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A tale of Christmas in old Newfoundland

08 Dec

The following story is contained in the book, “There Never Was A Better Time.” The novel is a tale of two mischievous young men, who in 1921 immigrated to Canada from a small fishing village in Newfoundland, in the days prior to confederation. Their parents, John and Mary Taylor, grandfather Job, and younger brothers remained in the homestead beside the rocky shoreline of Burin Bay. This story tells of the first Christmas that the family in Newfoundland did not celebrate the holidays together.

                 Christmas in Old Newfoundland

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Mary Taylor parted the kitchen curtains and gazed thoughtfully across the frozen harbour. Her sons and several other boys were playing ice-ball, with a rock wrapped in old wool socks serving as the “ball.” Glancing at the sky, she saw that snow was beginning to descend from the heavy, storm clouds. The wind blew the billowing flakes wildly with its frigid breath, swirling them in fanciful patterns. As the day faded behind the darkening hills, the distant shore across the harbour at Wandsworth became more obscure. The gale was intensifying, and the smoke from the chimneys slanted horizontally, as if flattened by an invisible hand.

The storms of the preceding weeks had heaped huge drifts of snow against the windward sides of the houses, sheds, and small stores. The rock-strewn fields and fishing wharves appeared overwhelmed by the thick layer of frosty white. However, most Burin residents welcomed snow on Christmas Eve, as it added to the sentiments of the season.

Mary turned away from the window, hoping that the boys would return before dark, as the road was fading from view. Resting in his rocking-chair, Job was enjoying the warmth of the stove. He noticed the worried expression on Mary’s face and guessed her thoughts. He said nothing, however, knowing that the boys would return when they were ready, and not a minute before.

Each year, the outport communities eagerly anticipated Christmas. The holiday was a bolt of lightning hurled into the darkness of the most dismal time of the year. The arduous months of cod-trapping had ended, dories were snug within the stores, fishing nets had been secured for the winter, and skiffs had been hauled up onto the landwash for repairs.

The men were now safely anchored within the community. It was a time for parties, weddings, and other lively social occasions. In previous years, many people had married during the yuletide season, so there were always numerous anniversary celebrations. Church suppers, boisterous family dinners, and spirited evening parties were held in abundance, providing ample opportunities for socializing.

Preparations for the festive season had been in full gear for weeks, and the Taylor home was no exception. For several weeks, the sweet scent of baking had infused Mary’s kitchen, and the pantry now contained many treasured treats.

At the beginning of winter, Burin turned inward, and its people entered fully into the spirit of festive revelry. They ignored the problems of isolation and a hostile climate that locked the inlets and bays with ice. During January and February, a coastal steamer might not stop at Burin at all, so it was important that supplies arrived before the freeze-up. To haul anything ashore after freeze-up, men had to travel out to the open water beyond the edge of the ice. This was as near as any vessel was able to approach and was invariably a considerable distance from shore. Supplies would then have to be dragged back across the frozen expanse.

On Christmas Eve of 1921, the community had completed its preparations, and the necessities for the yuletide season had been gathered. Anything they now lacked, they would simply have to ignore.

*

Inside the Taylor home, Mary removed the final batch of cookies from the oven and placed them on a platter in the pantry to cool. After she put the plate on the shelf, she counted the jars. There were enough partridgeberries, blueberries, and bakeapples for the family and holiday guests, as well as extra for the winter months ahead. Her eyes scanned the airtight containers that held the muslin-wrapped Christmas cakes. She had baked the dark cake in October, which allowed time for the currants and other fruits to mellow. The light cake she had prepared in November, after acquiring more spices, sugar, butter, and fruits. There were four tins in the pantry crammed with cookies, and there would soon be another.

A barrel of apples, shipped from Prince Edward Island by schooner, occupied the space to the right of the pantry door. A few oranges had also arrived, and Mary had hidden them behind a barrel. The scent of the oranges betrayed their presence, however, and though their sweet fragrance blended with that of the preserved apple slices, they failed to obliterate the odours of the salted cod, salt beef, and kerosene. Satisfied with the results of her labours, Mary returned to the kitchen to wash the baking utensils and mixing bowls.

Glancing out the window again, she noticed that the snow was descending more heavily, and that the shoreline across the harbour to the west had entirely vanished from sight. On the ice near the Taylor home, the game of ice-ball was nearing an end. Old Job, her father-in-law, had been correct. The game was ending because of necessity, rather than a desire to conclude the activity. Now, when the boys hit their “ball,” it often disappeared into the blinding snow and could not be found for many minutes. As it was difficult to continue, they finally decided to seek the warmth of their kitchen stoves. Within minutes, they trudged homeward.

Alongside the pathway, only the tops of the fences protruded above the drifts. As the Taylor boys neared home, the angry wind muffled their laughter and excited voices, but it was unable to diminish their excitement. They had a bubbling enthusiasm for this season of sledding, skating, and sliding. Furthermore, it was Christmas Eve, and, in their eyes, no time of year was more magical.

Inside the Taylor house, their younger brother Bill gazed out the frosty kitchen window. Because of his weak lungs, Mary insisted that he remain inside during inclement weather. To aid his breathing, she frequently fetched a bowl of steaming water, and he held his head above it, using a towel to trap the rising vapours.

Job observed his grandson standing beside the window. The old man rose from his chair, walked over, and gently placed a hand on the boy’s shoulder. He realized that Bill desperately wished to be outside with his brothers. Job sympathized, although he spoke not a word. When he heard the outer door of the porch open, he glanced up at his grandsons—Herb, Les, and Onslow. They were stomping their feet noisily on the old wooden floor to remove the snow clinging to their boots. They brushed the snow from their coats before throwing them onto the pegs on the wall, and then, they flung their caps on top of the coats. Onslow, who was the youngest, was unable to reach as high as his brothers. He ignored his hat as it fell to the floor.

Their mother opened the inside door and ushered them in, but not before demanding that Onslow go back and hang up his cap properly. She gently scolded them for staying outside so long, but her manner lacked conviction, as she understood and approved of their love of winter sports. Besides, she was relieved that the three of them were finally inside. Mary’s manner toward her boys was like that of a mother hen—watchful and protective. Even as they grew older, her attitude never changed.

Throughout the evening meal, the wind whistled noisily, rattling the windows and creating ghostly sounds in the chimney. Glancing out the window, Mary noticed that, unlike the wind, the snow had abated slightly. She prayed that the storm would blow itself out, allowing Burin to escape its worst effects.

Within the hour, the family was to attend the Christmas concert at the Burin Citadel of The Salvation Army. Fortunately for her family, it was a short distance to the church, but if the snow continued, it might prevent the attendance of those who lived further away, in the other coves. Reduced attendance was a threat to the success of the endeavour.

As soon as the meal was finished, Job left the dinner table and disappeared upstairs. In the forthcoming concert, he was to play Santa Claus. Waiting in his room, he smiled as he thought of the many years he had performed this role and the difficulty of hiding his identity from his grandsons when they had been younger. By now, all except Onslow, the youngest, knew that he was the concert’s Santa Claus.

Job was to remain secluded in his bedroom until after the family had left for the church. Then he would dress in his costume and make his way over. His long overcoat would hide his outfit, preventing children not belonging to the congregation from glancing out a window and learning his secret as he journeyed along. In his pocket would be the false whiskers to cover his own white beard. He would not place them on his chin until he was inside the church porch. Alone with his thoughts, he sat and waited.

An amusing incident from the previous Christmas entered Job’s thoughts. A thirteen-year-old boy had asked, “Did you and Aunt Jane have sexual relations?” Job’s mouth dropped in surprise. Never had anyone—much less a child—asked such a shocking question. Stroking his chin and ruminating for a moment, he attempted to recover his composure while he carefully considered his answer. The boy was now a teenager, so Job decided that he should answer honestly.

“Yes, me son. We did.”

Next, the lad asked, “Do you think my mom and dad have sexual relations?” Job’s alarm increased, as he feared where the questioning was leading. Following another brief pause, Job assured him that, yes, they, too, had sexual relations.

The boy hesitated, and then asked, “Then why don’t I get gifts from them at Christmas time?” Job smiled with relief and told him that perhaps they had been lost in the mail aboard the coastal steamer.

Despite his years of wisdom, as he was now over eighty years of age, Job had been relieved that the discussion had ended without his having to explain the facts of life. He smiled as he remembered the incident, and his amusement increased when he recalled Mary’s reaction to the tale.

*

During December, the older brothers often teased Onslow and told him that any misbehaviour on his part was certain to produce a lump of coal instead of a gift in his stocking on Christmas morning. The odd laughter that accompanied this threat suggested to him that something was fishy about old St. Nick. To be on the safe side, Onslow remained silent, although he was determined to observe carefully on Christmas Eve to learn what his older brothers already knew.

At about 7.30 pm, Mary opened the porch door, and her three youngest sons burst into the swirling snow, pushing and shoving in their eagerness to plough through the drifts. Herb walked sedately behind his younger brothers, his collar pulled high around his neck to lessen the chill of the bitterly cold winds. With Jack and Ernie in Toronto, Herb was now the eldest of the Taylor boys remaining in Burin. He wished to arrive at the concert in a mature manner—after all, he was seventeen now. He wanted to impress Jenny, a girl he liked very much. She lived in Epworth, a mile across the frozen harbour, and it worried him that the storm might prevent her from reaching Burin Bay to attend the concert. He waited a few minutes, allowing his younger siblings to walk ahead. Mary and John watched their sons with amusement, as they proceeded through the snow.

*

When the boys entered the church, it was cozy and warm. The women had lit a fire in the stove during the late afternoon. The soft glow from the candles in the windows added enchantment to the scene.

A tall Christmas tree dominated the front of the auditorium, capturing the attention of everyone who entered, especially the children. Job and several other men had travelled into the woods the previous week and cut the enormous spruce, its size necessitating that a horse and catamaran haul it to the Citadel. It had been stored behind the church, and, during the previous afternoon, the men had shaken the snow from its branches, and carried it inside. Its trunk now rested in a tub of wet sand that would help preserve it for the entire twelve days of Christmas.

During the previous week, children had cut and glued decorations for the tree, but it was their mothers who had trimmed it, thus setting the stage for a surprise for the children when they arrived for the concert. In the original Christmas story, there had been sheep on a hillside near Bethlehem. In commemoration of this, some of the tree’s decorations had been made from bits of uncarded sheep’s wool, and others from long strands of coloured wool twine and pieces of dyed wool. Children had assembled coloured patches of cloth and paper into the shapes of bells, sheep, and stars, and the resulting ornaments had been secured among the branches. Paper chains wrapped around the tree in endless circles. At a dizzying height, a shiny yellow star dominated its pinnacle, the star’s uppermost point almost touching the ceiling. Mothers had baked cookies in the shapes of bells, dories, stars, and houses and tied them to the ends of the branches, tantalizingly within reach of the taller children. Beneath the tree was a multitude of gifts wrapped in coloured cloth, wallpaper remnants, and pieces of leftover decorative paper. The tree was a magnificent sight.

Shortly before eight o’clock, the boys’ band assembled on the platform. Among the musicians were Herb, who played a valve-trombone, and Leslie, who performed on the horn. Bill and Onslow sat in the audience with their mother. Bill’s lungs were too weak to blow an instrument, and Onslow was too young.

The band was smaller than it had been the previous year, as Jack and Ernie were absent. Thus, when Mary gazed at the small group, it reminded her that this was her first Christmas without Jack and Ernie. When the first carol sounded forth, it was obvious from the quality of the music that the band sorely missed them as well. “The First Noel” sounded more like the band’s last gasp.

The concert started ten minutes late, which was considered on time. The evening included its share of musical stars, unintentional clowns, stammering elocutionists, and dramatic hams, along with a few children who excelled in every role in which they had been cast. A quartet sang admirably, followed by a soloist who was so off-key that the child’s voice sounded like the scraping of fingernails on a school chalkboard.

Though the nativity play was performed well, the tots dressed as sheep roamed where they should never have grazed, blocking the audience’s view of the Virgin Mary and the Christ Child. One of the boys dressed as a wise man tripped over his long robe and tumbled to the floor with a noisy thud. If such behaviour had been typical of the original wise men, it might explain why they had arrived late at the stable door.

An overly nervous child in the back row of the heavenly choir was too excited to control his bladder. As they noticed his predicament, the other children edged away, producing a gap in the front row that was a mystery to the audience. This was not the only unsolved puzzle of the evening. Though two of the recitations were excellent, the audience did not understand a single word uttered by the child who recited the third, although the prompter behind the curtain was clearly audible.

Everyone clapped hands for a solo that contained no melody known to humankind and a libretto that was similarly enigmatic. One of the boys in the band lost his mouthpiece, so he placed his mouth on the opening of the tube and fingered the valves furiously as he pretended to play. The other band boys were unconcerned with his plight, as they thought that his performance was actually one of his best—it had contributed no musical damage to the overall sound of the band.

As the concert’s end drew near, despite the mishaps, it was obvious that the evening was a grand success. During the final moments of the concert, Job entered the porch unnoticed and remained hidden as he waited for his grand entrance.

After the band played its final number, the children assembled on the platform to receive their applause. Mothers in the audience would have compared their children’s performances with those of the stars of La Scala in Milan, or perhaps even Toronto’s Massey Hall, had they known about these venues. This was evidence that Christmas brought forth more kindness and goodwill than any other season of the year. Sometimes, this attitude was referred to as “seasonal blindness.”

As the clapping and cheering subsided, there was a loud boom from the big bass drum, followed by a reverberating crash from the rear of the hall. Santa Claus burst forth in all his splendiferous glory. The shrieking of the youthful members of the audience was deafening. Old Job, attired in his yuletide best, pranced up the aisle, his white-gloved hand touching children on their heads or shaking their hands. The band played “Joy to the World” as the fabulous Mr. Claus marched forth, surpassing any participant who had ever strutted in “The Grand March” in Verdi’s Aida or “The March of the Peers” in Iolanthe.

The shy and inhibited Job, through the anonymity of his costume, had transformed himself into a theatrical ham. No child ever guessed that the animated personage was “Uncle Jobby” of Burin Bay, the grandfather of the Taylor boys. They did not notice that Job was not in his usual place beside the drum. Bill, who was eleven years old, was privy to the secret, but kept silent because of his seven-year-old brother Onslow. The adults whispered that the transformation of the dignified Job into the spirited Mr. Claus was one of the miracles of Christmas.

When it was time to distribute the gifts from under the tree, each child scrutinized the small packages with care, anxiously praying that Santa would place one into his or her hopeful hands. Santa stood beside the tree, stroked his long, white beard, and scratched his head beneath his long wool cap. The adults knew that he was delaying the gift giving in order to build anticipation to unimagined heights. They smiled approvingly as they watched the anxiety of the smaller children and the antics of Santa.

Finally, the corps officer (church minister) assisted Santa in the all-important ritual. One at a time, he handed the gifts to old St. Nick, and, because Job was unable to read, whispered the names of the recipients in his ear. When they heard their names, the children raced up the aisle, received their presents, and hurriedly returned to their seats. The packages contained no lumps of coal, implying that every child had been a saint during the preceding year. The presents were usually bibles, small carved toys such as boats, or store-bought puzzles. Each child also received a small bag of candy and removed a cookie from the tree. It was a treasured moment. After the children had received their toys and candies, the band played the opening notes of a well-loved carol. The audience stood and enthusiastically sang:

Joyful, all ye nations rise,

Join the triumphs of the skies;

With the angelic hosts proclaim,

Christ is born in Bethlehem.

Hark, the herald angels sing;

Glory to the new-born King.

When the concert had ended, families warmly wished each other a merry Christmas, congratulated the children, and, while conversing, edged toward the door. Beyond the cozy auditorium was a world of wildly drifting snow. Despite the deceptive lull earlier in the evening, the blizzard had intensified. Burin was to suffer the full fury of a winter storm.

*

Mary, John, and their sons trudged homeward, their scarves and coats pulled tightly to defy winter’s frigid grasp. They soon reached the protection of their porch. As usual, they removed the snow from their boots and brushed the layers of white from their coats. After entering the kitchen and warming by the stove, the boys raced down the hallway to the parlour. Mary had opened the parlour doors before departing for the concert, allowing heat to enter the room. The family did not usually use the parlour during the winter months, because it contained no stove, but Christmas Eve was an exception.

The atmosphere in the room was cozy, the coal oil lamp emitting a soft light that cast dancing shadows. After her family were seated, Mary ceremoniously reached for the bible on the end table near the south window. As she passed the book to Herb, a noise from the porch indicated that Job had returned. They heard thumping as he removed the snow from his boots. Unseen by those in the parlour, he placed the coat that had concealed his costume on a peg, and, within moments, the stairs creaked as he ascended. Everyone except Onslow knew that Job was going to his bedroom to remove his Santa outfit. The family patiently waited for him to join them in the parlour.

Onslow thought it strange that his grandfather was late arriving from the concert. Then it crossed his mind that he had not actually seen him during the concert, sitting in his usual position beside the base drum. Onslow decided that he would investigate these mysteries at the first opportunity.

When the family group was complete, Herb opened the Bible and commenced reading. He dared not omit a single phrase. Although his mother was unable to read, she knew the words and verses by heart. The poetry of St. Luke’s gospel, though spoken softly, seemed to fill the small room: “And it came to pass in those days that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus, that all the world should be taxed …” When the shepherds entered the story, Herb passed the book to Leslie, who sat up proudly, realizing that his participation was evidence that he was maturing. He read: “And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night …”

Each year, the story concluded at the sixteenth verse. Mary’s voice joined Leslie’s, and they recited final words together: “And they came with haste, and found Mary and Joseph, and the babe lying in a manger.” Onslow knew who Mary and Joseph were, but who was this person called “Haste?” It would be another year of reading lessons before he solved the mystery.

After the story, Mary went to the kitchen. Within moments, she returned with a plate of Christmas cake. This was the first sampling of the season. The Taylor sons agreed that it was the finest cake their mother had ever baked. Each boy earnestly hoped that his generous compliment might earn him an extra piece of the delicious treat. Although there were seven people in the room, there was an eighth portion—the extra one reserved for Santa Claus.

By now, it was past ten-thirty, and, to conclude the evening’s rituals, Mary offered a Christmas prayer. Included was a special request for the good health and safety of her sons in Toronto—Wilbert, Jimmy, Jack, and Ernie. She also mentioned George M., her second-oldest by her first marriage, who lived in Pat’s Cove. She had decided that she would visit George’s family sometime during the yuletide season.

As Bill and Onslow climbed the stairs to bed, clutched in Onslow’s hand was the plate with the piece of cake for Santa. Bill carried a glass of milk. They deposited the treats on a small chest at the foot of their bed, in anticipation of Santa’s visit. The boys quickly jumped into bed and were soon snugly within the embrace of the blankets. Then, their mother listened to their prayers:

Now I lay me down to sleep,

I pray the Lord my soul to keep.

If I should die before I wake,

I pray the Lord my soul to take.

Amen.

With the prayers completed, Mary kissed them on the forehead, wished them a good night, and left the room, quietly closing the door behind her. Onslow gazed into the darkness and listened to the shrieking of the winter wind. He wished that he had asked the Lord to “lay off” the snow, as too much of the white stuff might prevent Santa Claus from visiting. Onslow asked Bill if he thought Santa would find his way through the snow and darkness. Bill reassured his younger brother that Santa would arrive.

Within the next half-hour, Leslie went to bed, followed by Herb. In the kitchen, Job, Mary, and John sat, sipped tea, and waited for Onslow to fall asleep. They talked quietly of the delights of Christmas Eves past, shared memories, and chuckled over the antics of the boys. Job spoke of the time that Jack had returned from school and said that he had seen a “flat” dog on the path. Mary had asked what he meant. He said that it must have been a flat dog, as another one was on its back, “pumping it up.” Mary winced as Job and John chuckled.

Then Job mentioned the time that he had attempted to explain to the boys that the family was expecting another baby. (This was before Bill was born.) He had begun by telling them that he had seen a stork flying over the house. Jimmy blurted out, “I hope the creature doesn’t frighten mother. She’s pregnant, you know!” They all laughed quietly. Not all the warmth within the room emanated from the stove. The glow of pleasant memories never fades.

Shortly after eleven, when Mary had completed her preparations for the following morning, she retrieved the two Christmas stockings hidden in the pantry. Although Bill was now too old for a stocking, she had decided to maintain the tradition for one more year, to prevent Onslow from asking too many questions. Along with Job and John, she crept upstairs and entered the bedroom where Onslow and Bill were fast asleep. Job ate the cake and drank the milk, allowing Mary to confirm truthfully in the morning that Santa from the concert had indeed consumed the food. She secured the stockings to the foot of the bed and shut the door quietly.

In the hallway, after wishing one another a good night, Job, John, and Mary went to bed, secure in the knowledge that they had accomplished the final chore of the evening. Christmas was soon to weave its magic tapestry across Burin Bay.

*

Outside the home, in the darkness of the night, the storm raged. In the early hours of the morning, the capricious wind changed direction, blowing now from the east and piling snow against the sides of the houses that had been previously protected. The snow concealed doorways, porches, and lower windows. Sheds disappeared, and root cellars were buried. The wind swirled the drifts into fanciful shapes across the frozen bays and inlets. The meadows and hills were enveloped in white. The roofs of the houses protruded bravely above the heavy mantle. Snow obliterated the windward sides of the houses, immersing them nearly to the second-floor windows.

Shortly before dawn, the storm blew out to sea. When the Taylor boys awoke to greet the happy morn, the wind had abated. The sky was a dazzling blue, and the sun shone brightly. The storm was now far out over the Atlantic, endangering any ships that sailed across its path. In its wake, it had left Burin buried beneath a cloak of white.

When John looked out his bedroom window, he saw that the front door of the house was blocked by snow. He surmised that the rear entrance facing the harbour was also inundated. It would be impossible to open them. In preparation for such a happening, in winter he kept a ladder propped against the north wall of the house, permitting him to exit an upstairs window to shovel the drifts away from the doorways. Before performing this feat, he went downstairs and lit the stove in the kitchen.

As John climbed out a bedroom window and descended the ladder, he heard squeals of delight from Onslow, who had just discovered the Christmas stocking that Santa had brought. It contained an orange, an apple, peppermint knobs, nuts, candies, and an all-day sucker. Bill was also pleased to have received Santa’s favours and was similarly exuberant, even though he knew the source of the gifts. When Onslow looked out his bedroom window at the snowy world, he marvelled at the ability of old St. Nick to arrive amid such adversity. There were no longer any doubts in his mind. Santa was real and had visited during the night. Further proof was that the cake and milk had disappeared. Whatever had caused his brothers to smirk when mentioning old Santa’s name, Onslow now considered it unimportant.

Mary arrived downstairs at the same time as Herb and Les. Bill and Onslow arrived next and finished dressing by the heat of the stove. Mary busily started making breakfast. She placed the teakettle on the stove, boiled the water for the eggs and salt cod, and cut thick slices of bread for toasting over the stove. By the time all was ready, John had cleared the snow away from the front door and opened it. Next, he shovelled a path to the road to permit the family to attend church.

The family ate breakfast. Although the boys were disappointed that they were not permitted to open their gifts until after the church service, they did not complain. During the service, Herb and Leslie would dutifully play their brass instruments in the band.

At the church, Bill and Onslow sat among the congregation and fidgeted as they listened, growing increasingly restless as the sermon continued. The text for the morning was from the second chapter of Matthew: “And thou Bethlehem, in the land of Judea, art not the least among the princes of Judea: for out of thee shall come a Governor, that shall rule my people Israel.” Onslow reflected on this text and decided that if he were a governor, he would order that all Christmas gifts be opened at dawn.

By one o’clock, the family had returned home, and, after a small meal, the eagerly anticipated moment arrived to open their presents. They gathered around the kitchen table, and what a joyous occasion it was! Though the main emphasis of the Christmas season was on socializing rather than gift-giving, the presents were still important, especially to the children. The Taylor boys received tin whistles, harmonicas, pocket-knives, tin soldiers, spinning-tops, and hand-carved ships and dories. To a lesser degree, they appreciated the red- or green-dyed mitts and gifts like handkerchiefs, scarves, and wool caps. Onslow considered his wooden spinning-top his most prized gift, while Bill treasured his pocket-knife best, as he was exceptionally skilled at carving. Mary received two handkerchiefs and an undergarment, as well as a few household items. John received a scarf, a pair of gloves, and a new wood-saw.

Job was the recipient of some socks and underwear, but the gift he appreciated most was the plug of tobacco that his son John had secretly given him. However, he considered the most valuable treasure of all to be able to sit in his rocking-chair by the cozy heat of the stove and enjoy the love of the family surrounding him.

Herb and Leslie had purchased a dainty, lace-edged handkerchief for their mother, and it brought tears to her eyes. Her grateful thanks and kisses brought guilt upon their souls—to purchase the gift, they had pilfered a few lead weights from one of the neighbours’ sheds and exchanged them at the merchant’s shop. At this particular moment, they were not very proud of their deed, even though their motive had been true to the season.

For Herb, there had been another indiscretion that had given him a guilty conscience. Under his mother’s bed was a bottle of gin that she kept for medicinal purposes, for whenever a member of the family suffered from a severe cold or the flu. Out of curiosity, Herb had consumed a small amount and replaced it with an equal portion of water. Though Mary had no knowledge of the deed, Herb would long remember the prank.

*

The boys usually enjoyed skating and sledding on Christmas-Day afternoons, but Mary would not allow it this year, as the holiday fell on a Sunday. To compound the boredom, the snowdrifts prevented relatives and friends from visiting. In many of the outport communities of Newfoundland, visiting on Christmas Day was not common, as people considered it more important to remain with their own families. In Burin, however, this was not the custom.

The Taylor boy’s Uncle Will and Aunt Susie lived nearby—on Moulton’s Point, immediately beside the Taylor house. They paid a visit, accompanied by their two children, Eudavilla and Bill Moulton. Eudavilla was eleven, and Bill was a teenager. The two youngest Taylors welcomed Eudavilla warmly. At 2:30 pm, she accompanied them to Sunday school. This provided an opportunity to be outside for a few hours. During the short walk to the church, they raced and jumped in a universe of white. Bill ignored his mother’s constant warnings and joined in the fun. It was unusual for Bill to experience such freedom, and he wanted to take advantage.

The children endured the confines of the Sunday school, but, when it was over, they gleefully travelled homeward. Snowdrifts created an unmatched playground. As the afternoon shadows lengthened, Onslow and Bill began anticipating the forthcoming meal. As they plunged into yet another snowbank and kicked it with their boots, thoughts of food increased.

At Gun Point, Eudavilla parted company with the Taylor boys, who went inside. Within minutes, they were chorusing, “How long before dinner?” After what seemed an interminable wait, the family sat around the kitchen table at five o’clock, impatiently waiting for Mary to serve the food. As if by magic, a platter appeared, on which was a large “loo” (loon) cooked to perfection, its golden-brown skin reflecting a glossy sheen.

The boys knew that several days before Christmas, their father had taken his shotgun from the rack high on the kitchen wall and gone hunting. Now, he sat in his chair at the head of the table, preparing to carve the rewards of his venture. As the sharp carving knife sliced into the bird, Mary brought out plates of vegetables—buttered cabbage, roasted potatoes, diced turnip, plump onions, and carrots. After grace was offered, John said, “Dig in!”

A momentary silence descended as they devoured their first bites of the feast. Portions were abundant, and, with Mary’s special seasonings, the food proved superior to anything she had served during the previous months. With such a banquet before them, talking was at a minimum at first, but it was not long before excited chatter flowed as generously as the supply of food. Mary reminded the boys not to talk with their mouths full.

When the plates were bare, Mary removed them from the table and placed them on the sideboard. Next, she lifted the steamed pudding from the pot on the stove, cut it into portions, and poured a warm, sugary sauce over the delicious treat. It was a delightful conclusion to the meal.

After John had finished his dessert, he could eat no more. “Well, I’m ashore,” he said. He left the table, walked over to the gun rack, removed the gun, and went out the back door. Job was immediately behind him, followed by the boys. Without overcoats or caps, they marched to the tip of Gun Point and stood on the windy promontory behind the house, where large rocks jutted into the frozen harbour. Ignoring the cold and the snarling wind, the boys watched their father load his gun, raise it, and fire two thunderous shots into the frigid silence of the night. It was a signal to every family in Burin Bay that the Taylors had completed their Christmas meal. The community knew that the Taylor household was now officially open to visitors.

The firing of the gun was a time-honoured tradition in Burin, and every family competed to be the first. During earlier years, Job had been the one to fire the shots. For Mary, it was a source of pride that she had prepared and served the food ahead of the other women of the cove. The boys thought it wonderful that their father had fired the first shots, and, during the remainder of the yuletide season, they frequently reminded their friends of it.

After the firing of the gun, they returned inside the house and closed the door against the cold of the night. The Christmas season of 1921 passed into the land of memories, gone forever, but never forgotten.

A link to the book, “There Never Was a Better Time,” https://tayloronhistory.wordpress.com/there-never-was-a-better-time/

The author’s Home Page ; https://tayloronhistory.wordpress.com/

 
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Posted by on December 8, 2011 in Toronto

 

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