Tag Archives: Christmas

Old Christmas Day


January 6   

“Old Christmas Day” or “Twelfth Day” or “Epiphany”.

The season of Christmas ends on “Old Christmas Day,” January 6th also known as “Twelfth Day.”

The name “Old Christmas” stems from a piece of legislation introduced before the Parliament in London, England called the Calendar Act of 1751 that came into effect in 1752. Before the calendar was reformed, England celebrated Christmas on January 6th.

Essentially what happened in 1752  was that twelve days were dropped from the then existing calendar (Julian) calendar that was used in England and Ireland and the new  Gregorian calendar (instituted by Pope Gregory XIII), was adopted.

In 1752 purists said that the “real” Christmas Day was not on December 25th, but January 6th, 365 days after the previous Christmas.

In centuries past, Christmas was deemed to start at sunset on Dec 24 and so the 12th night following it was January 5. Nowadays, people count from Dec 25 and so assume Twelfth Night falls on the 6th.

Christmas nativity

Epiphany – January 6  – is the day when the Church, theologically, marks the arrival of the wise men  – magi – to give their gifts to the baby Jesus: the day when some will add the wise men to their nativity scenes.

In Newfoundland it  was a night to listen and watch. It is said  that at the exact stroke of midnight on Old Christmas Eve, the  farm animals, some kneeling  will start moo-ing and baa-ing and bellowing… not in their normal way, but almost like they were crying. In Newfoundland many children struggled to stay awake to witness the phenomena.  (Sadly they would fall asleep only to hear stories from their parents.) This belief harkens back to the stable in Bethlehem, and to the animals that were present when the Christ Child was revealed to the wise men .

In Newfoundland the tradition is that the Christmas tree should be taken down on Old Christmas Night, because it is bad luck to leave it up after that. In Greespond, Bonavista Bay small gifts were distributed to the children  on Twelfth Night or Epiphany in celebration of the gifts that the wise men brought to the baby Jesus

Also in Newfoundland there is the established tradition of twelfth-cake and twelfth bun and bon fires on Old Christmas Day. These traditions are cited in the Dictionary of Newfoundland English. The stories go that on the

last night we[‘d] make a pan of sweet buns, twelfth buns, and give ’em to the people. Every house we’d go to we’d give ’em a bun for Twelfth Night.” 

It is said that the cake was baked as part of the refreshments offered to the clergy   who would visit homes on the feast of the Epiphany, January 6th, to bless each house in the parish.

The tradition of bonfires in Newfoundland is also supported. The Dictionary of Newfoundland English  reports:

“I have heard my grandmother (born 1835) talk about the ‘Twelfth Cake’, and an old gentleman of about the same age, but living in a different part of the island, told me that he had heard his father say that it was the custom to make twelve small bonfires in the village on Twelfth Night.” 

A tradition that had  remained dormant  in Newfoundland  is the Irish tradition of “Nollaig na mBan” or “Women’s Christmas”  this was an old custom that’s still celebrated by women all over Ireland. It goes back to the days when large families were the norm. Men never lifted a finger in the house to help, and were never expected to.  But each year, after the Christmas holiday, tired women finally got a break – for one day, at least. On January 6th, men would take over of the housework, offering women a chance to go out to relax with each other.  It was a tradition that is deeply rooted especially in  Kerry and Cork, home to many of our ancestors. Several informants suggested  that the tradition  was  also observed especially in Western Newfoundland, when the women gathered on Twelfth Night – Old Christmas Day.  Many “new” Irish now living in Newfoundland have also  revived the tradition by gathering on Old Christmas.

Recommended Archival Collection: Parsons  Christmas Annual, 1899. Contains assorted articles, stories, poetry and photographssome of which are Christmas-themed

Recommended Reading:  Dictionary of Newfoundland English:  http://www.heritage.nf.ca/dictionary/

An Act Outlawing Mummering


December 28, 1860


Hobby Horse one of the traditional mummer disguises.

On December 28, 1860, in Bay Roberts, Nfld., Isaac Mercer was strolling home from work with his two brothers-in-law when unexpectedly they became victims of a crew of rowdy masked mummers. The three men were beaten until Isaac Mercer’s body went limp. When the brutes scattered and disappeared into the night, Mercer’s friends, bruised and battered, carried him to help. The next day, Mercer was pronounced dead.

The use of disguises also permitted those of the poorer classes to harass the wealthy merchant classes or often allowed rival religious sects the opportunity to vent their hostility while in masquerade. Newfoundland historian D.W. Prowse observed that “men were often beaten badly for old grievances by the fools.”

The mummers are almost always described as carrying some combination of hatchets, sticks, ropes and whips, all of which clearly have the capacity to serve as aggressive weapons. Court records describe  men and women  armed with “bludgeons & swabs dipped in Blubber” which they rubbed into their victims’ faces and clothing, as well as swords and “loaded guns”, carpet brooms, blown bladders  filled with pebbles,  the weapon of choice was a hobby horse, used to charge individuals.

The tragedy of Mercer’s death combined with other abuses that were inflicted while in masquerade fueled a decision that lead on June 25, 1861, to the passing of an act outlawing mummering.  The Act dictated that:

“any Person who shall be found… without a written License 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).

Recommended Archival Collection:  The Rooms Provincial Archives:  GN5 /3/B/19 Box 13, File Number 3 and explore GN 2/1-3 and GN 5. Criminal trials involving mummers and mummering.

New Term: blown bladders: inflated animal bladder used as a mock weapon by Christmas mummers … chasing people and striking them with whips at the ends of some of which were attached inflated bladders.

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. 

Recommended Song: Mummer Song:  Original 1987 uncut TV broadcast. Newfoundland Christmas tradition inspired this hit Simani song. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=D8OPy7De3bk



A Christmas Box for our Soldiers and Sailors

Archival Moment

December 1914

christmaswwixsb05m_mediumDuring the first week of December 1914 throughout Newfoundland and Labrador the conversation in many households was about preparing a ‘Christmas Box’ for the Newfoundland boys who had signed up to fight for King and Country.

If the ‘Christmas Box’ was to reach ‘the boys’ with the Newfoundland Regiment that were stationed in England, it would have to be ready by December 10.

The tradition of the ‘Christmas Box’ is well established in Newfoundland, as early as 1819 the Anglican clergyman Rev Lewis Amadeus in his book ‘A History of the Island of Newfoundland’ observed:

“ [The Christmas boxes are] presents, not in coin. . . but in eatables, from a turkey or a quarter of veal or mutton, or a piece of beef just killed for the occasion, down to a nicely smoked salmon.”

In 1914 a number of St John’s businesses were promoting the notion of sending Christmas Boxes (Hampers) to the young men who had signed up for the war effort. Universal Agencies located at 137 Water Street encouraged family and friends of the Ist Newfoundland Regiment to send the boys “their Xmas Dinner.

Universal Agencies advertised:

“We have just received word from our London connections that should the friends of any of our Volunteers on Salisbury Plain wish to send them Christmas Hampers they will undertake to supply Hampers containing such things as Turkey, Ham, Sausages, Pudding, Mincemeats, Fruit and Confectionary … “

Universal Agencies also advertised that they would offer three different size of hampers, $5.50, $11.00 and $16.50

Families were also told that the ’Christmas Box’ would be incomplete without a package of cigarettes.

“And don’t forget that after a good dinner your boy will appreciate a box of the famous De. Reszke Cigarettes at $1.50.”

In order to make the price of sending a ‘Christmas Box’ cost effective the “ Newfoundland Government removed all duties on smokes going direct to our Soldiers on Salisbury Plains and our Sailors on the Ocean.”

The Christmas Hampers may have been addressed for Pond Camp on the Salisbury Plain where the tented camp was established in October 1914 for the Regiment but by December the Regiment was moved to Fort George, Inverness located in the Highlands of Scotland. The Newfoundland Regiment celebrated its first Christmas away from home with a Regimental dinner and with visits to the many homes of the Scottish people who showed in many ways their appreciation for these young soldiers.

Recommended Archival Collection: http://www.rnr.therooms.ca/part3_database.asp

Recommended Exhibit: The First World War had a profound impact on Newfoundland and Labrador. It involved thousands of our people in world-changing events overseas and dramatically altered life at home. Our “Great War” happened in the trenches and on the ocean, in the legislature and in the shops, by firesides and bedsides. This exhibition shares the thoughts, hopes, fears, and sacrifices of Newfoundlanders and Labradorians who experienced those tumultuous years – through their treasured mementoes, their writings and their memories. –  – See more at: https://www.therooms.ca/exhibits/always/beaumont-hamel-and-the-trail-of-the-caribou#sthash.HNEnynnP.dpuf




“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 Archives: Search the online database for descriptions of our archival records and view thousands of digital photographs. – See more at: https://www.therooms.ca/collections-research/our-collections

Lost Expression:  Haul of wood:  a co-operative gathering of fuel (wood)  for a clergyman, convent  or school.

Recommended Reading: Jack and the Manger by Andy Jones.  Jack and the Manger retells the story of Jesus’s birth as if it were a Newfoundland folktale. www.runningthegoat.com





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 !!



“Calling the tree…”

Archival Moment

Christmas 1889

Christmas Tree Tags

Christmas Tree Tags

A Christmas tradition that has long passed in Newfoundland and Labrador is the fundraiser known as ‘Calling the Tree.’ In communities throughout the country (now province) on St. Stephen’s Day church groups would host a fundraising event where the focus was the Christmas tree. In Scilly Cove (now Winterton, Trinity Bay) “the Tree” was one of the major fundraisers of the year.

A resident of Scilly Cove writing in January 1890 describing ‘The Tree’ wrote:

“St. Stephen’s Day in Scilly Cove has, for several years past, been a high day, that is, a joyous and lively time. The young people, especially, have then made up their minds to obtain all the fun they possibly can. To aid the young folks to better enjoy a pleasant day and evening, we have been permitted, by the aid of kind friends both here and in St. John’s, to get off a Christmas tree. On Thursday last we were up to the mark as usual, and by 2 o’clock the tree was in full swing, fairly bending beneath its load of prizes.”

The “tree ” was held in the school-room, and refreshments were served in the Fishermen’s Lodge, both apartments being most carefully decorated ; evergreens, interspersed with rose-buds and colored tissue paper, gave the rooms a lively appearance. Some exquisite Chinese lanterns presented a magnificent illumination.

While some visitors were making their purchases from the goods and toy tables down stairs, others were regaling themselves upon the luxuries and delicacies plentifully furnished by the refreshment tables in the lodge room. Choice soups, tea, coffee, cocoa and beverages of various kinds were bountifully supplied. Mr. Fred. Kelland and Miss Sarah Parrott disposed of an immense quantity of small articles by means of grab bags and wheels of fortune. Mr. and Mrs. Haddon, although not of the committee, assisted materially by donations and personal help.

The Christmas tree was the focus of the evening with each branch holding a numbered ticket. Everyone attending the event (for the small price of 20 cents) would purchase a ticket at the door and was then entitled to a prize from the Tree, bearing a corresponding number. A resident of Scilly Cove wrote:

“The Tree” contained a large number of useful articles of children’s clothing, being the outcome of the labors of The Ladies Sewing Circle during the past summer.”

Any monies realized from the Christmas tree were used to make purchases for the Church. In 1889 “we were able to purchase a first-class organ for our church, and also to pay a debt of “dues” to one late rector of twenty dollars.” In 1892 “a sufficient sum ($30 dollars) was realized to pay off our indebtedness for the carpet upon the floor of our new church.”

‘The Tree’ was a reason to gather during the Christmas Season, another tradition no longer celebrated.

In many communities the evening was referred to as ‘calling the tree’  the act of calling out the number that was purchased at the door that corresponded to the number on the Christmas tree.

Note: In 1912, Scilly Cove was named Winterton for Sir James Spearman Winter, former Prime Minister of Newfoundland.

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)