Tag Archives: Christmas

Christmas of Olde in Newfoundland and Labrador

Paul Rowe and Allan Byrne

Paul Rowe and Allan Byrne

Once again, actor Paul Rowe and musician Allan Byrne have combined their talents to deliver a show based on archival materials reflecting the Christmas of Olde in Newfoundland and Labrador. This show has been steadily popular over the last few years, and tickets always sell swiftly.

Paul and Allan have uncovered an impressive selection of poems, recitations, songs and stories, mostly written from the 1870s to the 1940s, from sources as varied as diaries, log books and annual Christmas publications. Out of this material they have created a full-length production that gives an entertaining glimpse of our Christmas traditions during the late nineteenth and early twentieth century.  Paul and Allan are excited to be presenting their show again this year, and are pleased to bring the show to three beautiful venues!

December 8 and 9 – Basilica Cathedral Museum, St. John’s. 8pm. For tickets call (709)726-3660 ext. 221

December 10 – St. George’s Anglican Church, Petty Harbour, 7pm. For tickets call (709)728 2147

December 15 – Placentia Bay Cultural Arts Centre, Placentia, 8pm. For tickets call (709)227-2151

Tickets: $20

“They raided and stole puddings and turkeys”

Archival Moment

December 24, 1915

Photo Credit: The Rooms Provincial Archives A 58-153; Newfoundland troops resting in the snow

Photo Credit: The Rooms Provincial Archives A 58-153; Newfoundland troops resting in the snow. Click on photo to enlarge.

Christmas 1915, the men of the Newfoundland Regiment found themselves in Turkey. They had to be creative with regard to making a good Christmas dinner. In 1928 Major J. W. March with a friend W.J. Eaton recalled the Christmas of 1915 in the trenches.

“On Christmas Eve we landed at Helles, (Turkey) and proceeded inland under a downpour of rain, eventually halting, not in trenches, but in square holes in the ground. Here then we spent Christmas, 1915.

The night of December 24th is rather historic; it was known that our Christmas dinners were to consist of one good tin of Bully Beef and four square biscuits, which looked like and were commonly known to the Troops, as dog biscuits. On top of this a party was detailed to proceed to Headquarters to draw picks and shovels, presumably for work the following day.

Our Battalion Poet describes the scene as follows:

In the night there came an order

Immediately to send some boys

For picks and shovels from Headquarters.

Food they pinched and made a noise,

They brought back no rusty shovels,

And I fear the story’s true,

That they raided and stole puddings,

Pinched the General’s turkey too.

The following is the unofficial version in prose:

Whilst the officer in charge of the carrying party of 50 men, was arranging for the working tools, the men were investigating and discovered a pretentious “cook-house,” the sentry on duty there being rather a nuisance, was quickly and silently gagged with a large woolen scarf, and many 7-lb. tins of pudding, dates and even a Turkey quickly disappeared from this splendid establishment.

The Brigade Major, however, appeared on the scene like the raging lion of ancient days and many of the puddings had to fly over the cliff so that no evidence would be found.

Comrade W. J. Eaton was guide for this party and we fully believe that in his capacity as guide he unconsciously led back that night, many puddings and a turkey or two.

Of Christmas Day there is not much to be said. The best possible was done with the materials at hand, and after all, the unquenchable spirit of the men and the good comradeship made the Christmas Day at Helles happy for all concerned.”

Recommended Exhibit: Archives Reference Entrance: The Newfoundland Regiment and the Gallipoli Campaign. This small exhibition commemorates the 100th anniversary of the Gallipoli Campaign in 1915, where members of the 1st Newfoundland Regiment experienced their baptism by fire and saw their first combat casualties. Lantern slides, photographs, maps and documents provide insights into this ill-fated campaign. – See more at: https://www.therooms.ca/exhibits/now/the-newfoundland-regiment-and-the-gallipoli-campaign#sthash.GzGNwAKA.dpuf

Recommended Reading: The Veteran, 1928, vol. 7, no. 4 (December) has a number of stories written by the men and women who served in the First World War.



The tradition of Midnight Mass


December 23, 1895

Midnight Mass has been celebrated in the Basilica since 1895.

On December 23, 1895 the St. John’s newspaper The Daily News announced that:

 “His Lordship the Right Reverend Dr. Michael F. Howley  (Roman Catholic Bishop of St. John’s, Newfoundland) has decided to revive the custom of celebrating  the first Mass of Christmas morning  at the very opening of the ever glorious day.”

Bishop Howley was reviving the tradition of the celebration of Midnight Mass, a custom that has continued at the Roman Catholic Cathedral (now Basilica) since that announcement in 1895.

Bishop Howley noted that midnight mass was “long in existence in the Roman Catholic Church though allowed to lapse for some years past in this country – Newfoundland.”

The article does not explain why the tradition of the midnight mass was dropped before 1895 in St. John’s.

The newspaper account went on to describe the elaborate decorations of the cathedral. 

Basilica Cathedral St. John's

Basilica Cathedral St. John’s

“The interior of the Roman Catholic Cathedral is already beginning to assume the festive garb which always marks the anniversary of the Nativity. The altars and the pulpit are artistically festooned with evergreen to which will be added extensive floral ornamentations interspersed with countless twinkling lights, before the joy bells ring out their glad peal at midnight, to proclaim the birth of the God Man.”

Many theologians say that the Midnight Mass evolved from individuals making pilgrimages to the Holy Land and the actual birthplace of Christ. Because the Bible states that Jesus was born at night and in a manger, to fully immerse oneself in the story and the liturgical significance of the moment, a Midnight Mass seems the best place to achieve these goals. The darkness and the gentle hush that nighttime helps set the scene and enhance the spiritual component of Christmas.

On the Christian calendar – Midnight mass has been observed since at least the year 381. In  381 a Christian woman named Egeria made a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, observing for three years and keeping a journal of the customs and liturgies she saw there. She witnessed the Christians celebrating the birth of Christ at midnight with a vigil in Bethlehem, which was followed by a torchlight procession to Jerusalemculminating with a gathering in Jerusalemat dawn.

Recommended Archival Collection:  Archives of the R.C. Archdiocese of St. John’s, Bishop Michael Francis Howley Collection.

Recommended Reading: The Story of the Basilica of St. John the Baptist by: Susan Chalker Browne . Flanker Press, St. John’s, 2015. There have always been many rumours, tales and fiction told about the securing of the land, the money and the stone and the construction of the imposing building. Susan Chalker Browne has written a book to sort fact from fiction.


“The Gale, the Worst for Fifty Years”

Archival Moment

December 23, 1890

e048fce0203eef476bdd23b6560d31abThe Christmas Season, 1890, was a difficult time for many families throughout Newfoundland, the families were trying to recover as best they could from the loss of their fishing schooners or homes, lost or damaged in the “violence of the gale which swept over the country.”

Headlines in the St. John’s newspaper the Evening Telegram on December 2, 1890 tried to convey how intense the storm was with headlines like “The Gale, the Worst for Fifty Years and A Night of Terror”

The newspaper reported:

“Its beginning last night will be memorable for the violence of the gale which swept over this section of country. The roar of the wind was something awful; it reached a pitch of sharpness that seemed to express a vengeful rage of destruction, and resembled a steamer letting off steam.

Hundreds of people were up all night guarding their property as best they might. The force of the wind may be understood when it is stated that it tore off slates from the roof of the church of England Cathedral and St. Andrew’s Church; and the iron railing which surmounts the Athenaeum was blown down.

From a house on Harvey Road, near the Parade Rink, where dwelt three families, the inmates no sooner escaped than the roof blew in.

Hundreds of people were up all night watching their domiciles and fearing the worst; and, in Quidi Vidi, pretty nearly the whole population were on the qui vive (alert).

The article went on to describe other particulars about the storm and the damage that it inflicted but it was not until December 23, 1890 that the full impact of the storm was realized.

J.W. Withers the Colonial Secretary in Newfoundland reported, based on “the local press and from returns forwarded from the districts that 49 fishing vessels with their cargo had been lost and another 39 schooners had been damaged.

Even more devastating to the families was the report of extensive damage done to 63 homes and 20 stores.

Reports from some communities were very particular:

“At Quidi Vidi widespread devastation was wreaked. Burton’s house, stores and flakes were levelled to the ground; Dunn’s house had its roof blown off; Power’s flakes and Pynn’s were laid flat, and Skifflngton had a boat lost.”

The Telegram was happy to report:

“The instances enumerated are only a few of the havoc wrought in town and country, but the happiest feature in the tale of general wreck and ruin is that no loss of life is to be deplored.”

Recommended Archival Collection: At the Rooms Provincial Archives GN 1.3A  File 3, 1890 contains a detailed inventory of vessels and schooners, their community of origin and vessel name lost and damaged by the December Gale of 1890.

The first Salvation Army kettle in Newfoundland


Photo Credit: The Rooms Provincial Archives: A 51-65. Salvation Army Christmas 1906 in front of No. 1 Citadel on New Gower Street,St. John’s, the first occasion of Salvation Army using collecting kettles at St. John’s.

One of the enduring symbols of Christmas is the Salvation Army kettle. Salvationists and friends stand at strategic shopping locations inviting the public to drop a few coins in their “kettles” with the monies realized going to the poor.

The kettle first appeared on the streets of San Francisco, California, USA in 1891 brainchild of Captain Joseph McFee, the kettles were used in a campaign to raise funds for a shelter in the waterfront district.

He remembered, during his earlier days in Liverpool, England, seeing a large kettle where passengers of boats that docked nearby were able to toss coins to help the poor.

Captain McFee suspended a large cooking pot from a tripod and placed a sign above it that read: Keep the pot boiling.” Shortly thereafter, Christmas kettles began appearing in communities across the United States and are now an indispensable part of the holiday season.

In Newfoundland the Salvation Army has been firmly established since the first meeting of the Army on September 3, 1885 at the Methodist Church in Portugal Cove.

In late January of 1886 a group of four female officers arrived in St. John’s, soon followed by a District Officer, Arthur Young. This initial group of Salvationists established the first corps in Newfoundland on Springdale Street in St. John’s. They held outdoor meetings at the Parade Ground, and marched with their followers through the streets making as much noise as possible. Within two months, the Salvation Army in St. John’s had 200 soldiers.

It was the Christmas of 1906 that the first kettle was introduced into Newfoundland. The kettle was suspended on a tripod in front of No. 1 Citadel on New Gower Street, St. John’s.

In Canada the Salvation Army collects approximately $15 -20 million in the nearly 2,000 kettles on street corners and at retail outlets. In Newfoundland the kettles raises approximately $200,000.

Recommended Archival Collection: At The Rooms Provincial Archives there is a small collection of photographs documenting the presence of the army in Newfoundland and Labrador.

“Christmas cake lottery season”

Archival Moment

December 17, 1884

Cake LotteryThere was a time in St. John’s when most people preferred to take home their ‘Christmas Cake’ after rolling the dice?

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.”

Time to get the Christmas Cake ready!!

Time to get the Christmas Cake ready!!

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.


“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.

Recommended Archives:  Memorial University of Newfoundland – Archives and Special Collections. In 1982, the Centre for Newfoundland Studies and the Memorial University Folklore and Language Archive (MUNFLA), together with members of the local performing arts community, launched a joint project to collect primary material dealing with the history of the performing arts (theatre, music and dance) in Newfoundland and Labrador.  Archivist: Colleen Quigley.