Posted by: alexhickey | November 9, 2021

A Good St. Jacques Man

Maurice Burke was a special friend. Special for the passion we shared for St. Jacques, special for the respect and admiration he held for ordinary people who in his view did extraordinary things. We spent endless hours in conversation, mainly me asking questions, mining his rich repertoire of memories and experiences related to our hometown. In short, he inspired me to never let go of the threads a small town weaves into one’s life, to keep it’s history and heritage alive, especially for the minds of those who inherit that place.  Maurice didn’t run for elected office or seek publicity; nor did he shun a bit of attention either!  His generosity, hospitality and encouragement was felt by all who knew him.  A trip to St. John’s was not worthwhile without a visit to 35 Craigmillar Avenue.

      The last time I saw Maurice, he was near the end of his life.  He was in a seniors home, having, out of necessity, forfeited his independence.  My father and I sat with him for several hours near a window where the warm afternoon sun cast a glow all around us.  He had his usual questions about people he knew, events since we’d last met, stories of those he remembered and moments of silence when being there was much more important than conversation.  It wasn’t a final goodbye for I fully expected to be visiting him again but the course of events which unfolded after that visit were different from what I imagined.  The last time I was in his presence was at his beloved St. Patrick’s church in down town St. John’s where a large number of family and friends had gathered to collectively say goodbye in a manner he would have thoroughly appreciated.

      Recently, when I happened across an article he’d written back in 1959 for the Atlantic Advocate magazine, I was delighted.  My heart melted as I settled back and listened to the voice of his words.  There was Maurice, telling a story I had not known.  Once again I was sitting beside the window on the street, sipping hot tea and savouring his mother’s (Rita) delectable sweets.  I am sharing that story in it’s entirety as it appeared in the Atlantic Advocate.  After you’ve read it I will come back to the story it tells and share a bit more of this ordinary/extraordinary man.

The Bluenose and the Thebaud Sail Again – Newfoundland Model Builder to Recreate Famous Race

by Maurice J. Burke,

Atlantic Advocate vol. 49, no. 12 August 1959 pp. 107-111.

For the old sea-faring men

Came to me now and then

With their sagas of the seas.

                        – Longfellow

      Have you ever taken a good look at a Canadian ten-cent piece? If you have, you will have seen that it bears the imprint of a fully rigged banking schooner. Her name was the Bluenose and she sailed to racing fame and glory on the storm-tossed waters of the North Atlantic. Perhaps you may have wondered why the Canadian Government decided to mint a coin in her honour. Why? Because from the date of her launching at Lunenburg, Nova Scotia, on March 26, 1921, until she was lost off Haiti on January 6, 1946, she was the symbol of the sailing supremacy of the Canadian fishing fleet and she brought world renown to Canada in the five international fishermen’s races in which she competed, for in these races she was undefeated champion. She was a centre of attraction at the World’s Fair held at Chicago in 1933, at the Toronto Centennial in 1934 and in England on the occasion of the Silver Jubilee of King George V in 1935. She sailed her way into the hearts of all the people who live along the Atlantic seaboard and even today the mere mention of her name will cause old-timers to become misty-eyed as they speak in awe of her achievements, her trim lines and the way she sailed as no fishing vessel ever sailed before or since.

      Captained by that redoubtable fishing skipper, Angus J. Walters, the Bluenose won her first international race against the Elsie off Halifax in 1921, the same year in which she was launched. Thereafter she successfully defended her title in 1922 against the Henry Ford off Gloucester, in 1924 against the Columbia off Halifax and in 1931 and 1938 against the Gertrude L. Thebaud in perhaps her most famous races of all. The Thebaud was skippered by Captain Ben Pine, a Newfoundlander from Belleoram, Fortune Bay.

      The Bluenose and the Thebaud! Ah, what memories the names of these two famous schooners stir in the hearts of all bank fishermen! Memories of graceful, sleek ships in hard- fought races, and at stake the honour and prestige of nations! Today Ben Pine is dead and Angus J. Walters, long since retired from the sea, but still hale and hearty in his seventies, looks after his dairy business in Lunenburg. The motto of the Lunenburg Dairy is: “You can whip our cream but you can’t beat our milk.” When Angus Walters whipped his Bluenose through her paces she was the cream of the crop and you couldn’t beat him then either.

      This summer in St. John’s, Newfoundland, the stage is being set to recreate in miniature the races of these two famous schooners. In the basement of his home at 2 Saunders Place, a retired bank fisherman, Joe Farrell, who has already completed a model of the Bluenose, is building one of her famous challenger the Gertrude L. Thebaud. These are not little models that you can sail in your bathtub, but man-size boats, seven feet long and just as high, made from exact small-scale blueprints of the original shipbuilders’ plans. They are complete down to the last detail and carry every stitch of canvas their namesakes did: jib, jumbo, foresail, mainsail, balloon jib, topsails and staysail.

[Terrence Burke Photo from the Atlantic Advocate, vol. 49, no. 12 August 1959. Creative Commons]

Joe Farrell was born in Bay du Nord, Fortune Bay, a section of Newfoundland that has given the pride of its manhood to the bank fishery. Joe remembers when hundreds of men went each spring to the “banks” and recalls sadly that some of them did not return. Now in his seventy-fifth year, he can look back over a period of some thirty years spent afloat, some of them as mate for Angus Walters before the Bluenose was launched. His old skipper remembers him as “a number one man” and in the language of the sea that is the greatest compliment a captain can pay to any of his crew.

      Joe Farrell earned his living as a bank fisherman from the turn of the century until the end of the Second World War. He sailed out of Lunenburg in such well-known vessels as the Keno, the Independence, Muriel Walters (skippered by Angus and named for his sister) the H. J. Mackintosh, the Artisan (skippered by “Sonny” Walters, brother of Angus), the Madeline Hebb and the Lewis J. Thomas. So when Joe speaks of the bank fishery, he knows whereof he speaks. From his kitchen window he can look out across the harbour of St. John’s and he recalls that things were very different in his day of “wooden ships and iron men.” True the risks are still there (the recent tragic loss on the Grand Banks of the dragger Blue Wave with sixteen men on board is proof of this) but some of the romance has gone out of the bank fishery and the day of the banking schooner is gone for ever.

      As you listen to his yarns of the old days, told with the salty humour so common to the men of his time, the bank fishery seems to come alive again and it is not 1959 any more but 1900, 1910, 1920 or 1930. The Grand Banks are teeming with cod and the majestic schooners go gliding by, reaping the silver harvest of the deep. You can picture the men hauling their trawls, their little dories bobbing on the Atlantic swell around their mother ship as they are rowed to her side, laden to the gunwales with the codfish, the real “currency” of the Maritime Provinces. Then the hardy fishermen are singing lustily as they heave up the anchor and hoist the sails for the race back to port is on, to take advantage of the best market price. And then when the fishing season is over, it’s racing time and it’s Bluenose and the Thebaud again. Always the conversation comes back to the Bluenose and the Thebaud. And in imagination you can picture the two of them tacking back and forth over the choppy waters off Halifax or Boston. Ben Pine and Angus Walters, the “Captains Courageous” of the Atlantic, are shouting orders to the crew and men are running to and fro, trimming the sails to catch each favourable breeze as they round the buoys and are off on another tack. And you seem to feel the same thrill as these men feel as they stand proudly on deck and see their vessel heeling to port or starboard, “dragging her cabin” in the water and they will tell you that there is no greater thrill than this . . . seeing your schooner overtaking her rival in a close race. It is something that makes you want to stand up and cheer. And Angus Walters is standing proudly at the wheel, dressed in his oilskins and sou’wester, the salt spray flying in his face as the Bluenose skims swiftly over the waves and races for the finish line . . . the winner again.

      Everyone who grows up in an “outport”* is born with a love of the sea and sailing ships. Joe Farrell is such a man. He is not an author to write wonderful stories of his seafaring days or an artist to paint beautiful landscapes. He is, however, a craftsman and his love of the sea finds its expression, as all true love ultimately must, in the creation of something beautiful to represent that love. Joe Farrell builds his model boats and his work is a masterpiece of perfection right down to the last detail, sails, masts, rigging, windlass and hatches . . . everything is perfect. It takes many painstaking hours of work but Joe Farrell is a patient man and for him it is a labour of love. In the basement of his home he spends hours studying actual blueprints of the vessels and makes his models to an exact scale. His wife stitches the sails and puts up patiently with the endless puttering around his workshop. He sailed his Bluenose last summer on the Quidi Vidi Lake, on the outskirts of St. John’s, and was very pleased with her trial runs. Some time this summer the Thebaud will be ready and then he will realize his dream of racing the two. The clock will be turned back twenty-one years. It will be 1938 once again and the waters of historic Quidi Vidi will take the place of the North Atlantic as the two old rivals race each other again.

      I wish that Angus Walters and Ben Pine could be there to witness the event. What a time they would have with reminiscences about the old days, and theories about just what went right and what went wrong in 1938! But Joe Farrell doesn’t expect an audience and doesn’t need one. It will be sufficient for him that the two models of his own creation will battle each other and for a short time he will relive a little of the past glory that once belonged to their famous namesakes. In a day when the public’s interest in sailing ships is very low, few people will be present, but Joe Farrell will experience a little of the thrill of his sea-going days, and when he watches from the banks of Quidi Vidi, there will be a twinkle in his eye and his step will be lighter as his two ships prove their mettle. I asked him which boat he thought would win but he wouldn’t hazard a guess. I suppose it really doesn’t matter. The main thing is that a dream will come true to gladden the heart of an old bank fisherman and be an occasion for joy among his many friends. In sport they say that it is always best to stick with a champion and I’ll put my money any day on the pride of Lunenburg and of its first citizen, Angus J. Walters . . . the Bluenose. May she rest peacefully in her watery grave under the blue waters of the Caribbean!

            That’s the Maurice I knew, driven to celebrate the accomplishments of others, eager to push someone he knew into the limelight, then step back and smile as the attention shifted away from himself.  Joe Farrell was known for his depth of knowledge of sailing vessels as both a sailor and a builder. His story is quite fascinating; maybe that’s another post for a later date.  Like you, I too wondered if the Bluenose and Thebaud raced against one another on Quidi Vidi Lake as he had planned. They did.  The Bluenose was victorious once again!

[Ern Maunder Photo from The Atlantic Advocate, vol. 49, no. 12 August 1959. Creative Commons]      

            Louise Whiteway published an article in the Fall 1967 edition of the Newfoundland Quarterly titled, “The Bluenose in Newfoundland” which took Joe Farrell’s story to the next step. I have included a link to that magazine below.  Read it to find out about Joe Farrell’s models of these two famous ships and find out where you can go to see one of them on display anytime you are in St. John’s. 

            Maurice Burke published many articles about St. Jacques during his lifetime, primarily in the Monitor newspaper and the Newfoundland Quarterly.  He also published a book titled Memories of Outport Life. Sadly, it is no longer in print.  It shows up occasionally in used book stores.  Before you wander off in pursuit of his other writings, read through the profile of Maurice which was published in his book.  I’ve included it here as it appeared. You’ll get background information that will add greater depth, definition and understanding of who he was.

       Maurice’s  brother John, who resides in Ontario, recently shared on social media a story of a pivotal event in Maurice’s life as a young man. Once you’ve read it, you will gain even greater appreciation for him.

      Maurice was third in line in our family of eleven, a healthy boy, until he contracted tuberculous from having spent a lengthy time visiting and reading to his friend, a victim of that disease. The disease left him paralysed from the  waist down. He went to St. Claire’s Hospital in St. John’s, not to the Sanatorium where most tuberculosis victims were treated. He lay there for some three years and was sent home with the sad reality that there was no cure for his disability.

      For years Momma prayed fervently to St. Anne for a cure for Maurice. But, it was not St. Anne who gave Maurice the miracle he wanted.  It was his brother, Michael!  This was not just an act of  brotherly love that brought about this miracle.  This was years of  blood, sweat and hard, hard, overtime work that Michael needed to do to  raise the money for the operation needed to allow Maurice to walk again.

      Michael had discovered that there was a Doctor in Montreal who did this new type of surgery, who could operate on Maurice, a Doctor Shannon.

      Maurice arrived in Montreal. He was hesitant to go through the operation.  You can well imagine Michael’s disappointment to hear that Maurice was not wanting to go through with the surgery. Apparently, a patient in a nearby bed to Maurice had claimed that it was tried on him and that it did not work.  With Michael’s pleading, explaining the wonderful reputation of Dr. Shannon, and arguing that he should go ahead with the operation, eventually Maurice consented.

      Maurice walked again!!!!  Michael was his ‘saint’  who sacrificed so much for his brother. Both of my brothers passed away some years ago. Michael ‘s act of brotherly love  stands as  an example of true brotherly love, no matter what the cost ! God Bless him!!  I suspect God already has.  (Burke, John. Facebook, October 08, 2020. Used with permission.)

       My earliest memory of Maurice is of a well-dressed man in a dark three piece suit walking along the gravel road during one of his ritual visits.  He would walk from the eastern side of the harbour where the road now ends, the location of his once family home, to the Roman Catholic cemetery and back, chatting with everyone he met along the way.  Every visit to St. Jacques included that walk as though it was a way to remind the hills, trees, rocks and shoreline that he was back.  He visited old friends, made new ones, paid his respects to the deceased and set aside time to pray in Sacred Heart Church.  He always had the appearance of a man who felt at home during that pilgrimage, one whose heart beat to the rhythm of waves, sea breezes and the flapping of seagull wings over the harbour.  As everyone who knew him can attest, he lived in St. John’s but he never left St. Jacques.

“The Bluenose and the Thebaud Sail Again – Newfoundland Model Builder to Recreate Famous Race,” in Atlantic Advocate vol. 49, no. 12 August 1959, pp. 107-111.

“The Bluenose in Newfoundland,” in The Newfoundland Quarterly, volume 065, no. 4 Fall 1967, pp. 23-24

“On Leaving Home,” Maurice Burke in The Newfoundland Quarterly, volume 078, no. 4 (Spring 1983) pp. 11–12.

“Memories of Outport Life,” Review by David Bryant in The Newfoundland Quarterly, volume 082, no. 2, Fall 1986. [Burke, Maurice.  Memories of Outport Life, Creative Publishers, 1985.]

Posted by: alexhickey | May 16, 2021

Friar Rock ©

Listen! Listen to the growling undertow and the rattle of rocks as waves build tension. Watch the foam dissipate and disappear into crevices and shadows of pebbles and boulders as the water flattens and thins in retreat. Watch the next wave rise and urge itself forward, pressing its fluid form against the resistant shoreline.  Stand still, fixed to the bedrock.  Wait in anticipation on the rising tide, each wave reaching slightly farther up the beach, wetting sun bleached stone until it washes around your feet. 

Nothing seems to change but the passing of time, drifting of clouds, and the rise and fall of tides.  Yet if you were to stand there as long as Mr. Friar, many things would change.  Let me introduce you to him.  He’s been standing alone, midway between the high and low water marks in a cove on the eastern side of the mouth of St. Jacques harbour, for thousands  perhaps hundreds of thousands of years.  He is about the height of five humans and much too big to wrap your arms around.  Ten humans holding hands might be able to encircle and embrace him.  Mr. Friar, a sea stack, stands sentinel in a cove which bears his name – Friar Cove.  Sometime, well into the future, he will have company for several adjacent headlands are giving birth to sea caves. If Mr. Friar is able to stand long enough his family will expand by three.

The sea is a formidable force whose gentle lapping of the shoreline on calm days belies its tenacity and ferociousness.  Friar Cove faces southwest, leaving it open to the immense strength of water and wind which frequently crash recklessly in through Fortune Bay.  The cove wasn’t always there.  That portion of the headland which culminates in Eastern Point was once a relatively straight shore characterized by cliffs which dropped precipitously into the ocean.  Over time the ocean exerted its patient and persistent power to erode, shape and modify.  Though a single wave seems relatively ineffectual in moving mountains, several million in succession will bring about change.  When the sea water moves so too does sand, pebbles and, depending on the strength of the waves, boulders.  Over and over they assail the shoreline, grinding away tiny bits that fall into the water to join force with those already lashing the cliffs.   As openings are carved into the rock face, overhangs are created which eventually crumble and fall.  With each successful foray into the landform a space gradually opens, creating a cove.  Instead of moving out with the tide, small rocks remain at the base of the cliffs, rolling and abrading under the waves to create a beach.

Some rocks are harder than others and can withstand the onslaught. Softer ones fall victim to the abrasive forces much more readily.  Over long periods of time the sea conquers them as it widens and deepens its intrusion.  Left are the more resistant formations capable of standing firm as the repetitive waves break and wash around them.  This is what happened in Friar Cove.  This is what gave birth to Mr. Friar.

At the northern end of the cove a sea cave capable of sheltering a small row-boat at low tide has emerged.  When the tide rises the cave fills with water whose mission is to make it bigger, deeper and eventually carve an opening through to the other side of the small headland.  Once it achieves that goal its task becomes focused on enlarging the opening until the cave gets transformed into a land bridge which will eventually collapse leaving a portion of it standing as a sea stack.  But, that’s for someone to witness many generations from now.  At low tide there is enough room to walk upright inside the cave where the earth, out of reach of the sun, feels cool and damp.  Its smooth polished interior is devoid of seaweed or debris.  There is nothing but a surrounding room of dark wet stone at sea level, an opening beneath a cliff that reaches sixty feet towards the sky.  The odour of the ocean, mystery and darkness live in there, clinging to the slippery walls, hanging onto a few visible cracks, beckoning visitors.

Two other smaller formations are emerging a little farther along.  These too will grow large enough for some curious human to venture into and be reminded of the power that lurks beneath the welcoming sea which gently rocks a boat in its arms. 

You might wonder how Mr. Friar got his name. So do I.  Sea stacks on this part of the south coast of Newfoundland are all given the same name – friar.  This name is not prevalent throughout the island.  Could it be that the imposing structure resembles a robed friar in stature?  In some ways it does, however, Mr. Friar stands head and shoulders above all other friars along the coast, a tall statuesque form resembling a sentry more than a friar. He is not visible from the community, tucked away as he is inside the cove.  Nor is the cove accessible from the shoreline due to a series of steep cliffs which drop into the sea.  The only way to pay him a visit is to travel by boat. As you approach and the shoreline looms higher Mr. Friar grows in stature.   By the time you’ve disembarked and stood at his base you feel just how small the space is that you occupy on this planet.  You are also reminded by the Osprey family that has nested atop him for generations that here is a place where the course of daily events are not directed by humans.  You are welcome to visit but not to stay.  Stay long enough though to listen and imagine the tiny chips and grains of rock gradually giving way to the sea.

Posted by: alexhickey | December 19, 2020

Of Cakes, Ales and Mummers 2020 © Alex Hickey 12/19/2020

cakes and Ales Christmas

 

Ah, there’s big ones and small ones, tall ones and thin,

There’s boys dressed as women and girls dressed as men,

With humps on their backs and mitts on their feet,

My blessed we’ll die with the heat. (Bud Davidge, Any Mummers Allowed In?)

The Christmases of our childhood’s exist somewhere between memory and nostalgia.  Memory is the ability to record information about people, things, places, event, feelings, etc., which we can recall at will later.  Nostalgia, on the other hand, is a yearning for things of the past, a longing for familiar surroundings, people and events; frequently manifested as a longing for home.  Hence the theme of many Christmas songs and stories – there’s no place like home!  That theme has amplified poignancy this Christmas of 2020 as we diligently adapt our lives to an imposed reality of smaller gatherings, restricted or forbidden travel, feelings of isolation and distance, the like of which most of us have never experienced in our lifetimes. The strength of our collective human spirit, fueled by memory and nostalgia, will get us through the Christmas Season and into the hope and promise of a New Year.

Our rituals and traditions are being challenged by 2020. This year we will have to reach to Christmases past and draw from them those endearments and treasures which warm our hearts and bring smiles to our lips, particularly when seeing familiar faces before us and no ability to reach out and stroke a finger across a warm cheek, wipe away a pent-up tear or brush away a stray hair.

In 1859, Charles Dickens, in his opening lines of A Tale of Two Cities set in the late 1700’s, wrote:

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of light, it was the season of darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.”

How could he have known about 2020?

Sixteen years earlier Dickens published a story we know as The Christmas Carol.  In that story Ebenezer Scrooge is confronted with three Christmas ghosts – the ghost of Past, Present and Future.  From the ghost of Christmas Past he learned that the simple things in life like love of family, laughter and the support of friends all have value. From the ghost of Christmas Present he learned that no matter how bad things are we can still find joy and reason to celebrate. The ghost of Christmas Future helps him see that our actions have consequences and without good memories of our life lived, nostalgia has no home.

With those things in mind I reflected on where we are this year, where we’ve been and where we are going; something I know I am sharing with many others.  My thoughts, filtered through memory and nostalgia, led me to consider two Christmas memories – the baking and brewing leading up to the twelve days of Christmas and the gender-bending practices integral to the art of Mummering!

In the early days of December, behind the kitchen stove on a bench to elevate if off the cold floor, there would sit a small wooden cask, its staves held together by metal hoops.  A gleaming taut white cotton cloth covered its open top hiding the mixture of water, hops, malt, yeast and sugar.  It did little to keep the pungent odour from escaping and permeating the downstairs section of the house.  However, it did keep our inquisitive cat from poking its whiskers into the brew.  While the concoction brewed, the stove was kept burning all through the night to maintain fermentation.  Those were some of the warmest winter nights I recall in a house without central heating.

Ten days later beer bottles were passed through scalding hot water.  The brew was siphoned and filtered through a dense cheese cloth. That is not to say the liquid which was funneled into bottles was entirely clear for that was never the case.  Each waiting bottle received a measure of granulated white sugar to encourage carbonation then was mechanically capped and stored until Christmas Eve.  By then some of their cloudiness would have disappeared and a presence of bubbles on the sides of a glass showed minimal carbonation.  An overabundance of bubbles was deemed undesirable and fell below the standards of the discriminate afternoon home brew drinker. However, by midnight it was hardly noticed!

Contrasting with the distinct, pervasively bitter, odour of hops was the sweet, mouth-watering scents cast into the air by a combination of molasses, nutmeg, cinnamon, allspice and candied fruit each time the oven door was gently opened. Dark fruit cakes were perennial favourites.  Light fruit cakes, though equally delicious, rarely sparked the imagination or tempted the taste buds to the same tantalizing degree as the glistening dark ones.  Cherry pound cakes and loaves laden with chopped pecans, walnuts and hints of orange, competed for olfactory attention with partridge berry and blueberry pies.  As they cooled in the open air on the pantry counter the house took on a feeling, an intangible sensation that the world around us was changing, that despite all that might be wrong or despairing in our lives, it was time to take a deep breath. The air that came in through the door each time a visitor crossed the threshold brought with it promise and potential.  You could smell the freshness, the crispy newness of air intermingling with the comforting smells that already filled our noses and hearts.  Neither the ales nor the cakes were touched until Christmas was underway.

Tibbs Eve is widely understood on the south coast of Newfoundland to be the Eve of Christmas Eve. There is no Tibbs Day or St. Tibb thus it is the Eve of a day that will never come.  The next day is Christmas Eve which cannot be displaced or usurped.  Tibb’s Eve is the day to wind down community affairs, daily chores and orient oneself to the holidays. It is also the first evening that adults sit back, breathe deeply and take stock of what Christmas preparations remain to be done.  It was a ritual time to “break-the-ice’, to open the first beverage of the season and drink to house and home.

Christmas Eve and Christmas Day stood distinct in their focus on the home with preparation of gifts, trimming the tree and of course a visit from jolly old Saint Nick and the ensuing feasting.  Boxing Day or St. Stephen’s Day opened the door to community; to friends, neighbours, casual acquaintances, and an occasional under-the-weather visitor, and of course, mummers!

We can reach into the depths of Newfoundland’s history and find references to their presence at Christmastime.  P.K. Devine in writing about Christmas in Newfoundland in the 1860’s, said: “An essential part of the Christmas celebrations was, no doubt, the “Mummers” or “Jannies.” They dressed up in all kinds of fancy costumes and visited the houses of the neighbors, where they were lavishly entertained. Both sexes, in later years, took part in these festivities.”  Reach farther back to some of the places from whence many of our earliest settlers came and you’ll find them there.  The Mummers Play found its way across the ocean from England and found a home in Newfoundland. Then there was William Shakespeare who gave us the comedic play, Twelfth Night, with its gender contortions of men and women.  We will come back to that later.

As dusk crept over the horizon on Boxing Day the approach of night hinted at merriment.  Costumes, prepared days in advance in some houses were donned while in houses of last minute mummers closets were raided seeking fabrics to cover and disguise their bodies and faces.  In some communities re-enactments of the Mummer’s Play with King George, the Turkish Knight and an ominous Hobby Horse made the rounds.  In others, couples bent on socializing set out into the night air. Family groups, neighbourhood groups, friends, young and old, ‘dressed up’.  Patterns of behaviours changed from place to place and over time. Where once it was common to host a dance in one’s home, hosting dances in the parish hall became the norm.

At the heart of disguising oneself as a mummer is the guessing game at each house as hosts attempt to determine the identities of their mysterious visitors.  The challenge when designing a costume largely from old, discarded or borrowed clothing was to confuse identity as much as possible and prolong the guessing.  Height, body shape, clothing style, gait, posture, voice and behaviours were all modified to that effect.  It was most common for men to dress as women and women to dress as men with results becoming more comedic as the night progressed and mummers imbibed in beverages provided by their hosts. Getting a mummer to take a drink would result in a possible glimpse of the neck or lower face as they tipped the glass to their lips. In other instances, women who didn’t usually drink couldn’t refuse for fear of ‘giving away’ their identity.

When such antics failed, body shape, behaviour and posture were explored.  Cushions, pillows, blankets, were all used to either enhance physical proportions or hide body shape.  This frequently engendered ribald commentary and speculation that would never have taken place under normal circumstances.  When mummers were present, many social mores were relaxed in the interest of good-natured fun. Gender bending offered comic relief and loosened taboos when hidden behind a mask or as it was sometimes called, a ‘false face’.  In order to throw their hosts off in their guessing adult couples frequently intermixed thereby prolonging the identity quest and extending the fun and hilarity.

Adult mummers usually ventured forth in the latter part of the evening after children had gone to bed.  If for some reason they weren’t in bed when the mummers knocked they were soon hustled up the stairs, tucked in and admonished not to peek downstairs. Now, if there was even an invitation to disobey, that was it! As the laughter and music swirled throughout the kitchen, so too did it swirl throughout the entire house.  It didn’t take long for stealthy feet to edge towards the stairwell or heat vents in the kitchen ceiling.  Any space which provided the minutest glimpse of the mummers was valuable territory. Mothers usually kept an ear attuned to noise from upstairs and periodically checked the stairwell.  Eventually, all would be ordered back to bed!

Homemade wines and beer flowed generously during such evenings.  In some houses it wasn’t unusual to find a bottle of spirits with its label mottled from aging in a nearby bog well out of sight of the customs officer or police. In others, a hollow sound in the floor betrayed a ‘liquor locker’.  On the south coast of Newfoundland close proximity to the French Islands of St. Pierre et Miquelon was celebrated by residents for generations.  For those who didn’t imbibe in alcohol, sweet drinks and cakes were readily available.

The twelve days leading to Old Christmas Day were primarily about socializing, relaxing, spending time with family and of course observing whatever religious events took place within the community.  Over those twelve days, in a small town like St. Jacques it was possible to visit the majority of residents either during the afternoon in one’s own garb or in the evening dressed as a mummer. It wouldn’t be fair to characterize the twelve days of Christmas as pure decadent revelry for there was still work to be done, animals to feed, wood and water to fetch  along with a multitude of household chores.  The community lived as it normally did but with a heightened awareness of each other to exercise what many believed to be the best of human behaviour.

Old Christmas Night, or the twelfth night, marked the end of the Christmas season and the beginning of Epiphany in the Christian church calendar.  In some parts of Newfoundland the twelve days after Old Christmas day was considered the Old Christmas season and was characterized by visits to old friends and neighbours who were missed during the first twelve days.

Mummering changed and evolved over time. Mummers who paraded through the streets of the 1860’s gave way to a focus on house visits where dancing was the core activity.  Social visits by small groups were the norm I knew.  Today we are witnessing a return to the street parade mummers.  At its heart is still the gender-bending dressing up, partying, dancing and singing; and in many cases, ‘acting the fool’. Fool was a common name for ‘mummer’ during the mid-1800s in Newfoundland.

Earlier I mentioned Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night.  The play, written around 1601 references the twelfth night after Christmas, the Eve of the Feast of Epiphany, an early Christian church holiday.  On that day servants dressed up as their masters, women dressed as men and vice versa. That inversion of social roles harkens back to the Roman festival of Saturnalia which also featured drinking, community revelry, and reversal of social orders where masters became slaves and slaves, masters compounded by males and females switching roles.   Twelfth Night is a play that preserves social disorder and merriment as celebration.  Four hundred years ago it celebrated Mummering.  Given that many of our ancestors came from the British Isles there is little wonder at its presence here.

Sir Toby Belch, in Twelfth Night, asks of a steward, “Dost thou think, because thou art virtuous, there shall be no more cakes and ale?”  Cakes and Ale were commonly associated with church related festivals as well as being a euphemism for having a good time. Again, an invocation of role reversal.  Shakespeare seems to have been poking a bit of fun at the double standards society frequently sees from political and religious leaders, suggesting with a ‘nod and a wink’ that things don’t change a lot regardless of ones position in society. Mummering had a way of levelling that social hierarchy at least for a few evenings in small communities in coastal Newfoundland.

During this 2020 Christmas Season with Covid-19 governing our lives, dictating who we can and cannot see, limiting our travel, and necessarily undermining our social practices we are compelled to think of Dickens and his ‘best of times, worst of times’ for we are learning to address a global challenge as human beings regardless of race, ethnic origin or belief system.  Like the Mummers and their antecedents social order is disrupted. Place in society matters little in the face of this threat.  And, like Sir Tobe Belch in Twelfth Night, there shall still be ‘cakes and ales’ but on a much smaller scale, hopefully in the safety of our own homes and social bubbles.

While Covid restrictions have temporarily taken away our big family gatherings, it has not taken away our memories or nostalgia. We can draw upon them to tell stories, make video and phone calls and reminisce. Perhaps one day we will look back nostalgically at the unusual Christmas of 2020.

Places to Explore

Devine, P.K., Christmas Fifty Years Ago: How the Festive Season Was Spent in the Outports in the 60’s, Christmas Record, 1916, p5.

The Mummers Song (Any Mummers Allowed In) (Simani)

Simani – Wikipedia

A Tale of Two Cities – Wikipedia

A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens, Free Public Domain E-Book

A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens, Free Public Domain E-Book

A Christmas Carol – Wikipedia

Learn About a Christmas Carol

Twelfth Night – Wikipedia

Twelfth Night Holiday – Wikipedia

Twelfth Night BBC Performance (1969)

Twelve Days of Christmas – Wikipedia

Posted by: alexhickey | August 2, 2020

Aunt Mattie’s Roses © Alex Hickey 8/2/2020

Pink Rose as referenced in the Blog post

Aunt Mattie’s Rose, 2020

When a summer afternoon turns languorous and the wispy ocean winds settle on the waves, stillness creeps across the harbour, daintily touching its soft squirrel hair brush to the intense fuchsia petals of Aunt Mattie’s rose bush now growing in my yard.  Delicate hints of its perennial perfume drift through the unruffled air fleetingly tantalizing ones sense of smell; an invitation to stop, savour the scent, marvel at its elegance and  applaud its resilience. A profusion of aromatic petals radiate spicy sweet tinctures which ride invisible currents immersing every soul curious enough to pause and breathe deeply.

Such a moment is timeless and luxuriant, teeming with story, a chronicle traversing time.  An entire century with two decades on top have wafted through its branches and tousled its leaves. July unfailingly finds it catching debut rays as the morning sun eases into the day above the eastern hills of St. Jacques.  Buds, pregnant with promise, rupture at their tips to reveal alluring hints of beauty. Before long the solitary green branches are festooned with blooms adored by poets, exchanged by lovers and treasured between the drying pages of old books who sit and wait on dusty shelves for another generation to crack their covers.

Lewis Thomas, physician, poet and educator, wrote, “The act of smelling something, anything, is remarkably like the act of thinking. Immediately at the moment of perception, you can feel the mind going to work, sending the odor around from place to place, setting off complex repertories through the brain, polling one center after another for signs of recognition, for old memories and old connections.”

Aunt Mattie, as she was affectionately known, or Martha Pike Reeves Young as she was more formally known, hailed from St. Lawrence. St. Jacques became her home when she married businessman Samuel Young around 1900. Born in 1874, she had outlived her husband by twenty-one years when at the age of eighty-one she bade a final good-bye to her beloved backyard flower garden cultivated against a backdrop of high bush white, pink and red roses.  For decades following her death, despite her home providing comfort and shelter to several diverse families as the property changed ownership, her roses saw fit to diffuse their bountiful fragrances onto the balmy summer breezes that wafted up the gentle slope from her beloved harbour.  Captivating scents surrounded passersby, slowing their pace, daring them to pause, inhale the memories, and remember. Silent words, swaddled in years of attention and love hung in the air, reminders of a woman generously tending her garden, humming to herself as she moved fertile black soil around plants which returned her investment a thousand times over.

A few years ago an excavator laid waste the roots and soil which nourished the hearts minds and souls of anyone who walked through her garden.  Somewhere along the timeline since her death the garden gradually fell victim to an invasive Japanese knotweed which inexorably marched inch by inch through the cultivated beds, overpowering pansies and marigolds as it exercised dominion over the untended backyard. Yet, each year, the roses would raise their branches higher, bloom, and mock the meddlesome newcomer with an abundant bouquet of colour.

Weeks after the excavator had silenced Aunt Mattie’s oasis I visited the naked exposed bedrock and walked among the remnants and found one small sprig valiantly seeking the blue skies of summer.  Was it white, pink or red? I couldn’t tell. It didn’t matter.  What mattered was that there was still life, still promise and hope that a new plant might arise and once again cast its beauty to the warm southerly winds that have blown in through St. Jacques harbour since its beginning.  As I concentrated on removing two small slips with roots attached, evading thorns fiercely bent on piercing my fingertips, I imagined them taking up residence in my yard five hundred feet away, delivering yearly to me a hint of the pleasure and satisfaction they must have bestowed on Aunt Mattie.

Last week, as the calendar crept into July, one pink bloom, then another, and another emerged to cover the two healthy bushes which have arisen from those transplanted cuttings. Their scent permeated my garden, effortlessly floated throughout the neighbourhood, delivering to all whose noses noticed, a connection to a lady who dug the soil of St. Jacques well over a hundred years earlier and released a perfume into the future.  Martha was ascribed the title, “Aunt” by the community, a gesture of respect and love afforded residents who worked themselves into the hearts and minds of those who fortuitously shared the experience of living in St. Jacques with her.  I have no memories of her for she died when I was quite young, but I do have some of her roses who spread their petals around my feet each year at this time. Every time I breathe in their presence I smile at the snippets of rhyme, refrain, and allure Aunt Mattie has contributed to the joy of my life in St. Jacques.

In 1844 Newfoundland’s first external inspection of schools took place. John V. Nugent, an Irishman from Waterford, driven by strong convictions and passionate about his causes, was hired by the government to travel around the country and inspect both Catholic and Protestant schools.  He had been a Member of the House of Assembly and was considered one of the foremost orators in the house.  In private life it was said that he was quite friendly and conscientious. Just eight years earlier the Government of Newfoundland had passed legislation creating a non-denominational system of education.  The move was supported by all at the time; however, cracks soon appeared, largely over denominational rights, funding, resources and the composition of school boards. By 1841 new legislation eliminated these boards and there was a return to separate schools.

John V. Nugent, School Inspector, NL, 1844-45

Nugent was fitted out with a ship and embarked to the District of Fortune Bay first.  At that time the Fortune Bay District encompassed most of the south coast between the Burin Peninsula and Port-aux-Basques. He visited forty-four schools overall around the island. Bad weather, school closures, and teacher absences meant he wasn’t able to visit some schools.  When he arrived in Hr. Breton, “He found the members of the Protestant Board scattered and unable to meet, and its few members unaware of his appointment.  On calling at the school, kept on the premises of Newman’s, the local merchant house, he was immediately prevented from entering by the teacher, Mrs. Trude, wife of the storekeeper; she stated she would allow him to enter only by sanction of the Board or the local members thereof, both of whom declined to act. Nugent had no option but to leave the school unexamined” (McCann, 213, Inspectorship Controversy).

Throughout the country, he “found most schools in poor condition; many classes, in fact, were held in tilts, shacks, lofts or rooms in houses. In general, however, the inhabitants of the settlements had built, or were quite willing to build, a schoolhouse.  Teachers were conscientious but often unqualified for the task, and all were underpaid, the annual salaries hovering around the £15-20 range. Most schools taught reading and writing, some added arithmetic.  Attendance was usually about from one-half to two-thirds of enrollment, though in every district there were almost as many children without access to schooling as those on the books” (McCann, 213m, Inspectorship Controversy).

Nugent makes reference to Society schools.  He is referring to schools established by the Newfoundland School Society, an independent missionary styled organization, initially supported by the British government from 1823 to 1832. After that, it was funded by a combination of supporters in Newfoundland and Britain.

The following is an excerpt from Nugent’s report.  I have selected only that portion of his report pertaining to the North side of Fortune Bay.  The report was submitted to the House of Assembly in 1845. You will note there are spellings of some words and names of communities which differ from how we spell them today. Those spellings of community names may be idiosyncratic to Nugent, for other references to those communities around that time spell them more conventionally.  The original text, which can be read here, suffers from unique and convoluted punctuation making it challenging to read.  I have taken the liberty of simplifying sentence structures to make it more legible to the reader. I have made every attempt to remain accurate to the original text.  If my version departs from its intent it is not intentional. After reading thus version feel free to read the original, found  at the end of this page.

On Tuesday, September 3rd, Mr. Burke of St. Jacques kindly obliged me with a good punt, in which we rowed to Belleoram, three miles away.  Where we arrived there at 1. P.M., we found that during the absence of the teacher, Mr. Polding who was then at St. John’s, his school was kept open only in the morning.  This is also one of the Society’s Schools.  The schoolhouse is a commodious building. It, and the adjoining church, was built principally by donations from the residents of Belleoram. Catholics as well as the Protestants contributed towards the erection of the school-house.

We returned in the evening to St. Jacques. The next day, wanting to see the new road connecting the two Harbours, Mr. Burke accompanied me to point out the way. The distance by land is also three miles. The site of this road appears to be judiciously chosen. When completed, it will greatly promote the comfort and improvement of the inhabitants of both places.

The population in the harbours along the shore appear to have increased considerably since the Census was taken in 1836. Belleoram is represented in the 1836 Census as having under 150 residents, whereas it is now little short of that number. In St. Jacques, in like manner, we find an increase. The long line of Coves and Harbours between Belleoram and Harbour Britain are all within about three miles of each other. This includes St. Jacques, English Harbour, Mozambrose, Boxy, Blanchard, Coomb’s Cove, Rock Harbour, Miller’s Passage, and Jerseyman’s Harbour. The entire list covers a land distance of about fifteen miles. The growing number of inhabitants have no possibility of obtaining Medical advice in any emergency, except from Harbour Britain, where two Medical Gentlemen are located.  It is near impossible to make the passage by sea during a great part of the year, even though the distance is only about eight leagues.  If these places were connected by good roads, a messenger could pass from one extremity of the line to the other, in the worst weather, in a day.  While this would provide some medical advantage, at the same time, another important one would be acquired incidentally.  The children of two Harbours could then easily attend a school established at a central Harbour between them. Thus the Educational interests of the entire region would be greatly promoted. I should hope the Legislature will take the subject into consideration.

I reached Belleoram again at Noon. Though the morning was fine, the weather broke, and it rained heavily. The school is two years old. I found everything very orderly. The children were provided with seats and desks, and the school was superintended by Miss Hester Cluett, one of the oldest of Mr. Polding’s pupils. I should think she was no more that sixteen or seventeen years old.

This school had fifty-six children in daily attendance, including seven or eight Catholics. Even in the fishing season twenty-eight boys and as many Girls attend regularly.  I found twenty-five writing, with most of them writing a very fair small hand. Twenty-seven were learning Arithmetic, of whom, thirteen entered their sums in books, and fourteen only worked on slates.  The greater number of Arithmeticians had advanced over the Elementary Rules and were going over the several Compound Rules. The readers showed that much attention was paid them. Upon the whole, although I regretted not having seen Mr. Polding, I was much pleased with the improvement of Children given that they’d only had the advantage of a School for two years.

September 5th was too rough to row to English Harbour, a distance of three miles to the Westward of St. Jacques, therefore I set sail for (from) St. Jacques. The wind was fair, thus reached English Harbour in exactly half an hour. I proceeded to the school, arriving there at half past 1 o’clock PM.

This is one of the schools established by the Board. It is taught by an old fisherman, Robert Max.  The services of this poor man are divided between English Harbour and St. Jacques. In each of them he alternates every two weeks, but in winter he is required to spend two weeks in rotation at Blue Pinion.  It is there several inhabitants of both Harbours retire at that season, for the convenience of fuel. With such interruptions we cannot expect too much from the students.  It is regrettable that better teachers cannot be had for the small salaries available.

This is a new school.  It opened in January of this year. All of the children have begun their letters.  I found only nine students in the school. The oldest of these was only seven years old.  Of these nine, six had come from Mozambrose, a little Cove a mile and a half to the Westward.  Among the six was one, a fine little boy, three years and five months old. I was told he walked the distance barefooted through a miserable wood path every day this summer!  Surely then, when poor creatures like these (parents) are so determined to acquire even the rudest elements of Education for their Children, they merit the encouragement and support of the Legislature.  At least they deserve that the thorns be plucked from the pathway of their little ones, while they tread the mazes of the forest in pursuit of the culture of their infant minds.  Blue Pinion is also but one and a half miles distant from English Harbour. If a road ran from English Harbour to St. Jacques, and from English Harbour to Boxy, a distance altogether of six miles, the Children of St. Jacques, Blue Pinion, Mozambrose and Boxy, could avail themselves of a school at English Harbour. By combining these schools a better Teacher may then be hired.

The School-house here is only temporary. It is the only house on that side of the Harbour, and to attend the school all children are obliged to go around the Harbour. Mr. May told me seven of the Children were learning to write, but at the school on this day, there was only one Boy who wrote in a promising round hand. He was beginning addition as well. He was the only child at school who could read.  There is a foundation of a school-house laid here by the inhabitants at the Western side (the inhabited part), and they intend getting it up this Autumn.  There is but one Catholic family here.

At St. Jacques I found by examining Mr. May’s list that the number of children was twenty-one, including three Catholics. These students appear to be as backward as those of English Harbour.  They are beginning the laying of a foundation for a School-house too, (on the western side) but they are likely to choose a site justly objectionable to the inhabitants of the Eastern side. If it were built somewhere at the bottom of the Harbour, between both sides, it would greatly convenience the people of the Eastern side and not incommode those of the Western side.  It is nearly a mile round this Harbour, measuring from the Southernmost house to the most Southwestern. A good path could be made here for fifty or sixty pounds. That would eliminate the potential for disagreement which I have referenced, and at the same time, be of great assistance and convenience to the Fishery.

All five Teachers under the Board, in this District, received forty pounds Salary. The same amount is reserved for the Teacher at Hermitage Cove, when he can be procured.  Ten pounds is granted to the people of Push-Through to help them furnish their School-house. Furby’s Cove is granted eight pounds for the same purpose. Harbour-Britain receives sixteen pounds and St. Jacques, eight pounds.  The sum of twelve pounds is granted to Belleoram each year to teach the female Children to learn how to sew.

Immediately after the inspection of this school, at 4. P.M. I sailed for Burin. By 6. PM we were compelled to turn back and head for the shelter of St. Jacques due to bad weather. On the next morning I once more set sail and reached St. Peter’s (Ste. Pierre et Miquelon) at 5. P.M.

I would not have carried out my duty towards the poor people of the Fortune Bay District if did I not call the attention of the Legislature to the numerous localities where a considerable number of Children are left abandoned without a possibility of obtaining the rudest elements of Education. In Great Jarvis, where there are twelve children of school age. Other places that the government should consider for the funding of education are listed below. In making this list I have included only those Settlements where the number of Children neglected was not less than twelve.

Place/Number of Children

Harbour Mille/16

Head of Fortune Bay/17

Lady Island/12

Long Island/12

Coomb’s Cove/14

Rack Cove/15

Little Bay/18

Sagona/20

Brunette/20

Jerseyman’s Harbour/15

Pass Island/15

This list omits those small communities where 7, 8, 9, 10, or 11 Children reside.  Many of these could be provided for by the establishment of Schools by, at least, extending to them occasionally a small portion of the road grant.

Nugent, a Roman Catholic, held this position for only one year.  In the second year a Protestant school Inspector was appointed.

Sources

McCann, Phillip. “Class, Gender and Religion in Newfoundland Education: 1836-1901,” Historical Studies in Education 1, no. 2 (Fall 1989): 189-200 https://historicalstudiesineducation.ca/index.php/edu_hse-rhe/article/view/1224/1364

McCann, Phillip. “Sir John Harvey, J.V. Nugent and the School Inspectorship Controversy in the 1840s”. Newfoundland and Labrador Studies, Vol. 11, no. 2, Jan. 1995, https://journals.lib.unb.ca/index.php/NFLDS/article/view/988

McCann, Phillip. “The No-Popery Crusade and the Newfoundland School System, 1836-1843.” CCHA Historical Studies 58 (1991): 79-97, https://journals.lib.unb.ca/index.php/NFLDS/article/download/988/1340/

Nugent, J.V. Inspection of Schools in the Southern Districts of Newfoundland – District of Fortune Bay.  The Journal of the House of Assembly of Newfoundland 1845. Newfoundland. House of Assembly, St. John’s (N.L.) 1845, Memorial University of Newfoundland. Libraries. Centre for Newfoundland Studies. http://collections.mun.ca/cdm/compoundobject/collection/h_assembly/id/67729/rec/1

Wells, Elizabeth A. “Nugent, John Valentin”.  Dictionary of Canadian Biography, Vol. 10, 1972. http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/nugent_john_valentine_10E.html 

 

 

Posted by: alexhickey | December 22, 2019

Silent Santa © Alex Hickey – 2019

St. Jacques, Newfoundland

Christmas Eve is one of the most surreal days on the Advent Calendar. It’s a non-event, in that the only recognition afforded it is the distinction of being simply a day which precedes the internationally recognized December twenty-fifth.  Yet, many businesses close early, government offices empty out well before the usual five o’clock exodus. And, in many homes around the world nervous excitement invades the hearts and bodies of small children, their older siblings and parents. In fact, it is so contagious, near everyone but the occasional Scrooge feels it grow in intensity as the day wanes.

Whether you grew up in a neighborhood of downtown London where Charles Dickens penned the perennial favourite, A Christmas Carol, or in Lycia where the fourth century St. Nicholas, the patron saint of children, the poor and prostitutes was born; or in a small sea-side harbour on the south coast of Newfoundland the feeling is much the same.  It’s hard to put your finger on that feeling even though it brings on a smorgasbord of emotion which ranges from euphoria to despair.  The lens of nostalgia, polished and tempered by years, yellows warmly with age and accentuates with fondness most of the memories we retain of that day, even those of a less pleasant nature.

My grandmother often spoke of the barn animals receiving the gift of speech on Christmas Eve which lasted until daylight, Christmas morning. Even as a child skepticism must have shown on my face for she challenged me to visit a barn myself to find out; knowing full well my primary goal on that night was to snuggle beneath the covers with ears attuned to every sound within and outside the house.  I must admit, I did wonder what the hens might say to one another or what thoughts the horses would share there in their stalls. I also imagined their voices; high, clipped and frantic in the hen house while those in the horse barn drawled in low resonating, gravelly tones, each moving their heads accordingly. Molly, the auburn mare would probably tell stories from the pages of the Black Stallion while Trigger, an elderly Newfoundland Pony, paid little attention as he reminisced out loud about his experiences hauling wood from the Horsechops or Joey Francis Pond in winter.  The vast majority of my visits to the barn as a child was to shovel out the stalls in the morning.  If any of them talked the night before the evidence on their floor certainly didn’t suggest lofty philosophical ruminations.

Inside our house there was a flurry of activity.  The firebox of the wood and coal fired Renfrew kitchen stove swelled and radiated, as last minute baking added delight to the late afternoon.  Cinnamon, cloves and allspice hung in the air and competed with wafting hints of light-skinned, simmering raisins. The distinctive mouth-watering scent of gingerbread cookies, cut to resemble hearts, diamonds, bells and Christmas trees escaping the oven, teasing those of us who ventured temporarily into the house to ward off frost bite. As a small child these things were expected and accepted without wondering about the amount of work that lay behind them.  It was much later, astronomical time in the life of a child but so few short years in retrospect, when the façade and veneer of the season began to crack and crumble.  It was then I began to develop a more complex appreciation for Christmas Eve, and see the enormous human effort of my mother on that day.

From early that morning the mothers in our houses labored tirelessly with the usual demands of children accentuated with anticipation and restlessness.  Christmas Eve meant there was no early to bed for them.  Nor would they get much rest when they finally folded their tired bones into the mattress for in the shortest of hours would be heard the creaks of floorboards and the furtive question, “Can we get up now?”

Getting young children to bed on Christmas Eve was a two-edged challenge.  On the one hand, they needed to be in bed before the critical mass of decorating could be done; while on the other, if they retired too early they would be awake long before daylight.  It seems to me that this was the only night of the year children begged to go to bed early!

Once they were tucked in, admonished not to come down stairs and to go to sleep right away, the tree was brought into the house. The chill of winter emanated from it as its branches thawed and chunks of attached ice melted and dripped to the floor. Sometimes it took an hour or more before the incredible smell of the forest began to permeate the room. We took that as a sign to begin the decorating.

Even where there were sufficient older children to assume responsibility for decorating the tree, the process was watched and managed by mom. She would retreat upstairs following each progress review, to the bedroom she shared with dad.  There, she wrapped gifts that had been hidden beneath the bed, in the closet and anyplace else something could be stashed away from our curious and prying eyes.

It was usually well past midnight by the time the last decoration was hung, the last gift placed strategically beneath the tree, the last stocking stuffed, and the tree festooned with a cloak of tinsel draped between the bells, baubles and angels on each limb. A glance at the clock, another at the stove, then a quick appraisal of the Christmas tree, and a few adjustments to gifts and stockings was followed by a collapse into a chair. After catching her breath it was off to bed in hopes of catching a few hours of rest before the chaos of morning erupted in the living room.

She wasn’t superhuman or all that different from other mothers in the community. They all lived with the same expectation of making the magic of Christmas appear on Christmas Eve – the expectation of transforming the spaces of our ordinary lives into exotic colourful wonderlands. By morning, red, green, silver and gold shiny snowflakes and bells danced across the kitchen ceiling to the rhythm of heat from the stove.  Silver tinsel encrusted wreaths hung in windows still covered in layers of frost, its intricate patterns interrupted only where someone had placed a warm hand against the pane or had blown their breath across it to peek at the outside world. Soon, that too would melt away as the stove was fed a steady diet of dried spruce from the well-stocked wood box.

Our lives felt transformed.  We had stepped from the bleakness of cold short snow-blown, winter days into a carnival of brilliant colours reflecting from every branch of the tree, exotic tastes of oranges and grapes from foreign shores, luxurious textures of woolen sweaters and socks, and smells of peppermint and apples that linger still. It was a place of warmth made ever so much warmer because of the silent Santa Claus whose tireless efforts were willingly rendered invisible to create the magic.

 

 

American fishing schooners returned year after year to Fortune Bay to take part in the lucrative herring fishery. The Customs Office was located in St. Jacques which meant they would have to clear customs upon arrival and departure as well as pay any requisite fees.  Additionally, many local merchants harvested herring for sale to the Americans as well as to other countries.  The relationship, though sometimes strained, was mostly a friendly one.  This extensive contact over decades made local residents quite familiar with the port of Gloucester in Massachusetts.  It’s fishing captains and crews were on a first name basis with most residents of Fortune Bay. The names of American and Canadian schooners were widely known and easily recognized.

Gloucester was attractive to Newfoundland fishermen. Many emigrated to the United States while others worked there and commuted back to Newfoundland at the end of the season. Needless to say many men lost their lives at sea on these schooners.  Every community in Fortune Bay suffered this experience, some many times over.

The herring fishery had its good years and its bad years. 1906 was one of the bad years resulting in many of the Gloucester vessels going to the Bay of Islands to harvest bait.  The growth of the industry in that part of the country resulted in many fishermen moving from Fortune Bay to the Bay of Islands. Recently I read the report of the Commissioner of Fisheries, Joseph O’Rielly, which was presented to the Governor on February 19, 1907.  He noted that:

“ Herring was very scarce in Fortune Bay in the early Spring, but were fairly plentiful in Connaigre Bay, where a fair supply for bait purposes was obtained, especially so about the end of May or June. There was also a fair supply of small herring in Placentia Bay, and as the season advanced, they were more easily obtained. The herring seem to have temporarily forsaken this bay (Fortune Bay), which was known in former years as ‘the home of the herring.’ The supply of herring bait in the spring seems to be getting scarcer every year, many of the fishermen think it is only temporary. The regulation prohibiting the use of seines for taking herring, except for bait purposes, is working well, as it gives the fish a chance to come into shallower water to spawn.  The fishermen of the past two years report large quantities of small herring in Placentia, Fortune and Connaigre Bays, and as time went on have noticed the difference in their sizes.”(p. XI)

O’Rielly reported there was an abundance of Caplin all along the coast that year. They struck in Fortune Bay on June 18th and remained all season. Squid, on the other hand, were showing up in unusual places. They seemed to have avoided coves near headlands and were found further into arms and bays along the coast.

In his report, he went on to provide a list of the United States fishing vessels that had arrived in the Bay of Islands seeking herring. Most, if not all, would have been in Fortune Bay in previous years.   As you read through the list you will note that the names of several vessels are repeated.  I do not know if this was an error or if there were more than one vessel with the same name. You will also note that the vast majority of vessels hailed from the port of Gloucester.

Many of these American schooners arrived with minimal crews and would hire local men to assist them with fishing throughout the season.  When O’Rielly arrived in the Bay of Islands to observe the fishery he noted that many local fishermen were reluctant to go on board American vessels to fish. This was because a company operating locally, The Atlantic Fish Company, had advertised they would purchase all the fish the men could catch. Among local fishermen and business owners there was disgruntlement about the discrepancy of profits between what was received from the Americans and that which could be acquired when fish was processed locally.

Newfoundland men working aboard the American vessels were paid $1.25 per barrel for their herring but were required to pay for their nets and gear should they be lost. While this may have been reasonable on the part of the ships owners it stimulated a less honorable practice among some of the American fishermen.  Many of the American fishermen were novices unfamiliar with local conditions.  That, combined with their carelessness, meant they frequently lost their nets and gear. Knowing they would be charged for the price of replacing them they resorted to stealing the nets of their fellow workers. O’Rielly reported that he had received many complaints.  In some instances, nets, moorings and buoys had all been taken. In others, nets would be untied and removed, leaving moorings and buoys in the water.

As the season neared closing O’Rielly informed the Gloucester Captains and agents that all of the gear and nets brought to Newfoundland from the United States was admitted duty free when used bona fide for fishing purposes on and from their vessels and were not to be landed.  If any were sold to local fishermen it would be sized and the vessel and its owners would be liable to detention and fines under the Customs Laws.  As a result, none of the agents, with the exception of J. V. Bonia of Gordon Pew and Company, charged the fishermen for any gear lost or stolen.

These disputes were a continuation of disagreements between the two nations which had been occurring for almost half a century back in Fortune Bay.  Various attempts were made to legislate control of the herring fishery by the Newfoundland government which ended up in dispute among and between the Americans, Canadians, and French and British governments.  At one point in Fortune Bay there was a physical altercation between local fishermen and the Americans which resulted in an International Dispute dealt with through the courts. St. Jacques figured prominently in that event, but that is another story for another post.

Report of the Fisheries Protection Service of Newfoundland for the Year 1906 by Joseph O’Rielly, Commissioner of Fisheries, S. S. Fiona. February 1907.

Posted by: alexhickey | June 22, 2019

On Finding a List

Sometimes you come across a faded photograph of a nearly forgotten relative inside the cover of an old, rarely opened, family bible or a recipe for delicious looking shortbread cookies torn from a magazine and tucked inside a cookbook whose worn edges are stained from years of turning and flipping by busy hands in a kitchen.  Then, there are times when you find something that captures an event; something that draws from the pages of time, the names of people. Names who were part of a singular event at a particular time and place.  Names of people whose lives have faded from current memory, whose contributions to community are no longer known to most of us.

While conducting research for a larger piece of writing I am working on I came across a Letter to the Editor of the Evening Telegram in St. John’s, NL, dated November 30, 1918.  As I write this, that makes it almost 101 years since it was written, a century, four generations ago.  A pair of shoes, a jacket or living room furniture becomes ‘old’ rather quickly in comparison.  What made this delightful discovery so unique and intriguing was not the news story from a time when Newfoundland was at war and many of our young men were falling on battlefields and young women were driving ambulances, and tending to the dead and dying in hospitals here and in Europe.  It was a list from one community among many who were affected by that war, a community that sent fourteen men to fight and motivated men and women at home to support their efforts any way they could.

The list which the Evening Telegram shared with its readers that Friday afternoon chronicled contributions to the Imperial Red Cross Fund.  Miss May Randall, secretary to the local Red Cross organization and possibly a teacher in the Church of England School, canvassed the town of St. Jacques during the month of November collecting funds. As we look through the amounts of money contributed it is important to keep in mind that a dollar in 1918 would be approximately equal to sixteen dollars today.

November, 1918 was a volatile weather month on the south coast of Newfoundland. Rainfall accumulation reached 74.7 mm and snowfall amounts totaled 23.6 cm.  The average temperature was around minus 2 Celsius with temperatures dropping below freezing after the middle of the month.  That’s when Miss Randall would most likely have been making her door-to-door collection of donations to the war effort.

  • Dr. C. Fitz-Gerald       $100.00
  • D.J. Burke                 $10.00
  • T.Burke                    $10.00
  • Mr. St. Croix              $3.00
  • Mr. Ralph Skinner       $3.00
  • Samuel Young            $5.00
  • John Young                $5.00
  • Randall Young            $5.00
  • Mr. J. Pine (English Hr.)$1.00
  • Stan. Burke               $1.00
  • Mrs. D. Burke Sr.        $1.00
  • Mrs. J. Burke              $1.00
  • Mrs. John Drake         $1.00
  • E.J. Tibbo                  $1.00
  • In Memoriam D.Y.P.    $1.00
  • W.J. Burke                 $1.00
  • Bert Skinner              $1.00
  • Mrs. Isaac Dinham     $1.00
  • Mrs. B. Lynch             $1.00
  • Mrs. Thos. Evans        $1.00
  • William Drake            $1.00
  • Mrs. Albert Dinham     $1.35
  • James Young              $.50
  • Mrs. Katie Burke         $.50
  • Mr. Staples                 $.50
  • Mrs. Cluett                 $.50
  • Mrs. Kate Skinner       $.50
  • Mrs. Dyett Sr.             $.50
  • Mrs. Jas. Skinner        $.50
  • Mrs. Mary Skinner      $.50
  • Geo. Tibbo                 $.50
  • Bertha Young              $.50
  • Mrs. Penny                 $.50
  • Mrs. C. McCarthy        $.50
  • Michael McCarthy        $.50
  • Mrs. James Whalen     $.50
  • James Fiander            $.50
  • J.T. Fiander                 $.50
  • Mrs. Jas. Whittle          $.50
  • John Power                 $.50
  • Mrs. J. Dawe               $.50
  • George Yarn                $.50
  • Ted Evans                   $.50
  • Mrs. Levi Noseworthy   $.50
  • Mrs. John Noseworthy  $.50
  • Mrs. Clem Noseworthy $.50
  • Lesser Amounts          $2.30

Total`                               $151.85

This list is not a documentation of all people living in the community at that time given that it was a voluntary donation initiative. Names of many residents are absent; however, it does give us a glimpse into our past and a peek at the capacity of residents to donate to the cause.  The largest contributor was Conrad Fitz-Gerald, the medical doctor whose practice was based out of St. Jacques.  Denis Burke and Thomas Burke were business men with retail/ wholesale, and commercial fishing interests. Albert St. Croix was the Relieving Officer.  Ralph Skinner was a vessel owner and sea captain.  Samuel, John and Randall Young were also business owners with retail/wholesale and commercial fishing interests.

James Pine was a resident of English Hr. West who was either working in St. Jacques or visiting when the collection was carried out.

Eight of the contributors had relatives serving in the war. Mary Skinner’s husband William was serving in the British Navy with the Merchant Marine.  Kate Skinner’s son Edgar who was serving with the Newfoundland Regiment and at the time had been captured and was being held prisoner by the Germans. Dr. Fitz-Gerald’s son Reg was serving with the Canadian Infantry out of Saskatchewan.  Sarah (James) Whalen’s son James was also serving with the Canadian Expeditionary Forces.  Agnes (William) Burkes son Albert was serving with the Royal Newfoundland Regiment.  James Pine’s son Aloysius was also serving with the Regiment.  Denis Burke’s son Frank was serving alongside the Canadians and William Burke’s son was serving with the Regiment.  There were six other men from the harbour serving at the same time.

We don’t know how many people contributed to make up the $2.30. It is interesting to note that those with lower amounts are listed last and those who gave less than $.50 didn’t get their names mentioned.

Mrs. Dyett Sr. would be Edgar Dyett’s grandmother Ellen.  Mrs. D. Burke Sr. would be the mother of D.J. Burke.

This list of names brings history alive in a very small way.  We get to see who donated to the Red Cross fund, their names and their contributions. It reminds us of what many small remote communities were concerned about a hundred years ago.  They genuinely felt their donation would assist the troops in winning the war and hopefully bring their loved ones back home.  As with most historical documents we can only determine so much information without getting into speculation and conjecture. Neither can we easily access those documents and derive as much information as we desire.  The unknown is always tantalizing such as the puzzling entry on the list In Memoriam D.Y.P., obviously a donation made in memory of a deceased loved one; but who is D.Y.P.?

Environment Canada Historical Weather Statistics

The Evening Telegram, November 30, 1918

It was one of those mornings in February, cold, a bit snowy and barely daylight.  My steaming hot coffee was slowly cooling as I busied with a few things around the kitchen. CBC radio’s Morning Show was chattering away in the background, moving from interview to interview then the news. I wasn’t paying much attention.  Then, like a prick from a needle, my attention was drawn immediately to the voice.  I was certain I’d heard the name, “Dorothy Hickey”!

Dorothy Hickey accepting NL Soccer Award of Merin April 2019

Dorothy Hickey, NL Soccer Recipient 2019 Award of Meri

The volume button doesn’t work on that device therefore I had to find the remote to turn it up.  By that time the news report had finished and the latest weather forecast was underway.   But I did hear the word soccer.  That was enough to know the announcer was referring to a woman who has dedicated over forty years to the advancement of soccer in Canada. The next day the Telegram carried a news story about the Newfoundland and Labrador Soccer Association recognizing her for her outstanding contribution to the sport.  Here’s what I read about Dorothy or “Dot” as she is known to some.

“Hickey has worked for Canada Soccer for more than 40 years, and during that time has overseen the growth and development of the Toyota national championships. She has been instrumental in managing the air travel for teams traveling to the competition and has worked across numerous international matches in Canada.

Hickey has been staff support to the Youth Committee and Senior Amateur Committee which amalgamated into the Competitions Committee. She is also a recipient of both the Canada Soccer Award of Merit and Canada Soccer President’s Award.”

That’s when I learned she had received the Canadian Soccer Association National Award of Merit back in 1998.  A year later she was honoured with the Canadian Soccer President’s Award.  That award provides “recognition and appreciation to a person’s outstanding and unique efforts for an extended period of time, resulting in the positive and constructive development at the national level across Canada. The award winner is selected solely at the discretion of Canada Soccer’s President.” (CSA Site)

The President’s Award was given for organizing the Annual Meeting on short notice and at the same time working on the Canada Cup in Edmonton which included teams from Guatemala and Ecuador. Well done and a secret well-kept at that!

Award of Merit, NL Soccer, 2019

The 2019 award is special. This is the inaugural year for the award and is given as an acknowledgement of the deep respect the Newfoundland and Labrador Soccer Association has for Dorothy’s contribution to soccer nationally and especially for the her efforts to encourage and further the work of the Newfoundland and Labrador organization at the national level.  It is always nice when your peers turn to you and say, “Well done! We appreciate your work on our behalf.”  It is nice to hear in your immediate place of work but when your work is on the national level it is especially sweet to hear from your home province.

When asked about the most memorable game, out of the many she worked, Dorothy hesitated, then, with confidence said: “The Men’s International Friendly on June 5, 1994 – Canada vs Brazil. The Cup was hosted in the United States that year. It was a friendly game played in Canada prior to the start of the main cup event.  At that time, the home stadium for Canadian Soccer was Commonwealth Stadium in Edmonton. The game was played before a crowd of 52,000 people.  It was probably the most exciting game that I ever worked.   It was amazing to see so many Canadian fans in one place. The final score was 1-1.   The stadium exploded when Eddy Berdusco scored for Canada in the 69th minute to tie the game.”

She speaks highly of Lorraine Miller, the lady who hired her to work at Canada Soccer after finishing her studies in Office Administration at Algonquin College.  She says with pride, “We have been friends ever since.   I worked with Lorraine for over 30 years. She was the driving force in my advancement to become the Competitions Manager here.”

Dorothy, daughter of Pat and Patricia (Farrell) Hickey, hails from St. Jacques. That’s not a well-kept secret, for anyone between St. John’s and Vancouver who has ever met her is told in no uncertain terms that she is from St. Jacques, Newfoundland.  It was evident during the presentation ceremonies at the Shriner’s Club in St. John’s on April 5th that Dorothy commands a presence in soccer circles. Her job with Soccer Canada is Competitions Manager and as such has regular contact with folks across this wide nation.  Anyone who knows her is quite aware that she is no pushover when it comes to programming and expecting everyone to carry their share yet over and over it was obvious that there’s a soft spot in her heart for her home province. Thus it was fitting that she be on the receiving end of this prodigious award given during the Hall of Fame Induction and Provincial Awards Night.

Here’s what the program had to say about her:

When Dorothy Hickey left her home town of St. Jacques at the head of Fortune Bay to seek her fame and fortune, little did she know the impact she would have on one of the largest sports governing bodies in Canada. Ottawa and Canada Soccer would never be the same.

For more than forty years, her outgoing, friendly and sometime authoritative style captured the attention of all who managed to come into her presence. From the get go, you knew this woman had your back and that she was there for you.

In her years with Canada Soccer, Dorothy has handled various roles within the soccer community.  Her most noteworthy role has been managing the logistics for competitions, both nationally and internationally. For us at NLSA, she has been a resource extraordinaire.  If you had a question or problem pertaining to soccer, if she didn’t have the answer off the top of her head, she directed you to where you could find the answer.

Over the years, our office staff and executive personnel who deal with Canada Soccer on a regular basis, have nothing but praise for her knowledge and extraordinary willingness to assist you with your concerns.

Dorothy’s outstanding abilities have not gone unrecognized.  Canada Soccer, over the years, has certainly realized the contribution she has made to soccer across the country.  For her commitment and dedication to the development and promoting of the game, Canada Soccer has honoured her with two of its highest honours.

On the evening of April 5th in St. John’s, Newfoundland, Brian Murphy of the Newfoundland Soccer Association, introduced the Award of Merit recipient in this way:

“A person whose character or conduct deserves reward or honour certainly fits the description of our next award recipient.  Whether it was solving problems, providing direction, or lending a shoulder to lean on there was always a little extra for those of us from home.”

Dorothy, as she has been all her life, was to the point and direct in her acceptance of the award. She said:

“I’ll keep this really short. I’d like to thank the Newfoundland Soccer Association for this award, especially Doug and Jeff. You guys have been great

over the years.

When I started with Canada Soccer I hadn’t planned on staying this long. I was just trying to build up enough money to go to Vancouver. Over my forty plus years I have met a lot of really great people from this province, especially those like Doug Redmond, Jeff Babstock, Brian Murphy, Bob Antle, Bob Miller, Ben Lake and others. I was very fortunate when I went to the Competitions Committee for I had two really great people from this province to support me as my chairs – Angus Barret and Judy Kelloway.  They provided great support for me through the National Club Championships and provided advice to me on lots of contentious issues we have had to deal with over the years. I would really like to thank my partner Steve, who unfortunately couldn’t be here tonight, who has provided me lots and lots of support. Thank you Newfoundland Soccer.”

I sat at the table with Dot alongside her brother Don and in the company of Judi Kelloway, a member of the NLSA Hall of Fame and also a recipient of the CSA’s Award of Merit, as well as Angus Barrett, a member of the Canada Soccer Hall of Fame and an NLSA Honorary Life Member, along with their spouses, among others.

When she was being presented with the Award I remembered hearing her name that morning back in February.  It made me think of how special the people are that you grow up with in your hometown.  Out of the blue, you hear a name and it captures your attention;

You respond to it by remembering the person. What you don’t know most of the time is what that person has been doing all those years.  Sometimes you are privileged to find out such as with Dorothy.  Like most of us who leave our small communities to establish careers, she didn’t set out to become one of the top administrative people in this august organization, Soccer Canada. Nor, I am sure, did she expect to become known throughout the country and internationally for her contributions to soccer.  Yet, she has and her peers from coast-to-coast gratefully acknowledge all that she has invested.  Despite all of the recognition from elsewhere, the recognition of people from ‘home’ makes the smile last longer.

Canada Soccer

Newfoundland and Labrador Soccer Association

 

 

 

Posted by: alexhickey | December 11, 2018

There’ll be a ‘Time’ Tonight ©

Windowpanes relinquished their transparency as the night wore on. Their new translucent, smoke-grey coating became prime surfaces for finger drawings of initials, names, faces, Santa hats and Christmas trees.  The wood and coal pot-bellied stove, burning feverishly since breakfast, had done its job of driving moisture and chill from the room.

St. Michael and All Angels Parish Hall c1955

The creaking hinge of the side entrance door echoed throughout the main hall of the old school that morning when someone’s uncle inched it open. The air inside felt much colder than that blowing down off the evergreen encrusted hillside. After a good douse of kerosene the saturated splits he’d so carefully layered in the burning chamber, burst into flames as soon as the wooden match made contact. A single flame replicated itself over and over in seconds then the entire inferno searched frantically for somewhere else to go. A roar soared across the room through the wire-suspended stove pipe to the brick chimney shared with the kitchen stove.  He shut the door all but a quarter of an inch as he selected the three pieces of cleaved wood most likely to catch afire.  The roar continued; he adjusted the air vent, the chimney damper, then swiped his hands together in an up and down motion dislodging bits of ash and dust. Across the harbor the message embedded in the rising white smoke was unmistakable, there’ll be a Time tonight.

Other stoves were drawing mightily on their drafts, extracting maximum heat to keep the boilers boiling and the ovens baking.  Chunks of fresh meat, beef or moose, had already undergone their searing and now gradually cooked to tenderness.  Waiting on the sidelines were bowls of carefully cubed carrots and turnip sitting beside chopped onion and a small bowl of uncooked long grain rice.  In other kitchens boilers of salt pork simmered on the back burners waiting for a topping of quartered cabbages.  Cooked potatoes and carrots cooled on countertops beside their counterparts of tinned sweet peas, luncheon meats or sliced roast beef.  Tins of cookies retrieved from their cold storage sat sweating beside lattice pastry covered partridge berry pies and plates piled high with slices of dark and light fruit cake; all destined for the Time.

Men’s white shirts, dipped in clothes blue to enhance their brilliance, their collars starched, hung at ready as did carefully chosen women’s dresses, skirts and blouses.  Children’s best had been set aside for this night for weeks. A few would sport brand spanking new outfits straight from the fall pages of Eaton’s catalogue.

Morning preparations gave way to afternoon anticipations for a Time was an all ages event.  Quibbly eaters who couldn’t imagine drinking soup or eating pork and cabbage out of dislike for the menu and those who couldn’t bear the thought of eating someone else’s cooking, ate heartily at home before setting out for the school.  By the time the afternoon became duckish a parade of boilers and boxes snaked along the roads and up the hill.  The stove in the hall could accommodate but a limited number of boilers thus by arrangement their arrival was staggered throughout the evening.  Warmed over soup just didn’t have the same appeal.

Tables in the kitchen were set and seemingly within seconds were lined with hungry customers.  Children first was usually the rule although a scattered adult male who’d been imbibing throughout the afternoon held no compunction for protocol and found a convenient seat among them.  It resulted in a scattered ‘tut-tut’ or shaking of heads; however, by and larger, it was simply smiled at and allowances made, after all it was Christmas.

We hadn’t been told the hazards of smoking back then.  Consequently, nearly every adult smoked cigarettes or a pipe.  Though the ceilings were high the air soon became thickened, casting a soft hazy atmosphere to the hall.  Whenever the porch door opened a cloud of smoke and steam erupted into the night.  A back door to the kitchen was kept slightly ajar throughout the evening to vent steam, closed only occasionally when one of the women complained of being chilled. Shortly afterwards, within minutes, another would discreetly ease it open again.  Such was one of the games carried out in the kitchen.

Sacred Heart Parish Hall c 1930

Drinking among the women wasn’t as pervasive as smoking. Yet, during a Time more than one quietly took a nip from a ubiquitous container brought from home, its contents pre-mixed to her personal taste. Men too shared flasks of various spirits, some with official stamps on their necks and others filled so many times that any stamp that might have been there was long washed away.  Drinking from the same flask didn’t seem to be a problem for some, while others preferred a tumbler from the kitchen given with the admonishment, “Don’t you break it, or else I’ll have your head!”  When confronted upon offering the last few drops in a bottle the usual response to “ I don’t want to drink your last drop”, was, “Don’t worry, b’y, there’s lots where that came from.”  And indeed there frequently was.  St. Pierre and Miquelon were not that far away.

Standing boldly in the corner of the room was an evergreen, its branches festooned with donated bells, balls and shiny baubles along with handmade cards and cardboard cutouts.  Tinsel hung precariously to its pin boughs, weaving and shimmering in the warm yellow glow of kerosene lamps strategically hung around the room. In another corner might have been a ‘jig-pond’ where children paid one or five cents to toss a bent nail at the end of a line over a sheet hung across the corner, behind which a volunteer hooked on a wrapped gift and tugged on the line. There was enormous excitement in hauling back to discover what lay inside the recycled Christmas wrap from the previous year. Once supper was served there might be a children’s bingo game around the main table in the kitchen or a scattered game of cards among those who either couldn’t or preferred not to dance.

Creaks from frost-filled hardwood floors of morning were replaced in evening by the incessant pounding of leather soled shoes step dancing in the center of the room. As soon as the fiddler or accordion player struck the first note a motley collection of dancers took to the floor.  In time the dances became more ordered with the Lancers, the Reel and various other half-remembered patterns of movement where everyone was content to follow the lead of others. These were punctuated by an occasional break to cool off outside the door. Children took great delight to see steam escaping the bodies of the dancers as soon as they hit the cool night air.

The stove by now had relinquished its role and cooled as the temperature of the room was sustained by body heat.  As the evening went on and the tone of dancing grew more frenetic, someone was sure to be keeping an eye on the stove pipe lest it work loose from the vibrations. So, too, did someone keep an eye on the lamps.  Should one begin to smoke or run out of fuel there was always someone to the rescue.

Kitchen activity wound down to a minimum with most of its traffic being to the water barrel after about nine o’ clock.  Children were ushered home to the care of sitters and the adults danced the night away. An hour or so prior to the event coming to an end a few of the women would re-heat a pot of soup for those keen on a late night snack.

Is this reminiscence nostalgic, coloured by time and memory lapses?  Yes. Does it describe the event in its entirety, leaving nothing out? No. Was a Time for everyone, with no exclusions? No. Undoubtedly there were elderly who couldn’t get out, some whose fortunes didn’t permit the luxury in a given year. Does it offer a peek into community celebration of Christmas in one of our small coastal coves and harbours? Yes. Were there differences between a Time in the Roman Catholic Hall and the Church of England Hall? Of course there were but the essence was the same.

Was it a universal experience? I don’t know.  It seemed to be at the time. The presence of two denominations in the community meant two such events during the Christmas Season.  Most residents went to both; however, there were always a few whose religious persuasions held them back.

During the twelve days of Christmas there’d be a Time in each of the road-linked communities surrounding St. Jacques.  One could never get to attend every one of them; however, a few were in order for all residents.  A cautionary order was frequently given to youngsters in our house about being back from Mummering by seven-thirty because mom and dad were going to the Time in Coomb’s Cove or Boxey.

Christmas was an occasion to suspend most matters of the world and enjoy the company of others; a time to relish the bounty of life around us and revel in the freedom of uninhibited dancing for its own sake. Times have changed as they have with every generation and the nostalgia of one becomes the curiosity of the next. If you’ve never encountered use of the work “Time” in this context here is an excerpt from the wonderful Dictionary of Newfoundland English, by G.M Story, W.J Kirwan and J. D. A Widdowson.

 

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