Montréal is a city of snow—and festivals! These two defining aspects of Québec’s biggest metropolis will once again be reunited this winter, a season that has become increasingly lively in our city. In fact, for years Montréalers have been working to bring warmth to the city’s core and make Old Man Winter less of a grouch.
Just how far back do these efforts go? More than a 100 years! That’s how long Montréal residents have been battling the cold and snow by putting on festivals—and inviting the whole continent to come and celebrate!
And so, to highlight this year’s Les Hivernales and the city’s 375th Anniversary celebrations—when folks young and old will be enjoying the ice and snow in the great urban outdoors—here’s a look back on the origins of our joie de vivre at -40°C. Take a break from chopping wood or lacing up your skates, grab a mug of hot chocolate, and read on!
In the beginning…
In 1882, the Montréal Snowshoe Club (founded in 1840 by the city’s English-speaking elite) decided to organize a winter carnival in Montréal. The idea was to attract affluent American tourists to the city with this winter sport. The Anglo community supported the project, seeing its lucrative potential right away. The Windsor Hotel, railway companies and several businesses, including the Henry Birks jewelry shop, were quick to get on board and the first edition was held in 1883. Not to be outdone, the French-speaking elite organized their own activities two years later, in the eastern part of the city.
Major North American cities, from New York to San Francisco, were invited. Thanks to effective ad campaigns—and quick train connections between the cities—it became one of the first carnivals to gain popularity on a continental scope.
The more things change…
If you go to Les Hivernales today, you’ll be able to participate in many of the activities offered more than a century ago, including sliding at Place Jacques-Cartier, snowshoeing, skating, curling and hockey, which in 1877 was a brand-new sport whose rules had just been published in the Montréal Gazette. But the real attraction during the 1885 edition of the winter carnival was the huge ice castle erected in Dominion Square (now called Dorchester Square). Designed by famous architects, the castle was half the size of a football field and boasted a 30-metre tower. Made up of about 12,000 blocks of ice, it even featured electric lights!
Although these impressive structures are no longer built today, they certainly left their mark on the city, as many homes built in Montréal at that time were designed to resemble those castles. One of the best examples of this unique ice-castle architectural style can be seen north of Saint-Louis Square.
Due to financial problems, and with new winter carnivals being organized in other American cities, the Montréal events came to their natural end after 1889. But, over the years, Montréal has re-established itself as one of the biggest winter capitals of the world. And this year will be no exception!