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.