Posted by: alexhickey | December 24, 2015

Christmas is About Home

St. Jacques Harbour, Christmas 2015

St. Jacques Harbour, Christmas 2015

In these waning days of the year we are buoyed by the anticipation of seeing or hearing from family and friends. In some parts of our country there’s anticipation of new friends among those from other countries and cultures who need a place like ours to live in peace. It’s a special time for many, a time to reflect, recall and share old memories, a time to make new memories. Sometimes it is a visit to ’home’, wherever that may be and however one gets there.

Traditionally, in the Newfoundland fishery, vessels returned to home port for Christmas, their crews dispersing on voyages to their home communities. For some crewmen it was a short walk from the dock in places like Lunenburg, Nova Scotia while others from the same ship could look forward to days travelling on trains, ferries and coastal boats, all with one goal in mind, ‘to get home for Christmas.’ Today, the business of fishing offshore doesn’t pause and crews who work the Christmas shift make the best of their situation through humour, the savouring of keepsakes and storytelling in their home away from home. Each person on those crews bring to mind different yet similar memories and no matter what their circumstance, all define it as home.

Astronauts aboard the International Space Station weightlessly flying around the world several times each day look down on home in a way most of us will never experience. Coming from different countries, religious practices and political beliefs, their home is a fragile blue planet called earth.

For many of us home is that place where we were born or spent our childhood days. For some it’s where we have chosen to live and for others it’s where life’s journey has taken us, willing or not. Through the centuries there have been thousands who’ve called St. Jacques home. Though they may have travelled afar there are those who were born here, lived here and died here, spending decade after decade gazing at the harbour and its surrounding hills, witnesses to change and the passage of time.

Those who ventured to St. Jacques from other shores and claimed a part of it as theirs also called it home. Dr. Conrad Fitz-Gerald left his birthplace of Marlborough, England to serve as a medical doctor to Newman and Company at their business in Harbour Breton in the 1870’s. After retirement in 1902 he and his wife Keturah, who was born in Nova Scotia, moved to St. Jacques where they built an impressive three story house they named Mt. Pleasant. St. Jacques became their home, a place they loved and from which he would never leave.

Maurice Burke, his parents and siblings, move to St. Jacques during the early 1940’s reconnecting with a family heritage which reached back to the earliest days of the community. Though, as an adult employment took him to St. John’s, he cherished every opportunity to meet someone from home, to catch up on the latest events, to show off the recent photograph he’d found of the place or to reminisce. His passion for the place he called home led him to publish a book, Memories of Outport Life, stories of life, people and events he witnessed growing up in St. Jacques. Anyone who met him would offer the same observation, ‘though he moved, he never left St. Jacques.’ At Christmas time he had his many traditions and events in and around St. John’s, yet his heart and soul felt most at peace when he reflected on Christmases he spent ‘home’.

Just as Conrad’s, Maurice’s and other families have done for generations we take out of boxes those trinkets and objects we ritually display on our Christmas tree. These artifacts and treasures we’ve kept over the years help define home. Through them we tell and retell the stories of our Christmases lived and in some instances reach back to Christmases before our time in handling a decoration or souvenir of a grandparent or family member of an earlier generation. Sacred secular touchstones is what they are. And, even when the realization occurs that too much Christmas decorations have inadvertently been accumulated and the purge takes place, those things which remind us of people and place are the ones we carefully stow away for retrieval again next year.

Whether we live in an ancestral home mere feet away from where earlier generations toiled and celebrated or in an apartment so physically removed from that place ancestors walked that we shall never touch that soil again, we share the same feeling during this season. It doesn’t really matter if we say the words Merry Christmas or Season’s Greetings to each other; what matters is that we greet each other and acknowledge each others presence in whatever place we live whether we call it home or not. In that acknowledgement we help build home and place. We bring to it all of what Christmas means to us emotionally and historically and welcome others into that feeling. That’s where it feels like home!

During the twelve days of Christmas in St. Jacques there is time to explore again what it all means and why being thankful brings its own reward. There will be family to visit in the warmth of their homes or in the coolness of their final resting places. So too will there be friends to hug and share a laugh with in the corner store; people whose faces are part of the mosaic of our lives. Traditions climb out of their storage spaces as well and set in motion events we will relish each time they occur. Cutting an evergreen tree in behind St. Jacques Pond to become the centerpiece of our home is one of those traditions. It is never perfectly shaped like artificial trees, nor does it win any awards. It does, however, spread the incredible scent of the forest throughout the living room to remind us of nature and the beauty which surrounds all who live here. It connects us to every other Christmas tree that’s stood in its place and it gives us another opportunity to handle each of those treasured objects we hang on its branches.

Then there are the visits, the shared meals and the storytelling as evenings wear thin. Of course, in a town where there exists two denominations of roughly equal proportions, there are Christmas Eve services to attend. Usually its late afternoon or early evening in Sacred Heart Church followed within an hour or so in St Michael and All Angel’s Church. There won’t be any difficulty finding a place to sit again this year for each time the event rolls around there seems to be fewer and fewer folks attending. In that respect St. Jacques is not unique.

In many other ways it is not unique either. It’s a small town on a coastline in the north Atlantic where change is gradual, where the seasons rotate on schedule and people go about their daily lives with ordinary regularity. Yet, to everyone who does or has ever called it home it is one of the most unique places on earth. Just as folks trek to Bethlehem or Mecca or any place they hold special in their hearts, so too do many of us trek to St. Jacques for the Christmas season. Those of us who get to stand on its shore and breathe the salt-laden crisp winter air feel we have arrived and there is nowhere else to go. Those of us who travel in our hearts and minds relish vivid memories and recollections of Christmas events that shaped our lives in that little town and recall how special those fleeting moments were.

It is intriguing how we so easily agree with that line in Bud Davidge’s Mummer’s Song, “Christmas is not like it was.” At the same time that we echo the sentiment we also prepare ourselves for what it is, for it can never be as it was. The passage of time as a constant and circumstance as a variable see to that. As is often said, the world can change in the blink of an eye and too frequently that seems to happen. It happens within our families, within our communities and within our country. Thus, the Christmas we celebrate each year is dynamic, ever-changing, and at the same time familiar. Wherever we are it’s a time for open arms, open hearts and open homes.

Merry Christmas!

come into my house so humble and small,
Let’s drink a toast to us here;
To the twelve days of Christmas, we’ll drink to them all,
With a wish for a Happy New Year.
Bud Davidge, The Mummers Song


  1. Merry Christmas Alex to you and your wonderful family! I have enjoyed your post this year. I hope you are surrounded by family cherishing wonderful memories while making more !

    Sent from my iPad


  2. Merry Christmas….your refections bring me back to my St.Jacques Christmasses…….our most valued Christmas tree ornament is a celluiold St. Nick which has been in our family since 1926…a remembrance our St.Jacques Christmases…..Thanks Alex……the photo is precious. Take Care:John.

  3. Merry Christmas to you from Stephenville. I don’t have any ornaments from St. Jacques, however, I remember my Dad’s traditions of “giving” our toys, mom’s speciality cakes and much more to those in need at Christmas. He felt we had enough and his spirit reached out to others. You will miss your dad this Christmas, but I’m sure he is with you in Spirit. We hope to plan a summer trip in 2016. Thanks for sharing your story.
    Rosemary McCarthy Finn

  4. Merry Christmas to you and your family. Thank you for this post. I will share it with my Mom tomorrow. We still treasure our time in St. Jacques.

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