The word levée (from French, originally fem. pp. of lever "to raise") originated in the Levée du Soleil (Rising of the Sun) of King Louis XIV (1643–1715). It was his custom to receive his male subjects in his bedchamber just after arising, a practice that subsequently spread throughout Europe.
In the 18th century the levée in Great Britain and Ireland became a formal court reception given by the sovereign or his/her representative in the forenoon or early afternoon. In the New World colonies the levée was held by the governor acting on behalf of the monarch. Only men were received at these events.
It was in Canada that the levée became associated with New Year's Day. The fur traders had the tradition of paying their respects to the master of the fort (their government representative) on New Year's Day. This custom was adopted by the governor general and lieutenant governors for their levées.
The first recorded levée in Canada was held on January 1, 1646, in the Chateau St. Louis by Charles Huault de Montmagny, Governor of New France from 1636 to 1648. In addition to wishing a happy new year to the citizens the governor informed guests of significant events in France as well as the state of affairs within the colony. In turn, the settlers were expected to renew their pledges of allegiance to the Crown.
The levée tradition was continued by British colonial governors in Canada and subsequently by both the governor general and lieutenant governors. It continues to the present day.
As mentioned, the levée was historically a male preserve but during World War II levées were attended by female officers of the armed forces. Since then levées have been open to both women and men.
Over the years the levée has become almost solely a Canadian observance.
Today, levées are the receptions (usually, but not necessarily, on New Year's Day) held by the governor general, the lieutenant governors of the provinces, the military and others, to mark the start of another year and to provide an opportunity for the public to pay their respects.
Most levées may be attended by any citizen, including children. Attending the lieutenant governor's levée is an annual ritual for some families.
Today the levée has evolved from the earlier, more boisterous party into a more sedate and informal one. It is an occasion to call upon representatives of the monarch, military and municipal governments and to exchange New Year's greetings and best wishes for the new year, to renew old acquaintances and to meet new friends. It is also an opportunity to reflect upon the events of the past year and to welcome the opportunities of the New Year.