as people took them. Inside the bag was a small bite-sized quiche tart, a shortbread, a chocolate chip cookie and a tiny croissant. Tasty! Thank you very much.
I wandered around taking in the scene, feeling like a true Settler, like I’d stepped onto some movie set of some soiree of colonial re-enactment.
I made my way up to the second balcony on the opposite side of the room and soon enough, the pipe band was being introduced and marched towards the front of the room, the whirring of the pom poms on the drums, and later, my co-worker describing the antics of one of the drummers who was throwing his sticks in the air as confident and proud as the majorettes at the front of the marching bands in Pasadena at the Rose Bowl Parade.
An elderly woman beside me, in great shape, stood to attention as soon as the pipes and drums sounded and she began to mimic with her hands as if she were playing her own imaginary drums. I got close and spoke loudly to ask her, “Did you used to play?”
In a voice that could have been Robin Williams’ accent in the role of Mrs. Doubtfire, she said, “Oh, dear, I’m from Glasgow, the old country. As soon as I hear the pipes, the wee hairs on the back of my neck stand at attention. I once played the Calgary Stampede. That parade was 4 hours long, wandering through those streets. It was so hot. My name is Iona, like the island.”
The Lieutenant Governor was finally piped in and her little dog, a white westie (West Highland white terrier) whose name I couldn’t hear when she introduced it, led her proudly on his red leash. She said some humorous things about everyone being there for the dog. She introduced the elder. She gave a nice speech to greet the New Year and introduced an interesting new initiative focused on conversations about democracy at a time, she said, when we are seeing too often how fragile democracy can be, more fragile than expected, even in the places we never imagined it would seem threatened and to watch out for ways to participate or host such conversations.
Near the end of the event, the band in the balcony played a short version of a song. I wondered why it sounded so familiar. When I asked someone I knew who was there, he said, “It’s Auld Lang Syne, Gayle! Maybe you don’t recognize it because usually you’d hear it after you’ve had 7 or more drinks by then,” referring to the time of night it usually gets played on New Year’s Eve, not to my drinking patterns. I laughed a lot at that witty response.
I was intending to spend maybe 30 minutes at the levee that morning, but greeted by such a unique spectacle, such pomp and circumstance and feelings of community, I couldn’t pull myself away. Next year, I’ll be sure to dress for the occasion.
Happy New Year!