Christmas in Carbonear in the 1800s
Today, no two communities, even those adjacent to each other, celebrate Christmas in exactly the same way. Traditions vary widely from place to place, and are as distinct as the settlements themselves. This is the case whether one is recalling Christmases past or present.
By 1814, the year Philip Tocque was born, Carbonear took pride in being the second most important community in Conception Bay, and the third most important in the island. It boasted a population of approximately 2,500.
The boy lived a relatively comfortable childhood. Marjorie Doyle, Philip’s biographer, writes: “ Life in the community was plain and traditional. Sources of recreation were limited; there were few reprieves from the routine of work.”
Philip’s pastimes were centred upon the family businesses. He worked as a shopkeeper, clerk and teacher in several communities. In 1849, he left Newfoundland for the United States, where he began a writing career. Ordained an Episcopal priest, he later went to Canada as a backwoods preacher. He spent his later years in Toronto.
Two years before his death in 1899, he published in the St. John’s Evening Telegram his memories of what Christmas in Carbonear was like when he was but a boy. The realization that Christmas was not too far in the distance always brought with it a degree of excitement and anticipation.
“ When I was a boy,” he begins, “ Christmas was a time of great rejoicing and hilarity.”
The festive days of Christmastide extended from Christmas Day, Dec. 25, to Jan. 5, followed by the Feast of the Epiphany on the sixth, Old Christmas Day. Philip writes that those 12 days were marked by “ ball-playing, wrestling matches and games of various kinds.”
Each householder in the community “placed on the table a decanter of rum.” Those who were in a financial position to do so purchased the more expensive gin, brandy and wine, placing it all on the table next to the rum. No doubt with a touch of nostalgia, Philip writes: “All visitors were expected to help themselves.” There would have been few abstainers.
Another item on the table, he recalls, was “a very large sweet cake.” It had been baked in either a Dutch oven, a thick-walled (usually cast iron) cooking pot with a tight-fitting lid, or simply a large iron bake-pot.
Philip reserves his greatest memories of Christmas for the practice of mummering, a time-honoured tradition in Newfoundland and an important part of yuletide celebrations. He divides mummers into three groups. The first category of mummers were men who went around by day. They pulled ribbontrimmed, white shirts over their clothes. Donning what he refers to as “ fanciful hats,” they were then ready for the daytime activity.
However, the men didn’t go mummering alone. Each one had a partner, who was dressed in women’s clothing. Regardless of which house they entered, the mummers followed a set pattern. First of all, according to Philip, they “recited their lessons,” a somewhat unclear reference at this late remove. The consumption of food and drink followed. Dancing was accompanied by tunes played by a fiddler brought along for the musical accompaniment.
The second category of mummers were those who went around by night. They “dressed in the most grotesque manner.” More to the point, some displayed humpbacks, while others sported cowhides and protruding horns. Hobby-horses were a crowd favourite. The night mummers carried with them small bags of flour, which they tossed over the crowd who followed them.
The third category of mummers were boys who went around both day and night. In old age, Philip actually recalls his mummering partners two Christmases in a row, John Bemister. At those times, Philip impersonated Oliver Cromwell, the English military and political leader, while John played the part of the Duke of Wellington.
The long and dreary post-Christmas winter evenings were broken by occasional opportunities for public dancing, usually at weddings. Philip recalls that “all went … who chose to go, without an invitation, except in some cases of the aristocracy, and even then some went without being invited.”
Based on the pathos with which Philip writes, Christmas celebrations were an annual highlight, eagerly anticipated but only grudgingly farewelled.
Congratulations to Sandra Badcock who graduated from Memorial University of Newfoundland in October 2010 with a Master of Arts (History) after receiving a Bachelor of Arts (Honours) in October 2009. Congratulations from parents Gloria and Bob Badcock, brother Robert, grandmothers Hazel Badcock and Mabel Trowbridge on her degrees and her recently accepted position with Memorial University Student Affairs and Services. We wish you all the best in your future endeavors. We are so proud!
In 1899, two years before his death, Carbonear native Philip Tocque fondly recalled Christmases past.