New Year’s, Canadian-style

On the first day of the year, Canadians right across the country participate in a tradition sure to put goosebumps on your goosebumps. They gird their loins — grasping their bathing suits for dear life — and go for a swim. It is called, appropriately, the Polar Bear Dip.

This is no Caribbean sunsplash, mind. The average temperature at Vancouver, BC‘s English Bay, where upwards of 2,000 indulge in this heart-stopping ritual, is just above freezing. Some wear costumes at the event, begun in 1920, and they even have a 100-yd swim race, as if two seconds of immersion is not sufficient.

Oakville, just west of Toronto, ON, draws hundreds of the soggy lunatics as they dive into Lake Ontario waters that give you the shivers even in July. They turn it into a whole party down at Port Dover on Lake Erie — with a New Year’s Day Levée & Old-Time Fiddle Party offering up jigs and reels and free hot chocolate.

Which brings us to another Canadian institution, a much more civilized and sensible undertaking: the New Years Levée. It wasn’t invented here — it began in France when King Louis XIV invited his male subjects into his bedroom shortly after rising — and it wasn’t held on New Year’s. Levée, from “lever” means, loosely, “to raise” in French. It spread to England and other parts of Europe; when it came to Canada, it became a New Year’s Day tradition, when fur traders pledged allegiance to their respective government representatives. The first one here was held in 1646.

Mayors right up to Canada’s titular head of state, the Governor General, hold levées today — an almost unique Canadian tradition. Prince Edward Island‘s tradition looks to be the most fun: legions and bars open all day and serve up “moose milk,” a concoction roughly resembling eggnog spiked with rum.

The east coast is also home to both one of the country’s strangest holiday traditions, as well as one of its most interesting drinking rituals. (Though to be fair, places like good ol’ Toronto have bowed down to sensibility by offering a First Night celebration with live entertainment and no booze so the whole family can partake.) Live in an outport village in Newfoundland and Labrador, and you better expect some strange visitors during this festival season, a tradition that began in the Medieval era in Europe and still lives on “around the bay.” Men dress up as women and vice versa, they all wear masks, they prowl the lanes and invade people’s houses, acting downright rowdy and demanding refreshments. All in good fun.

Said refreshments will likely include screech, a rum popular in Newfoundland, so-called because an American landing there screeched upon first tasting the brew. There’s even a strange ritual that accompanies the imbibing in question. The “screech-in” ceremony involves kissing a cod and downing the liquid shortly thereafter. Though of questionable heritage, it’s a fun and quintessentially Canadian tradition — whether you do it on New Year’s or not.

But it can’t hold a candle — or a toe — to our craziest drinking tradition. Way up north, the Downtown Hotel in Dawson City, YT, gives out honorary memberships in an exclusive club for sipping cocktails. Only catch: it has to be a “Sourtoe Cocktail” and your lips have to touch a nearly mummified toe floating in the glass while doing so. Given that it was originally supposed to be downed with champagne, one might think it the perfect New Year’s drink — no doubt this night is the best excuse for downing the mass quantities of other potent potables many people seem to need before attempting this feat. Watch the video

Whoever said Canadians were boring? Wanna put that lie to bed? Start your New Year’s with a frigid swim, have a drink with a toe in it, cross-dress. For no matter how you say it, the sentiment’s the same. “Happy New Year.” “Bonne Année.” “Kiss the cod.” “Watch out for that toe.” “Come on in, the water’s fine.”

Best of the season! Canadian-style.

Photo ©Tyler Ingram