SUGARING-OFF PARTY: Quebec Traditions
After a long Northern New York winter, I look forward to our "Sugaring-Off Party" at Traditional Arts in Upstate New York- TAUNY* in Canton, New York, about 40 miles from the border of Québec. Our annual event is a lively, multi-generational gathering filled with traditional Québécois fiddling, stories and dancing. Our party isn't complete without la tire d'erable sur la neige (maple taffy, aka "sugar on snow"), hot maple syrup poured over snow to create a soft, irresistible taffy. What began many years ago as an educational program about Québec traditions, has since become a tradition for many "North Country" families as they join us year after year for this celebration.
Our gathering begins with a reading of The Sugaring-Off Party by Jonathan London. The book illustrates the story of Henry's grandmère (grandmother) as she tells him about her family reunion at la cabane à sucre (sugar shack) where relative play fiddles, accordions and spoons for a dance following their delicious feast.
After story time, my fiddle students, The Madstop Fiddlers, "bring the story to life" with some step dancing lessons, spoon playing lessons, and fiddle playing that showcases the energetic foot percussion that often accompanies Québec fiddle music. Then, everyone finds a partner and we have a family dance until we get the nod that la tire is ready for us to eat!
Les Violoneux! The fiddlers!
My students and I share tunes like Reel de Gaspé and Reel Saint-Antoine as we demonstrate podorythmie -the technique of using our feet as percussion instruments on the floor to accompany the fiddle music. This foot percussion, commonly known as "the feet," adds a quintessential Québec sound to the tunes. We also invite the young audience to join us on the spoons, as well as "shuffling" their feet to a few steps my son teaches them from the Ottawa Valley step dancing tradition.
Tout Le mondE Dance! EverYone Dance!
The folding chairs and carpet squares are cleared away to make space for a family dance. As the "caller," I walk the new dancers through the figures for each dance and then we spend the rest of the afternoon enjoying circle dances, squares dances, contra dances and a final waltz. My fiddlers take turns playing tunes in the band, as well as taking part in the dancing, which offers invaluable experience for this next generation of dance musicians. As I see all the excitement in the room, I know the tradition is in good hands.
La Tire sur La neige! Sugar on snow!
La tire, Sugar on Snow (the name from my childhood), Wax on Snow (from my husband's childhood), Jack Wax, Jack Candy, Snow Candy... whatever you call it in your neck of the woods, it all "boils down" to being a delicious maple taffy. Our local maple producer Art Hurlbut heads the activity in the TAUNY kitchen, heating his syrup to the "soft ball stage" before it is poured on fresh snow (or shaved ice.) He always has a big smile on his face as he greets the children who come running when they hear that their treat is finally ready!
VIVRE La tradition! Long live The Tradition!
As the party comes to a close, I have a chance to mingle and visit with our guests. The youngest children tug on my shirt to say that la tire is as delicious as I promised. Parents thank me for the afternoon of great music and dancing and that their child now wants to learn to play the fiddle. Grandparents take me aside to tell me stories about the Sugaring-Off parties from their youth and that they haven't played the spoons in years!
Knowing that I am keeping a tradition alive and bringing my community together is extremely gratifying, not to mention, good fun. This is a common goal I share with the folks at Traditional Arts in Upstate New York (TAUNY) and we always look forward to planning the next musical event.
À la prochaine, (until next time)!
Champion fiddler Gretchen Koehler grew up in New England surrounded by the rich traditions of Old Time fiddling and was recently inducted into the New York State Fiddlers' Hall of Fame for her work as a tradition bearer.
*TAUNY (Traditional Arts in Upstate New York) is a small non-profit organization in Canton, NY dedicated to documenting and showcasing the folk culture and living traditions of New York's North Country.