Gun salute rings in the New Year



The "firing off the guns" on New Year's Eve is a long established tradition in Newfoundland and Labrador.

The “firing off the guns” on New Year’s Eve is a long established tradition in Newfoundland and Labrador.

The “feu de joie” or  “fire of joy”  is a gun salute that was common place in Newfoundland in the past,  an activity that is associated with bringing in the New Year.

The tradition continues in many communities in Newfoundland and Labrador, at the stroke of mid night gun shots are fired as residents bring in the New Year.

In an article entitled “The Folk-Lore of Newfoundland and Labrador,” appearing in  the St. John’s newspaper   “The Evening Herald,” (December 29, 1892),  the Anglican Missionary priest, Rev. Arthur C. Waghorne discusses Christmas traditions that are observed in Newfoundland  which “either continue to prevail, or have been only lately  disused.”  One of the traditions that he refers to is the “firing off the gun.”

In his article he notes that the tradition of the “firing off the gun” is not as popular as it was fifty years ago confirming that the tradition has been established in Newfoundland since at least 1842 and perhaps much longer.

One could speculate that the tradition might have been established in Newfoundland as early as 1621 with the arrival of Lord Baltimore’s first settlers in Ferryland.  We do know that the practice in North America dates to at least 1642 when a law in Maryland  (also established by Lord Baltimore)  was passed  ordering that:

“No man to discharge 3 guns within the space of ¼ hour… except to give or answer alarm.”

The law was introduced in Maryland because gunshots were the common method of warning neighbors of an emergergency (fire) or a pending attack. Because so many people were shooting guns while celebrating on New Years Eve and other celebratory occasions, it was impossible to know what was happening.

It is a tradition that is gradually fading – with the “shooting in the New Year” being gradually replaced by fire works that have the advantage of supplying   both the noise and visual effect.

It is generally accepted that the practice of shooting off the guns on New Years Eve comes from the belief that evil spirits dislike loud noises. The guns were fired off to ward off any bad luck that the spirits might bring.”

New Year’s Eve Countdown & Fireworks : When the clock strikes midnight on Dec. 31, the people of Newfoundland are the first in North America to celebrate the New Year.

Pet owners are reminded that the noise associated with ‘gun fire’ and ‘fireworks’ will likely be a frightening experience for your pet – please attend to your pets, most pets would prefer to be inside during the fireworks display.

Recommended Reading: Devine, P.K.  Devine’s Folk Lore of Newfoundland in Old Words, Phrases and Expressions, Their Origin and Meaning (St John’s: Robinson & Co., Ltd., 1937)


“They had veils over their faces … mummers”


December 27, 1862 

Photo Credit: The Rooms Provincial Archives: B 4-158; Mummering in St. John’s, Newfoundland

In Newfoundland the tradition of mummering or jannying  (December 26 – January 6) is often associated with the mummer’s parade, home visitation, music and the occasional drink!  The tradition has a darker side.

Few people know that in order to mummer in Newfoundland participants at one time needed a license to do so and that for almost 100 years mummering was outlawed!!

In the tradition of mummering, friends and neighbours conceal  their identities by adopting various disguises, covering their faces, and by modifying their speech, posture and behavior.

It was not surprising that some, using these disguises, would be up to no good. Some in disguise would use the mummering season to retaliate against those that they disliked or had some grudge to settle.

In order to control mummering and the violence associated with it in June 1861, the Newfoundland government passed an act which dictated that:

“any Person who shall be found… without a written Licence from a Magistrate, dressed as a Mummer, masked, or otherwise disguised, shall be deemed guilty of a Public Nuisance”. Offenders were to pay “a Fine not exceeding Twenty Shillings”, or to serve a maximum of seven days’ imprisonment (Consolidated Acts of Newfoundland, 1861: 10).

Artist: Stephanie Baker Sutton

On December 27, 1862   in the Town of Harbour Grace, Constable Joseph Nichols arrested and dragged before the local magistrate,   Joseph Pynn and a few of his friends, Constable Nichols told the court:

“they had veils over their faces and was disguised in female clothing and the other in men’s dress, they were acting in all respects as mummers.”

The magistrate was not amused,  Jospeh Pynn was “fined each 20 pounds sterling  or 7 days imprisonment.” Pynn and his friends were not about to spend Christmas in jail – the court record shows that “Stephen Andrews paid the fine and all discharged.”

The idea of a license to mummer did not go over very well.  Mummering was a passion ingrained in the culture of the Newfoundland people. The St. John’s newspaper the Public Ledger in January 1862 suggested that 150 licenses had been issued during the preceding Christmas season, but that many more participants in the custom had failed to comply with the new legislation.

Recommended Archival Collection:  The Rooms Provincial Archives:  GN5 /3B/19 Box13, File Number 3

Recommended Reading:  Any Mummers ’Lowed In? Christmas Mummering Traditions in Newfoundland and Labrador. Flanker Press, St. John’s,  NL.  2014.  Folklorist Dale Jarvis traces the history of the custom in Newfoundland and Labrador and charts the mummer’s path through periods of decline and revival. Using archival records, historic photographs, oral histories, and personal interviews with those who have kept the tradition alive, he tells the story of the jannies themselves. 

The Rooms is dressed for Christmas – come  take a look at our Christmas trees!  We have a special “mummers tree”.


The Harbour Grace Affray


December 26,  1883

The  Harbour Grace Affray

Unknown artist: Scene of the Harbor Grace Tragedy, St. Stephen’s Day, December 26th, 1883. Lithograph, Printed and published by H. Seibert and Brothers Lithographers, New York R9266-3300

Unknown artist: Scene of the Harbor Grace Tragedy, St. Stephen’s Day, December 26th, 1883. Lithograph, Printed and published by H. Seibert and Brothers Lithographers, New York R9266-3300

St. Stephen’s Day (known nowadays as Boxing Day) is a significant date on the Newfoundland calendar. It was on St. Stephen’s Day in 1883 on which the Harbour Grace Affray took place.

On St. Stephen’s Day, 1883, the hostility that was forming in the town of Harbour Grace between the Protestants and Roman Catholics came to a boiling point. Approximately 400 – 500 members of the Loyal Orange Association held their annual parade through the town.

It was during their march around the town that a group of 100 to 150 Catholic men from Riverhead formed a line in an attempt to prevent the Protestants from passing through the lane from Harvey Street to Water Street because they felt that the Orangemen were encroaching on their territory.

From this confrontation came five deaths and 17 injuries. Resulting from this event, known as the Harbour Grace Affray, nineteen people were arrested and brought to trial.

Due to conflicting evidence and suspected perjury, all charged individuals were acquitted.

Killed in the Affray:

  • William Jeans, aged 21, Carbonear
  • William French, 40 years, Courage’s Beach, Harbour Grace
  • Patrick Callahan, 56 years, Southside Harbour Grace
  • John Bray, an aged man, Courage’s beach, Harbour Grace
  • Thomas Nicholas, Oterbury, Harbour Grace

Recommended Archival Collection:  The Rooms Provincial Archives: GN 170 Newfoundland and Labrador Court Records: Files consist of charges relating to the Harbour Grace Affray.

Recommended Reading:  The Harbour Grace Affray: St Stephen’s Day 1883 by Patrick Collins, DRC Publishing,  St. John’s, NL, 2011.


“Good old days of yore”


“Good old days of yore”

December 1912 

Mr. Alex A. Parsons, (1848-1932)  in the St. John’s publication Christmas Bells, 1912 took some time to reflect on Christmas “in the good old days of yore.”  He wrote:

“It seems to me that people of the present day  (1912) do not enter into the spirit of the season as did our ancestors in the “good old days of yore”.  I distinctly remember when the approach of “Yuletide” – as we now call it – was hailed with the greatest enthusiasm by all ages and conditions of men, regardless of their surroundings and circumstances.

Mummering was then our most popular amusement at Christmastide.  This usually began on the afternoon of the Feast of St. Stephen (December 26) , and continued every evening and night till the end of the Old Twelfth Day.  Then, an extraordinary display of fancy and unique dresses by the merry masqueraders, accompanied by brass bands, a big “haul of wood” and other demonstrations of a kindred nature;

J.W. Hayward, 1904

brought this great festival to a close.  Surely there are citizens here in St. John’s today who can readily call to mind that exciting scene when mummers paraded along that thoroughfare from one end of Water Street to the other.

But, within the past few years, these kinds of festivities once appropriate to the day have much fallen off.

 The heart-histories of most people are bound up with the happy memories of Christmas Day.  Christmas in the Home!  Think of it, citizens of Newfoundland!  Think of the Christmas days when you were young:  the pleasant home-coming after school, the skating in the frosting morning, sometimes on the harbor, sometimes on Quidi Vidi Lake, sometimes on Burtons Pond, the children’s parties, the memorable Christmas tree, the presents from and to everybody, the round of dances – what man or woman ever forgets those merry, merry days of Christmas?”

Mr. Alex A. Parsons, (1848-1932)  was editor of the Evening Telegram  (1882-1904); and Superintendent of H.M. Penitentiary (1905 – 1925).

Wishing you and your families a very Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.  All the very best with the challenges and opportunities that will come in the  New Year.

Recommended: The Rooms is dressed for Christmas, come over for a visit over the holidays!  Looking for a Christmas Gift: 






Tippling on Tibb’s Eve


December 23 –  Tibb’s Eve

An ale at the local tipple.

In many communities in Newfoundland– the name assigned to December 23 – has traditionally been Tibb’s Eve also known as Tipp’s Eve and more recently Tipsy Eve. It is the first official day of the Christmas Season.

There is uncertainty about the origins of the expression. Folklorists in Newfoundland generally agree that Tibb’s Eve was originally the old-fashioned way to say ‘never’, as in ‘a day that doesn’t exist’. In Newfoundland the expression was “it will be Tibb’s Eve before you get that done.” or “we’ll be at this from now to Tibb’s Eve”.

It might be argued that the expression is Irish.  In 1796  Francis Grose, in his book  ‘Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue,’ third ed. writes that  Saint Tibb’s  evening

” is an Irish expression, and means ” the evening of the last day, ” as in  ” He will pay you on St. Tibb’s Eve.”

There’s an interview in the Folklore and Language Archives at Memorial University of Newfoundland with a man from a community in Placentia Bay, born in the early 1900s, who asks the student who’s interviewing him when she plans to get married.

“She answers, ‘Oh, probably never’ he winks his eye and says, ‘Oh, on Tibb’s Eve,’ and on the tape she has no idea what he’s talking about. For him, a joking way, but a normal way of something that’s not going to happen.


The more contemporary explanation of St. Tibb’s comes from the association of the day with a Christmas tipple.  In the 1500’s if you were to go out for a drink you went to a “tipple” or alehouse and were served by a “tippler” the alehouse keeper.  In Newfoundland – St. Tibb’s became – the first real occasion to taste the home brew, a day where the men would visit each other’s homes for a taste.

In 1868 the Catholic bishop of Newfoundland was so appalled that the extent of “habit of tippling” or buying drinks for friends – that he became a determined opponent.  In the early 1900’s one of his successors established the Anti Treating League encouraging men to pledge themselves “not to take from anyone a drink of intoxicating liquor in a place where such liquors are sold.

The League was not a great success.

Merry Christmas

If you are tippling on Tibb’s Eve – No Driving !!



“The Dancing Season in St. John’s”

Archival Moment

November 28, 1894

$_12In late November of 1894 a young clerical student challenged the Editor of the local St. John’s newspaper the Evening Telegram to encourage a debate about the merits of dancing.  The young clerical student wrote:

I want to know whether it is right or wrong, and perhaps if a discussion on the subject were opened up, one would be better able to judge.”

A number of subscribers to the Evening Telegram took on the challenge and penned letters making their positions known and they had very definite opinions.

Elizabeth A. Nyle from her home on Freshwater Road, St. John’s was the first to enter the fray stating quiet categorically that she was quite opposed to dancing. She wrote:

“It (dancing) involves extravagance of dress, and too often a shocking indelicacy of dress likewise. It involves contacts and caresses of young men and women which stimulate sensual passions. It kindles salacious thoughts.  An evening spent in that way is not a recreation, it is a “revealing,” and ministers to vanity, frivolity, jealously and fleshy lusts , which war against the soul.”

Other letters to the Editor supported the notion of dancing. One woman writing under the pen name Minerva (the Roman goddess of wisdom and sponsor of arts) wrote:

“I should certainly say that there can be no possible harm in this innocent pastime, as dancing is one of the most pleasant ways of taking exercise. It suits all classes, old and young, the old folks almost becoming young again under its vigorous influence. … It certainly is the great key to social intercourse, unbending even the most rigid in their endeavor to keep up with the music.”

If you were to go out dancing in St. John’s in the 1890’s  the two most popular dances were the ‘Valse” and the “Minuet.”

The “Valse” was a relatively new dance in St. John’s and in 1894 considered “the dance”,  but  it seems “very few people knew how to dance it well.”  Today we know the “Valse”  as the Waltz . When  first introduced into the ballrooms of the world in the early years of the Nineteenth Century, it was met with outraged indignation, for it was the first dance where the couple danced in a modified Closed Position – with the man’s hand around the waist of the lady.

The “Minuet” was also very popular at the time it was described as “being very graceful and when seen from a distance looks very imposing.”

In November 1894 all of the “Assembly Halls”  in St. John’s were actively advertising for the “dancing season.” The West End Amusement Club was offering “dancing assembly’ every Wednesday night.  The British Hall offered “dancing assembly” every Thursday night.

In St. John’s, “Christmas dancing was the chief amusement ; in fact it is the “dancing season”  when old and young alike join in the sport, making old Father Xmas glad he came once more.”

It is likely that Mrs.  Elizabeth A. Nyle was not amused.

My dance card is full.

A dance card is a card that was provided at large balls and dances with a list of the dances for the evening with a space beside it. The ladies would each have a card, sometimes with a small attached pencil, and when a gentleman asked her to dance, he would write his name in for a particular agreed upon dance. This was to help the lady remember who she agreed to dance with and to avoid the embarrassing situation of promising to dance the same dance with two different men.

The stove destroyed a Newfoundland Christmas Tradition


Christmas Tradition  

Lewis Amadeus Anspach the author of History of the island of Newfoundland, (London, 1819) the first general history of Newfoundland, observed in his book, a Christmas tradition that he found quite fascinating.  The ancient British custom of the Yule or Christmas log or block that he states “is universally observed by the inhabitants of Newfoundland.”

Anspach observed:

“On Christmas-eve, at sun-set, an immense block …(junk of birch wood)  is laid across on the back of the fireplace, to be left there till it is entirely consumed: the ceremony of lighting it is announced by the firing of muskets or seal guns before the door of each dwelling house. This, among them, is the prelude to a season of joy and merriment.”

In her 1934 diary account of the tradition Mrs. E. J. Froude of Random Sound reflecting on the tradition of the Yule Log as it was practiced in 1870 wrote:

“The Yule, commonly called the birch junk, was selected to last for the twelve days [of Christmas]. It was after a long search found in the woods where the biggest firs and birches grew and hauled home in such a spirit of triumph. It was then cut in three feet or thereabouts to fit the space on the hearth at the base of the chimney,…”

The tradition continued in many communities – in some places – with variations on the original custom.  In some communities a brand of the back-junk or birch junk or Yule log was taken from the fire on Christmas night, taken outdoors and thrown over the saddle of the roof to ensure safety of the home from fire in the coming year.

What happened to the tradition?  At another point in her diary Mrs. Froude cites the technological innovation which caused the decline of this custom.  She wrote:

 “ sixty-four years ago [1870] the first stove began to come into use in the outport. Before this it was all open fireplaces and grates. These times much wood was required for the open fireplaces. The stove was at first regarded with disfavour… The Victory and the Waterloo looked nice when polished but they did not show the fire.”

The new tradition that was born from the dying of the Yule Log tradition was the birth of the Yule log cake, the dessert is usually in the form of a large rectangular yellow cake spread with frosting and rolled up into a cylinder – one end is then lopped off and stood on end to indicate the rings of the “log.”

So when you’re enjoying your Yule Log cake over Christmas holidays think of the old tradition that was lost by the introduction of the stove.

Recommended Archival Collection:  Random Sound Daybook, Maritime History Archive, Memorial University of Newfoundland,St. John’s, MF0046

Lost Word:  “Back Junk”: A short log to fit a wood-burning stove or fire-place, often with back, fore or middle as qualifying word . The wood was sometimes quite green, and hence making a fire was quite an art, and required back-junks, fore-junks, middle-junks, triggers, splits, and brands; and the fishermen would sometimes say whoever can build a good fire with green fir can build a boat. 1893 Christmas Greeting. (Dictionary of Newfoundland English)

The First Transatlantic Radio Message


December 12, 1901

Photo Credit: The Rooms Provincial Archives: A 66-145; Guglielmo Marconi, with instruments used to receive first transatlantic message,St. John’s. Photographer James Vey, St. John’s.

On December 12, 1901, at Signal Hill, St. John’s, Italian scientist and engineer Guglielmo Marconi sent and received the first transatlantic radio message.

The test signal was sent by electrical engineer John Ambrose Fleming in Poldhu, Cornwall, 3,200 km away across the Atlantic Ocean. It came in through a 121 metre long copper wire antenna trailing from a box kite and out through a radio speaker.

Marconi had set up temporary masts, but high winds had blown them down. The kite contraption worked. Marconi heard the first signal as the faint clicking of Morse code – of the letter ‘S’ –three short clicks– repeated over and over, and he passed the ear piece to his assistant, G. S. Kemp for corroboration.

Marconi first started experimenting with radiotelegraphy around 1895 and he realized that messages could be transmitted over much greater distances by using grounded antennae on the radio transmitter and receiver.

A few years after his successful transmission with Fleming, Marconi opened the first commercial wireless telegraph service.

Recommended Archival Collection:  At the Rooms Archives Division see  F.37-’37  one of the archival documents is the Proposal of the Canadian Marconi Company to establish a wireless telephone service between St. John’s and Canada, the United States and Great Britain

Recommended Reading:  Marconi, by Giancarlo Masini, Marsilio Publishers: 1999.

Recommended Website:  Marconi Calling is a fascinating exploration of Guglielmo Marconi’s life, his scientific discoveries, the impact of wireless and the development of modern communications

Looks like a good Christmas on the Cape Shore

December 7, 1884

“A derelict schooner, drifted ashore at St. Bride’s … “

As Christmas 1884 approached, the people of St. Bride’s, Placentia Bay, were thinking it would not be a prosperous Christmas.  It had been a poor year in the fishery. Their fortune was however about to change unhappily born on the pain of other families from Placentia Bay.

On  December 7, 1884 residents of St. Bride’s  stood on ‘the bank’ overlooking Placentia Bay  watching as a “a derelict schooner, drifted ashore at St. Bride’s, dismasted and waterlogged…”

There was much excitement in St. Bride’s, it was quickly realized that “Sixty three barrels of flour and six puncheons of molasses” was aboard the vessel.   It was theirs to salvage, they would take it home.

In the days following the salvage effort, St. Bride’s fell silent.  James E. Croucher, the Wreck Commissioner stationed at Great Placentia had arrived in the town on December 10.  He immediately began a search for the cargo of the ill-fated schooner, but to his dismay only found   “24 barrels of flour broken and in a damaged condition, and two puncheons of molasses …”   

Thirty nine (39) barrels of flour and four (4) puncheons of molasses were not accounted for.

Croucher,  as the Wreck Commissioner was obliged by law, under the Consolidated States of Newfoundland to travel to St. Bride’s to investigate the loss of the Schooner, he could only conclude: “the remainder of the property being distributed amongst salvors by a person or parties who had no authority from me to do so.”

As he sailed out of St. Bride’s for Great Placentia the residents of St. Bride’s no doubt celebrated. With their newly acquired abundance of flour and molasses, it would be a good Christmas.

The people of St. Bride’s also mourned, they knew that their gain came at the loss of the crew of the Schooner Stella, a crew of nine men out of nearby Oderin, Placentia Bay.  It is said that she was wrecked in the “terrific gale of November 1884.”

Ever respectful of the dead, it is reported that All the clothes that had belonged to the lost men that had been taken from the Schooner were carefully dried and forwarded to their families.”

What was St. Bride’s Like?

The 1874 census listed a population of 140 in 29 families. Thirteen residents were from Ireland and one from Scotland.  The 79 fishermen had 22 boats. The 13 farmers had 203 cattle, 30 horses, 139 sheep and 113 swine on 200 acres of land.  Products included 60 bushels of oats and 5,460 lbs. 01 butter

By 1891, the population had increased to 256, including four from Ireland. The 66  fishermen-farmers. The community also had a priest, a teacher and a merchant, and 65 of the 122 children were in school.

What about the name?

The name of St. Bride’s is quite modern, and was given from the titular Saint of the Church of St. Bridgett.

On more ancient maps it  (St. Bride’s)  was called La Stress, apparently a French name which became corrupted into Distress.

This name “Distress”  in 1876   was reported by the newly arrived  priest Reverend Charles Irvin  as “not being of pleasant sound”  and having the authority of the church the priest  changed the name from Distress to  St. Bride’s .   

Recommended Archival Collection:  The Maritime History Archive, Memorial University of Newfoundland, St. Johns, holds 70% of the Crew Agreements from 1863-1938, and 80% of the Agreements from 1951-1976. The crew agreements include particulars of each member of the crew, including name (signature), age, place of birth, previous ship, place and date of signing, capacity  and particulars of discharge (end of voyage, desertion, sickness, death, never joined etc).

Recommended Exhibit: At the Rooms: Here, We Made a Home: At the eastern edge of the continent, bounded by the sea, the culture of Newfoundland and Labrador’s livyers was tied to the fisheries and the North Atlantic. A rich mix of dialects, ways of life, food traditions, story and song developed here. The Elinor Gill Ratcliffe Gallery – Level 4

The first Christmas cards arrive in Newfoundland


December 2018

The local St. John’s newspaper the Evening Telegram in an article on December 25, 1883 suggests that the first Christmas card was not introduced into Newfoundland until after 1868.  The newspaper reported:

“Even in the celebration of Christmas, what vast changes and improvements has Terra Nova seen within these fifteen years!  A  ‘Christmas Card’  was then (1868) utterly unknown, now what millions of them pass from ‘hand to hand’, wafting with pretty colors and gracious sentiments, the very spirit of the grand old season.”

The tradition of sending commercial Christmas cards can be traced to 1843. A gentleman by the name of Sir Henry Cole had several problems that he was trying to resolve.

In the 1840’s Christmas cards were very expensive; they were individually painted and delivered by hand. Henry did not want to have to contend with the expense and he especially disliked the idea of writing a personal greeting to each person. He also wanted the message on his Christmas cards to bring attention to the importance of supporting the destitute during the Christmas season

Then the answer came. It was a marriage of art and technology.

Sir Henry commissioned artist John Calcott Horsley to paint a card showing the feeding and clothing of the poor. It was a triptych with scenes on each of the side panels depicting the charitable essence of Christmas; feeding the poor and clothing the homeless. In the center was the message “Merry Christmas and Happy New Year To You” under a colorful drawing of a family celebrating, their wine glasses raised in a toast.

Sir Henry had good intentions, but his Christmas card design, showing a child enjoying a sip of wine, was described as “fostering the moral corruption of children.”

Eighteen of the original 1000 cards printed  are known to be still in existence, one of which recently changed hands at auction for around $40,000.

Originally the custom  was not to post the Christmas Card but rather cards were passed from “hand to hand.”

Recommended Archival Collection: At the Rooms Provincial Archives Division take some time to look at MG 63.356 – MG 63- 358 these files consist 125 Christmas cards produced by the International Grenfell Association.

The Rooms:   The Rooms is dressed for Christmas  – come and see our Christmas trees.

Send me a Christmas Card:   9 Bonaventure Ave. (P.O. Box 1800) St. John’s ,NL . A1C 5P9   –  include some suggestions for Archival Moments.