Read these personal accounts of what life was like way back when in Newfoundland and Labrador, sent by our readers.
Pondering the Past October 1, 2011
Some things I remember doing as a child that my children or grandchildren will never experience: I lived at the front of Bell Island, and every day during the summer months (weather permitting, and sometimes not permitting!) we walked along the droke and went to the beach. The water - Conception Bay - was absolutely freezing, but after a time, we would finally get used to it, and spend the afternoon ... click to read moreOctober 1, 2011
Some things I remember doing as a child that my children or grandchildren will never experience: I lived at the front of Bell Island, and every day during the summer months (weather permitting, and sometimes not permitting!) we walked along the droke and went to the beach. The water - Conception Bay - was absolutely freezing, but after a time, we would finally get used to it, and spend the afternoon swimming. Sometimes we would jump off the wharf or some of the small boats tied near the wharf. After that, we would sit on the beach, wrapped in a blanket, and eat our lunch of buttered crackers and drink lemonade made from lemon crystals. Sometimes we walked back up the beach by the droke, or rode on the tramway car - it cost 5¢ for children and 10¢ for adults. That sure brings back lots of memories!
My uncle was a blacksmith, so I often went down to the forge and watched him change the horseshoes on the horses. Very fascinating!
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Mummering in Newfoundland at Christmas Time I love your magazine and have been reading it for years. I am sending a short story that I wrote about mummering in Newfoundland. I have fond memories of this, growing up in Newfoundland as a young boy, and think of it often when I dress up in costumes.
Mummering in Newfoundland at Christmas Time
As remembered by Brendan Madden
I'd like to introduce you to mummering in Newfoundland through my own ... click to read moreI love your magazine and have been reading it for years. I am sending a short story that I wrote about mummering in Newfoundland. I have fond memories of this, growing up in Newfoundland as a young boy, and think of it often when I dress up in costumes.
Mummering in Newfoundland at Christmas Time
As remembered by Brendan Madden
I'd like to introduce you to mummering in Newfoundland through my own personal experience. Mummering originated during the 16th century by way of Irish and U.K. tradition. A mummer is defined by Dictionary.com as "A person who wears a mask or fantastic costume while merrymaking or taking part in a pantomime, especially at Christmas and other festive seasons." Mummers disguised themselves in old clothing and wore masks over their faces, going door to door in search of refreshment. It was popular in the smaller communities and outports in Newfoundland from Boxing Day and into the New Year (Old Christmas).
I was born on the southside of Newfoundland in St John's in 1953. At the age of 12, we moved to the Southern Shore and settled in a small fishing community. It was during our first Christmas in our new home that I had my first experience with mummering. It was Boxing Day in 1965 when there was a knock on the door. I opened the door and there stood three of the strangest characters I had ever seen. One looked like a man and the other two appeared to be women. I ran from the living room, yelling for my dad, and he let them in. They were dressed in very old clothes, and their faces were disguised so they looked like beggars. One of the women had an accordion and immediately started playing it. My dad, an avid tap dancer, jumped to the middle of the floor and started dancing like crazy. All of my brothers and sisters were laughing and clapping and having a great time. When the music stopped, my mom was the first one to try and guess who they were. She guessed wrong, and my dad poured two of them a drink of screech. They lifted their masks a little and drank their drinks. The lady gave the accordion to another mummer, who I thought was a man, and he started to play another song. The women grabbed my mom and started dancing a Newfie jig. We all started clapping and laughing all over again. When the music stopped, my mother and the other lady sat on the couch side by side, laughing. My dad jumped up from his chair and said to the woman, "I know who you are, you are John Boyle, you live just up the road!" Sure enough, the woman pulled off her mask, laughing hysterically and revealed himself to be John Boyle. My mom looked at the man and yelled, "Ann." He pulled of his mask and there was John's wife Ann. I looked at the other woman and said, "Janice" (my school friend). She too, pulled off her mask.
That was my first experience with mummering, and to this day I enjoy hearing the accordion and dressing up in costume at Halloween. ... Hide full submission
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The Christmas Cat I was in my teens and Dad started telling me this story:
When he was a child as Christmas came near, a cat showed up at their house. They fed the cat and he had a nice Christmas dinner. Shortly after Christmas the cat left. They thought it was trying to find his home or he had been kiled by another animal. The cat was very friendly and gentle so they missed him. The ... click to read moreI was in my teens and Dad started telling me this story:
When he was a child as Christmas came near, a cat showed up at their house. They fed the cat and he had a nice Christmas dinner. Shortly after Christmas the cat left. They thought it was trying to find his home or he had been kiled by another animal. The cat was very friendly and gentle so they missed him. The following year just before Christmas the same cat showed up again. They did the whole routine as last year and sure enough after Christmas the cat was gone. This went on for several years.
Well, I know the Newfies are experts at pulling your leg, and by then I knew enough to take these stories with a grain of salt. I told my dad it never happened and he got upset with me so I wondered about.
Now, at least in my family they were experts at telling stories that were a complete fabrication so I had every right to question this story. Of the five uncles, Dad, and aunt, I would say the master of this was my Uncle Eli. He was taking his wife to Newfoundland for the first time and she asked him if she needed bug spray for the mosquitoes. He told her that did have any in Newfoundland. Of course they had a different name up there and he was well aware of that. They all were good at this, but Uncle Eli was an expert. ... Hide full submission
When Wayne Gillett, (my father) was four years old in 1961, his family purchased their very first television set. At that time a very popular program was "Lassie" and Wayne and his family would sit and watch this whenever it came on ... click to read moreWhen Wayne Gillett, (my father) was four years old in 1961, his family purchased their very first television set. At that time a very popular program was "Lassie" and Wayne and his family would sit and watch this whenever it came on and young Wayne became very fascinated with the dog. He would often find himself drawn into the weekly plot and he would become devastated when Lassie would get herself into danger, always hoping that by the end of the program she would be alright - luckily she always was. After hearing how much Wayne loved the program, his uncle sent him the novel "Lassie Come Home." Because Wayne had not yet learned to read, his mother would sit and read this novel over and over again, so many times that Wayne almost knew it by heart.
As Christmas came near, the only thing that Wayne wanted was a dog just like Lassie.
"Well in 1961 living in the small outport of Pike's Arm it was almost an impossible task to get a dog like Lassie. Not only that, money was scarce and could be put to better use.
"In my mind I knew it was a long shot and a lot to expect to get a Lassie dog. But despite these odds, I firmly believed in Santa and nothing was impossible for him. So I dreamed of my Lassie dog as Christmas drew closer," said Wayne, "and I was determined to make sure that nothing mean would ever happen to my Lassie like had happened to the Lassie in the book and on T.V."
Wayne counted down the days to Christmas and crossed his fingers that Santa would find a way to bring him a dog like Lassie.
Finally Christmas morning came. The only heat in the house was a wood stove in the kitchen, so as Wayne's father lit the fire, Wayne and his brothers got to open their stockings upstairs in the warmth of their beds.
"And so it was, my stocking came with the usual gifts of an apple, some candy, scribbler and pencil, and maybe a colouring book and crayons if I was lucky. There was no indication of my Lassie dog. Not even a bark or a whine, only silence. Finally I went downstairs. I looked around but could see no Lassie. Boy, was I disappointed," said Wayne remembering that Christmas day.
As he peeked around the Christmas tree that had been trimmed with everything from candy wrappers to balloons, something caught his eye.
"When I walked toward the tree, there she was, my beautiful Lassie dog in the form of a plush toy. She was lying on a branch of the Christmas tree. I found out later that my mom had found this toy in the Eaton's catalogue. It wasn't the real thing, but I have cherished that little plush toy ever since.
Despite hard times, my parents, with Santa's help, did the best that they could. I still have my Lassie dog and every time I look at it, it reminds me of that special Christmas in 1961," said Wayne as he reminisced about one of his favourite Christmases.
Although things have changed quite a bit since Wayne was four, he still lives in that house in Pike's Arm and he loves to talk about all of his fond childhood memories.
"Many changes have taken place over the years but I still believe in the magic of Santa to make dreams come true. Memories of Christmas as a boy growing up in a small outport are never far from my mind. They were special times and I hope that you will take the time this Christmas to enjoy past memories of Christmas with family and friends and make new ones that will last a life time," said Wayne in true Christmas spirit.
A Christmas Hunting Story Bundled up nice and warm from head to toe with home-knit mittens, felt-lined boots and visions of sugarplums dancing in our heads, we'd climb into the back of Dad's old Chevy pick-up for the annual Christmas tree hunt. Fifty odd years ago children didn't have to be belted in, so the five of us always rode in the back of Dad's truck!
About three weeks before Christmas, with Mom riding shotgun, scouting the ... click to read moreBundled up nice and warm from head to toe with home-knit mittens, felt-lined boots and visions of sugarplums dancing in our heads, we'd climb into the back of Dad's old Chevy pick-up for the annual Christmas tree hunt. Fifty odd years ago children didn't have to be belted in, so the five of us always rode in the back of Dad's truck!
About three weeks before Christmas, with Mom riding shotgun, scouting the forest for that perfect Christmas tree, our entire family made our way over snow-covered back roads singing carols, excitedly anticipating the coming festive season. And those hunting trips are my happiest memories of Christmas!
Year after year, our parents' difference in opinion of what constituted the "perfect" tree was simply part of the annual ritual. Even though there was enough dense forest reasonably close to our house in Stephenville to allow a relatively quick selection, the hunt usually turned into an all-afternoon event 40 miles north of nowhere.
Mom, our commander-in-chief, always insisted the branches be thick and evenly distributed, covering every square inch of the seven-foot tree that would grace our living room! Whereas Dad thought all trees were beautiful! I have to admit, there were times he'd point out a perfect tree, and we'd appreciate why Mom was so fussy!
Usually, by the time our adventure neared an end, there wasn't much daylight left and we'd be getting cold and hungry. Dad would be tired of driving and wading in sometimes thigh-deep snow to check out possibilities, with Mom still adamant there was something wrong with every tree they looked at.
But it wasn't until Mom got tired that it was time to quit. By then, she'd choose pretty much any tree and a very relieved Dad would quickly chop it down, dragging it to the truck before she changed her mind.
When we'd get home the perfect tree was quite often lopsided, or we'd end up with a spruce instead of a fir, and once in a while we had a tree that was so dry it turned into a blasty bough within two weeks no matter how much we watered it! But by the time all the lights, tinsel and decorations were on it, our tree was absolutely perfect!
Looking back, the focus of Christmas was the joy of family - not today's materialistic version of the holidays, and I realize those beautiful memories of the annual tree hunt are priceless gifts I'll cherish for the rest of my life.
Nowadays, as a grandmother, the annual tree hunt simply means a trip to the attic for the artificial replica! But with every passing year I cling to at least part of our family tradition, putting up the tree three weeks before Christmas, and weighing it down with enough decorations to send it crashing into the basement!
A Grand Bank Christmas They were now in their seventies, slowing physically but sharp of mind and wit, with a new twinkle in their eyes when they were asked what it was like when they were growing up in Grand Bank. Yet a little reticent and reluctant to open up about those days so long ago.
"Cold," he said when asked what winter was like, hoping this one-word answer would slow the questioning. But his partner jumped at ... click to read moreThey were now in their seventies, slowing physically but sharp of mind and wit, with a new twinkle in their eyes when they were asked what it was like when they were growing up in Grand Bank. Yet a little reticent and reluctant to open up about those days so long ago.
"Cold," he said when asked what winter was like, hoping this one-word answer would slow the questioning. But his partner jumped at the chance to reminisce.
"Banks of snow," she said. "Up to the rooftops."
"No," he said. "Up to the tops of the fences."
Now the game was on and she would not be slowed down. "Don't you remember we used to be over at old Mrs. Pike's after a snowfall and we could climb up on top of the snow and look in through her bedroom window?"
And so it began, a long slow stroll through winter and Christmas past in the small town of Grand Bank, Newfoundland. Home of adventure and the famous Grand Bank schooner, but for a ten-year-old boy and a nine-year-old girl, a world of magical white and wonder.
She was the studious one who lived across from the school and paid rapt attention to whatever the teacher presented. He lived half a block away and was more likely to spend most of his school day trying to distract the rest of the students from learning anything. He sat in front of her in class and would reach behind to try and grab her books.
"All you would see is two big hands grabbing at you," she laughed.
They had travelled many different paths since those days, he to join the Air Force and travel the world, building family and friends along the way. She hadn't travelled as far but the world of big city Toronto was oceans away from the living and lifestyle of her early Grand Bank days.
After nearly 50 years and the collective loss of their life partners they had re-found each other again on visits to their old home town. Now a secure, happy and loving couple they were reunited by their shared past and future together. They sat in the kitchen of his old house in Grand Bank, one that his grandfather had built by hand and through numerous cups of strong black tea they talked about what life was like in the way back when.
Winter was a sometimes bitter and hard season in old-time Grand Bank, even if they are slow to acknowledge it. No electricity, no central heating and no indoor plumbing. Scraping the frost off their bedroom windows in the morning and waiting for the kitchen stove to spread its warmth up to their level. Most of the activity in winter was devoted to chopping, splitting and stacking firewood to fuel that kitchen stove, the black iron workhorse that was their primary source of heat and comfort.
Christmas was the only break from the monotony of cold blistering winds and sleet and driving snow. There was no big build up to Christmas in those days, no countdown to show how many shopping days were left, and very few store windows to press one's nose up against. But there was a feeling, a sense of anticipation that children in Grand Bank shared with all the children of the world. It was special and it felt like it was created just for them.
School, work and chores continued all the way to Christmas Eve. Then the world as they knew it became magically transformed. She looked forward to the arrival of Santa Claus with a new doll for her and a toy truck for her brother; and of course an apple, an orange, and a few candies for their stockings.
He claimed not to believe in Santa Claus (we're not really sure about that) but in any case he looked forward to the slaughtering of a pig every Christmas Eve. Interesting, how boys and girls think so differently!
There were other differences too. In his house they hung the Christmas tree from the ceiling in the kitchen, probably to save space for a larger family. In her house, like most others the tree stood upright in the parlour. There were a few Christmas decorations, mostly blown balls but no lights, not at least until Hydro came to town years later. But wherever it stood or hung no children were allowed to see their Christmas tree until it was ready for them on Christmas morning.
On Christmas Eve they were packed off to bed early to snuggle under their ten heavy blankets and await the arrival of Good St. Nick or fresh pork, whichever came first. They scrambled awake at dawn to find their treasures and then off to church on Christmas morning. After church it was dinner time, 12 noon on the dot, featuring fresh roast pork as the main course. Maybe that's why he was so excited about killing the pig the night before. Every family in Grand Bank had roast pork for their Christmas meal, and those who were not fortunate enough to have a pig or be able to purchase their own entrée were often invited to share in somebody else's Christmas pig.
After a satisfying meal of roast pork, gravy and cabbage along with whatever vegetables the family could grow themselves came the Christmas pudding. Sufficiently stuffed the adults dozed in the kitchen by the warmth of the fire while the children raced outside to show their friends what they got from Santa and to see how well their friends did. It was also time to visit the neighbours' houses, ostensibly to see their Christmas tree, which when pronounced gorgeous entitled the visitor to a glass of Purity syrup and fruitcake.
On Boxing Day the adults caught up with the children in terms of fun and every young (and not-so-young) man and most of the women would begin the mummer's rounds of Grand Bank. Men outfitted themselves with women's clothing, often wearing their bloomers on the outside and women wore men's suits or old fishermen's gear. All of them covered their heads and faces with an assortment of bonnets, hats, scarves or even blankets with a hole cut in them to hide their sex and identity. Then they would bang on every door with a light on seeking entrance for a drink or a bite to eat.
"Any mummers 'lowed in?" was the cry heard from doorstep to doorstep and if you didn't want your cow scared away or your root cellar uprooted, there was little choice but to let this band of roving vagabonds into your kitchen. Sometimes they would sing or dance a little for their victuals, but more often than not they took more sport in insulting the homeowner and making a fool of themselves than anything else. The drunker they got the more likely you were to be entertained, and you were also more likely to guess their identity. In which case, to the glee of all the other mummers they had to reveal themselves to their host.
The mummering continued until the last of the 12 days of Christmas and by that time everyone, including the mummers, had probably had enough. Most of the legal alcohol in Grand Bank, and much of the forbidden kind from St. Pierre as well, had been swallowed up in the process. And many a mummer had been dragged home after stumbling into the back of a horse or a cow in the pitch dark, unlit streets, and having a short but very drunk nap in a snow bank before they were rudely awoken and rescued by their mates.
The other highlight of the Christmas season came on New Year's Eve or "Watch Night" as they called it in Grand Bank. All of the adults and the older children would go to church on New Year's Eve night and when they returned, the entire household, even the smallest tots would be roused from their beds for a special meal of soup and pie. It was time to watch the old year pass out and by the light of the kerosene lamp in the kitchen to welcome the New Year to come.
The dinner was important because it was believed that if you had a full meal on New Year's Eve then you would never go hungry throughout the year.
The memories of those olden Christmas days are now fading in the twilight but for our two storytellers some are as real as if they happened yesterday. She still has a cherished Christmas doll in a place of honour in her home and he still recalls a Christmas sleigh that was lovingly made by his father when he was seven or eight. These thoughts and recollections bring a new warmth to the room where they tell their tale.
Christmas today is very different in Grand Bank as it is elsewhere but the spirit of those cold days and warm hearts will live on forever. Times were much simpler then but they were rich in love and laughter and happiness and joy. Maybe that's the real spirit of Christmas after all and as long as we believe in that then Christmas will never change.
Mike Martin is a freelance writer originally from St. John's, Newfoundland and now living in Ottawa, Ontario. He is the author of "Change the Things You Can" (Dealing with Difficult People) and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Millertown Memories My father came to Millertown in the early 1900s. He walked many miles to get to the woods where they harvested wood for the Grand Falls paper mill. He had to cut boughs, which served as a mattress.
He later got to work in town, hauling coal to approximately 60 homes and businesses. Half-ton box cart in the summer, a sled in the winter - shovel in and shovel out. One day this former ... click to read moreMy father came to Millertown in the early 1900s. He walked many miles to get to the woods where they harvested wood for the Grand Falls paper mill. He had to cut boughs, which served as a mattress.
He later got to work in town, hauling coal to approximately 60 homes and businesses. Half-ton box cart in the summer, a sled in the winter - shovel in and shovel out. One day this former Newfoundlander walked by on his way to the lake, to skate. He said, "Come on, Uncle Jim, I'll teach you how to skate." My father said, "Come in here and I'll teach you how to shovel coal."
Now there were a few jobs in Millertown. My father's part-time job was most unique. In the summer, around 10 p.m., he would hitch up his trusted Bronc to the box cart. It contained a large barrel we called a puncheon. He would go from outhouse to outhouse, lift up the flap at the rear, take out most times two 15-gallon heavy round galvanized containers, strain them and empty the remainder into the heavy puncheon. He was only 160 lbs or so. He would then take the puncheon back to the dump and dump it down a sump hole.
My brother Angus, at the age of 12, used to sit on the shaft and hold the lantern. He dozed off once or twice, and dropped the lantern under the wheels. He said a couple of snooty women (yes, we had them back then) would walk by holding their noses. I guess they didn't like that special aroma that would waft from the puncheon.
My dad was taking the cart to the dump by himself one night. He said he saw a man standing by the neck of the horse. He did his thing, took the horse to the barn, walked home, got inside the door, and started shaking and sweating.
In the wintertime, they picked crates, replaced them with a fresh one (er, I mean an empty one). They didn't smell as bad; they were frozen. They would stack the full ones at the dump. Angus got 10¢ a crate in the summertime. I tell you, it's a part-time the kids in Toronto would kill for today. Angus said our older brother Edgar, when his turn came, would run and hide. He never ran and hid after he arrived in Toronto. He worked approximately 40 years with the city. Most of this time, he chauffeured mayors and councillors. Mayor Lamport called him Fast Eddy, because when something needed to be done, Edgar got it done.
Ron will verify this: he'd borrow the van from City Hall and deliver the Downhomer. He'd give a copy to every homesick Newfoundlander he met, or anyone else that was interested. In the mid-90s, I was cold-calling near Bowmanville. I met a woman who worked at City Hall. She said she knew him, and he brought her a Downhomer when it came out. He spent most of his time raising money for the Lion's Club, and probably others. He played Santa Claus every year at various functions, rounding up kids to show them Christmas decorations. He won lots of awards and recognition for his efforts, but he always made sure the right people got their recognition. ... Hide full submission