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.

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