Tag Archives: Christmas

“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)

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.

“Eight girls disguised came and sang carols…”

Archival Moment

December 23, 1914

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

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

Governor Walter Davidson and Lady Margaret were just a little surprised to hear the rap at their door on Tibb’s Eve (December 23, 1914). Government House on Military Road, St. John’s was typically off limits to the public, the proper protocol was that guests would only show by appointment.

It was for the couple and their young family a pleasant surprise, the guests at the door were “mummers”. In his diary for December 23, 1914, Governor Davidson wrote:

“In the evening eight girls disguised came and sang carols to us in the hall. They sing delightfully and stayed for mince pies and coffee.”

As is the Newfoundland custom with “mummers” Governor and Lady Davidson immediately began to try and identify their disguised guests.


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.

He was pleased to write in his diary that he was able to discover the identity of five of the eight. He wrote:

“We made out Mrs Colvill, Nell Job: Mary Rendell and the two Miss Andersons’s, all young girls.”

Governor Davidson was quite pleased that the young ‘mummers’ had come to Government House, he wrote:

“It is a tribute to the present regime that they picked up the courage to face Government House of which all stand in awe.”

The reality was that most of the residents of St. John’s were in ‘awe’ of Government House and it is likely that the young women who did show up in disguise were not your typical young ladies. Each of the women, who the Governor identified, from the Job, Rendell and Anderson families, came from some of the more affluent homes in St. John’s. It is also true that a good mummer would never venture out until the afternoon of the Feast of St. Stephen (December 26), and continued every evening and night till the end of the Old Twelfth Day.  These young girls that went to visit Government House were not your typical mummers.

The Governor concluded his diary entry with the note “the attitude (of awe) is always most correct towards Government House per se: but they are no longer afraid.”

Perhaps we should all grab a disguise and head down to Government House. We have a 100 year old standing invitation.

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

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

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