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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