December 17, 1884
A Christmas experience that was quite popular in St. John’s, Newfoundland from the 1860 – 1890’s was the annual Christmas Cake Lottery. The practice was in fact so popular that many people referred to the Christmas season as the “cake lottery season”.
On December 20, 1884, the St. John’s newspaper The Evening Telegram reported:
“The ‘cake lottery season’ has now attained its height, and the confectionary business is fairly blooming.”
The competition between the ‘cake bakers’ for the attention of the public was huge with bakers in St. John’s vying for the attention of the Christmas shoppers to purchase their “large and elegantly decorated stocks of delicious cakes.”
A St. John’s business directory in 1884 reported that that there was approximately 90 bakers registered in St. John’s. Almost every street in the town had a registered baker. In addition to the independent neighborhood bakers most Confectionary Stores had on staff at least one baker and many with more to meet the baking demands of their customers.
The notion of the cake lottery was so ingrained that an exception was made in the governments law “The Act of Suppressing Lotteries, 1864”; that allowed the ‘cake lottery’ “lawful during seasonal general festivity to hold Cake, Bazaars and other lotteries.”
There were those that were suspect of how the lotteries operated. On December 17, 1885, edition of the St. John’s Evening Telegram cautioned:
“Now that the customary Christmas Cake Lotteries have again come around, and the luck ‘turn to die’ enables many a one to win a frosted cake, who would otherwise be without one, I hope that the proprietors of these enterprises will see to it that honest persons only, and competent to reckon, will be given charge of the tables.”
It appears that in previous years that the newspaper reporter had observed that there was some skullduggery. In fact he had observed:
“ an instance, last year, of collusion between a party in charge of cakes and a confederate, by which the winner was cheated out of his right. It was done by snatching up the dice quickly after the last throw, before those interested could see the number of dots, and the dealer declaring his friend to have thrown the highest number and giving him the prize.”
The popularity of the tradition of holding the cake lotteries remained very prevalent until 1892. In the Great Fire of 1892 many of the bakeries that had normally participated had been destroyed by the conflagration.
It was in 1895 that the cake lottery was gradually replaced by the notion of a cake raffle. The move saw patrons on designated nights buying raffle tickets rather than throwing the dice to win the Christmas cake.