Christ­mas meals a high­light

El­lis­ton na­tive re­mem­bers Christ­mas feast­ing in an out­port


Christ­mas has tra­di­tion­ally been a time for feast­ing. To­day, Hilda Chaulk Mur­ray, who was born in El­lis­ton, is burst­ing with mem­o­ries of grow­ing up in the Trin­ity Bay out­port in the first half of the twen­ti­eth cen­tury.

She has even cap­tured her per­sonal mem­o­ries in a book, “More Than 50%: Woman’s Life in a New­found­land Out­port 1900-50.”

The 76-year old, who now re­sides in Mount Pearl, en­joys talk­ing about the habits of her fore­bears, in­clud­ing their culi­nary ap­ti­tude. In those days, she says, “the most spe­cial meals of all were served at Christ­mas.”

Sup­per on Christ­mas Eve was sim­i­lar to the typ­i­cal Sun­day sup­per. Peo­ple went to great lengths to have what she calls “ wa­tered fish,” or salt cod. The sweet treat, fol­low­ing the main course, was raisin bread.

Break­fast on Christ­mas Day was rather low-key, “par­tic­u­larly since chil­dren would have lit­tle ap­petite for food,” she ex­plains. “ They would have gorged them­selves on ap­ples, or­anges, grapes and candy from their Christ­mas stock­ings.” Such lux­u­ries were “rarely seen dur­ing the rest of the year,” she adds.

One Christ­mas morn­ing in the 1930s, Hilda’s three-year-old brother, Clif­ford, found green grapes in his stock­ing. Re­fus­ing to eat them, he com­plained that “Santa Claus put ‘pratie buds’ in my stock­ing.”

The main course of the Christ­mas Day din­ner con­sisted of veg­eta­bles and fresh lo­cal meat or pork, “your own or some­one else’s,” Hilda re­calls. Dessert took the form of pud­ding, a mix­ture of spices, flour, eggs, but­ter, bread, mo­lasses, more raisins than usual, and suet, or fat from a cow or goat.

Christ­mas sup­per, some­times re­ferred to as tea, typ­i­cally con­sisted of left­overs from din­ner. “For the sec­ond course, the ta­ble was crowded with as many kinds of sweet cakes as the house­wife had in the house,” she says. “For many peo­ple, es­pe­cially those with very large fam­i­lies in the old days, and for most fam­i­lies dur­ing the De­pres­sion, sweet cake was a lux­ury. There was only suf­fi­cient at spe­cial oc­ca­sions like Christ­mas.” Slic­ing the Christ­mas cake, a rich, dark fruit con­coc­tion, was, in her opin­ion, “the high point of the meal in most fam­i­lies.”

No one cake recipe was fol­lowed, as “there were as many dif­fer­ent recipes fol­lowed as there were housewives,” she says. Not sur­pris­ingly, both taste and qual­ity var­ied from house to house. She states that, in later years, housewives tried recipes found on the home­maker’s page in the pop­u­lar weekly mag­a­zine, the now-de­funct Fam­ily Her­ald.

Pre­pared fruit was un­known. Some women man­aged to buy citron and le­mon peel in long strips, which were then cut into small pieces by the young girls. Seeds were re­moved from raisins. Then, raisins, cur­rants and, later, nuts, were com­monly used in bak­ing. A drop of wine or rum was some­times sub­sti­tuted for ar­ti­fi­cial le­mon or vanilla flavour­ing.

There were other Christ­mas del­i­ca­cies, in­clud­ing light fruit cakes; plain layer cakes with jam; raisin-rid­dled bread and loaf cakes; “pat­ties,” or small bun cook­ies; and “ bark­sail” bread, or mo­lasses-flavoured bread mi­nus the raisins.

“Most women, un­less they were ex­tremely poor, did Christ­mas bak­ing and tried to bake enough good­ies to last for the 12 days of Christ­mas, for any­one might drop in dur­ing that pe­riod,” Hilda says. In­deed, some peo­ple tried to get a slice of cake from a dozen dif­fer­ent houses, the pur­pose be­ing “to en­sure 12 months of hap­pi­ness,” she ex­plains.

“No vis­i­tor could leave the house with­out a bit of Christ­mas,” by which Hilda means a chunk of cake and a drink, tea or hot pep­per- mint. Some would sam­ple the home-brewed blue­berry, dog­berry or dan­de­lion wine. Berries picked af­ter the first frost made the tasti­est wine. Home­brew beer and rum were re­served for the men.

Hilda de­clares the meals on New Year’s Day “ were al­most as good as those served on Christ­mas Day.”

“And then,” she con­cludes, “ there was mum­mer­ing.”

It’s her con­tention that “Christ­mas would not have been Christ­mas be­fore 1950 with­out mum­mers.” Men, women and chil­dren dressed in dis­guises and vis­ited their neigh­bours ev­ery night of the hol­i­days, ex­cept Sun­days and Christ­mas night, “of­ten act­ing in rowdy fashion, un­til their iden­ti­ties had been guessed. Once dis­guised, they tended to take on whole new per­son­al­i­ties. In fact, they acted quite the op­po­site of their usual well-be­haved mod­est selves.”

The do­mes­tic role of women in the days Hilda de­scribes can­not be over­stated. They were the ones who did many im­por­tant things, in­clud­ing “pro­vid­ing fes­tive foods, home­made wines, and ready­ing their houses for vis­i­tors,” she says.

Hilda Chaulk Mur­ray, orig­i­nally of El­lis­ton, has many fond mem­o­ries of past Christ­mas fes­tiv­i­ties. Hilda Chaulk, on the El­lis­ton/Bon­av­ista Road, in the win­ter of 1949-50, sport­ing the “new look” of 1947.

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