In Newfoundland, when the village man greets his neighbour on the street with a "Merry Christmas!" the chances are he is standing in a snowdrift and his words ride out on puffs of vapour in the crisp air. If he looks about, he sees snow-laden trees set into a background of clean, white landscape with chimney smoke curling lazily into an azure sky: and if he listens, he hears the tinkle of sleigh bells and gleeful shouts of children sledding and ice-skating. If at night, he sees the countryside flooded with moonlight, big polished stars in the northern sky, and lamplight on the snow, reflected from a cozy room. In other words, when the village man says "Merry Christmas!" he is speaking right out of a greeting card!
Yet he seldom notices any of these things, because, of course, Christmas has always been that way. But he knows it is Christmas. That, he knows!
For in no other place is Christmas more like Christmas than is some of these villages of Newfoundland. Among this folksy people - in homes where there still are antimacassars and teapot cozies, and birch and witch hazel logs glowing cheerily in fireplaces - the spirit of thanksgiving, goodfellowship and good fun flourishes in old-time merry season fashion. Here the customs and communtiy spirit of English, Irish and Scotch ancestry have been preserved in all their old-fashioned goodness, with merrymaking over the whole of twelve days - until Old Christmas Day, January 6th. Family and communal gatherings are warm and bright in a communtiy with cemented family ties and strong mutual interests. Christmas is very real in Newfoundland.
In settlements where men who have been away working all summer return in late fall to their homes and families, the season is a grand occasion when all the holidays of the year are squeezed into a few short days. There are birthday parties without a birthday, anniversary celebrations long overdue, community suppers and school concerts, lodge affairs, weddings, and all the other activities of earnest village life. This custom of making merry while the making is good extends to industrial centers and towns where the population is more or less stationary but no less enthusiastic. "I've got to be home for Christmas" is the determination of every Newfoundlander.
Toys, sweets, spices, fruits and other good things for the holiday season are freighted to the far outports in fishing schooners returning from the capitol city where the summer's catch of sun-cured codfish has been sold for export. Every available crevice among the winter's food and provisions is stuffed with the things a man with money will buy to make his family's eyes dance. Each crew member's sea chaest is now a treasure box of gifts: a tin steamer with gaily painted smokestacks, a golden-haired doll peeping from a cradle, and, for Mother, perfumes and toilet water in decorated bottles as well as the more substantial bolts of fine cloth. Here, Santa Claus travels in sailing ships - comes in from the sea.
Everywhere, luxuries for the Christmas trade are displayed in shops as soon as recieved. Weeks in advance the sharp odour of apples and oranges and new cotton goods - especially apples - have dispelled the less savoury smells of kerosene, wash soap, and salted meats that usually permeate the general store which sells everthing from a lampwick to a ship's anchor. Candies and sweets in all colours and shapes are heaped in showcase and tall glass jars to torment the eyes and appetite of children show gather at the shop windows in wide-eyed groups.
What Newfoundlander could ever forget the peppermint walkingsticks with red rings, the multicoloured chew bars (Jerusalems), the all day suckers and barrel sweets, the molasses kisses, Sen-Sens, the peppermint knobs with red circles in glass jars, and the sweethearts - especially the sweethearts - a flat heart-shaped sweet with inscribed sentimental messages (I love you; kiss me) that had to be licked well to show up the print? The child who seldom sees money but who gets a few pennies on Christmas Eve to splurge among these delights has really shaken hands with Santa Claus and is sitting on top of the world.
Nearing Christmas the household is humming with activity. Men are buys storing fuel and clearing up the many chores against the long holidays, while the women are on their toes in the kitchen and spic-and-spanning everything in sight. Children, who seldom notice indoor things, are breathless to help with coloured paper decorations and now develop a sudden interest in the kitchen where there are cake batter, dried apples, apricot prunes, citron and candied lemon peel, and raisins. When Christmas is in the air everything is perking.
The family celebrations begin promptly on Christmas Eve with a fine supper. The main dish is usually specially prepared sun-cured cod served in savoury sauces - a thanksgiving ceremony. After supper the family assembles in the parlour, a large well-furnished room reserved for special occasions and seldom used otherwise, where a lively fire of birch nugs in the fireplace makes lights dance on the tree decorations laboriously improvised from tin foil and other bits of bright stuff by the children.
At this time carols and Christmas hymns are sung, in some homes to the accompaniment of organ or accordion and sometimes to the sweet tones of piano and violin. After the children have gone to bed, gifts in gay wrappings are placed around the tree and stockings filled and hung on the branches among apples and oranges suspended on coloured string.
On Christmas Day, carefully selected useful gifts are exchanged among adult members of the family, with special attention to Mother and children, but the hearty handshake and round visits are the no less sincere expressions reserved for neighbours. The village man has many lifelong friends to whom his "Merry Christmas!" is sufficient pledge of goodwill though often bolstered by a nip of fiery Jamaica rum, the traditional strong drink of hardy Newfoundlanders.
On this morning the simplest toy in a tiny stocking hung pleadingly from the mantlepiece or on the tree brings untold joy to the child in the semi-isolated places where Santa Claus travels ever so lightly and gifts are practically unknown between his visits.
Christmas Day is Thanksgiving Day in Newfoundland, and the dinner is the most elaborate of the year. The traditional dish is roast beef, though in recent times the home-grown or imported turkey has become quite popular. The choicest cattle, pigs, poultry or game are reserved for this dinner, and no family has to go without while the neighbours have enough to share - and they always do have. Here is where the women exhibit their most treasured linen service, with the gravy boat sitting majestically on a masterpiece of daily handiwork that took weeks to fashion and with hand-embroidered serviettes (napkins) that in some cases would flatter the lap of a queen.
After the main course, the large fruit-cake, prepared months in advanced and containing everything that can be put into a cake to make it good, is placed at the centre of the table and ceremoniously cut and served. At this time, also, appears the "figged loaf", "barksail bread", dear to Newfoundlanders - a raisin-studded sweetened loaf called Chrismas bread. After dinner the head of the family, in observance of some quaint custom, takes his best gun from the rack, steps to the portal, plants his feet, and solemnly fires into the air.
Christmas night is reserved for special religious observances. Church bells summon the faithful, who sing from the heart the same age-old carols and Christmas hymns that resound from massive pipe organs and thousands of choir voices in city catherdrals throughout the world. Here, in the village church with the amber light of oil lamps flickering on the wood-trimmed interior, the story of the humble Nativity assumes the simplicity of its original setting. Village people live close to the Bible, and the Christmas service is a real part of their life.
The days and nights that follow are crowded with activities. School concerts furnish emotional outlet for budding actors and actresses as well as entertainment for the whole village. The little girl in pigtails, frilly dress, and patent leather shoes gulps her stagefright and fills the small building with her strong voice; and little Willie, his outdoors hair finally captured into cowlicks, stays in one spot long enough to recite a poem about "ships that sail the sea." In some cases ambitious playlets are undertaken by adult members of the parish. The school-teacher who directs these histrionic efforts has his reward in an enthusiastic audience that packs the building to the doors.
The church bazaars and community suppers that come with the merry season are gala affairs, drawing visitors from miles around. These events often feature folk dances to the music of accordion and fiddle and are happy times for young and old.
The suppers are supervised by the best cooks in the village, where every housewife is a good cook. Large pots, filled with slabs of corned beef smothered in luscious local vegetables that have been left in the ground long enough to suck the goodness out of the earth, bubble merrily on outdoor fires. Inside the school building or parish hall, long plank tables, tastefully dressed, are decorated with jars of homemade mustard pickles and other good things from the kitchen shelves, as well as soda crackers and caraway-seed biscuits from city bakeries. When the platters of steaming food are brought in, the villagers pull up their chairs and "set to" with hearty northern appetites. This is the hot supper Newfoundlanders in other lands dream about.
An entertainment feature is the auctioning of surplus cakes. The local Bob Hope is engaged for this, and his repertoire of "gags" keeps the audience in stitches - and sells the cakes. Enough money is raised at these events to keep the church treasurers happy a whole year.
Lodge parades are, of course, daytime affairs, with late afternoon teas and celebrations. In large communities the fraternal organization marches behind a band that broadcasts its oompahs on the crisp air, filling the outdoors with music. Newfoundlanders are noted "joiners", spending big money for gold-braid regalia, and many are staunch members of international organizations such as Masons and Odd Fellows. The little boys making long strides at the tail of the parade are only practicing against the future.
The many weddings of athe season provide sumptuous feasts among gay family gatherings and also furnish the local belles with bits of wedding cake to put under their pillows as a charm for romantic dreams.
One of the most enjoyable customs that flourish in the merry season is mummering, or jannying. Jannies are troupes of roving masqueraders that make the rounds at night until every home in the village has been visited. Masquerades are elaborately and cunningly contrived so that it is a wise mother who knows her own son as a janny. Masks are usually comical rather than scary, so as not to frighten the youngsters, though some of the soot-blacked, painted faces are not easy to look at among the shadows. The idea is, of course, fun and more fun; and where there are jannies there is plenty of that.
A good janny is a talented performer, either a musician (accordion, fiddle, or harmonica), a step-dancer or a master of pantomime. They are adaptable creatures and know the ground they travel. Thus in one home they are models of decorum with a repertoire of carols and sweet songs to blend with the known mood of the family; in the next they turn into gay troubadours singing rollicking ballads that tremble the windowpanes; and in still another home they become rowdy rascals who kick the hooked rugs in a pile and dance jigs on the bare floor until the house itself shakes with mirth.
Following each performance hot or cold syrupy drinks, cake, fruit and candy are served by the host, and jannies have been known to pocket these goodies in well-to-do homes in order to play a belated Santa Claus among children of the poorer households. After several nights of strenuous merrymaking the janny is almost a wreck.
But he has a lot of fun himself and made a lot of fun for others in the merry old-fashioned Christmas season in Newfoundland.
[A Newfoundland Christmas][Christmas Recipes][Traditional Christmas Customs][Christmas Stories]