This is the story of a church Christmas concert in the 1920s in a small fishing community in Newfoundland. It is based on the memories of my grandfather, who recalled most things in life with humour and exaggeration. In old Newfoundland, this was known as “yarnin’.”
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 had lost the mouthpiece of his cornet, 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, Santa Claus 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 Santa, 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.
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, minister of the church assisted Santa in the all-important ritual. One at a time, he handed the gifts to old St. Nick. When the children heard their names, they 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 . .
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, the community soon to suffer the full fury of a winter storm.
The above story is contained in the book “There Never Was a Better Time,” a tale of two young immigrants who leave their small village on the shores of Newfoundland and journey to Toronto. For a link to this book: https://tayloronhistory.com/there-never-was-a-better-time/
To view posts about Christmas in Toronto throughout the years.
A church Christmas pageant in Toronto in 2012
Downtown Toronto’s lights and Christmas displays – 2012
The Christmas windows at the Bay Store are magical at night
Christmas at the historic St. Lawrence Market in 1921 and in 2012
The Christmas windows at the Bay Store on Queen Street, 2012
The amazing gingerbread houses on the underground Pathway in Toronto
The gigantic metallic reindeer in the Eaton Centre
Christmas cards mailed in Toronto during the years 1924-1926
The Christmas buffet lunch at the Arcadian Court at the Simpson’s Queen Street Store in Toronto (the Bay)
Christmas at Mackenzie House on Bond Street.
Christmas at Toronto’s St. Lawrence Market
The Christmas Market at the Distillery District
Memories of the Christmas windows of the Simpson’s store on Queen Street
Christmas at the Kensington Market
Memories of Toyland on the fifth floor of the old Eaton’s Store at Queen and Yonge Street
The Christmas lights on Yonge Street in the 1950s
The history of Toronto’s Santa Claus Parade
The 1940s Christmas radio broadcasts featuring Santa Claus
Christmas at Toronto’s historic St. Andrew’s Market
Christmas trees and seasonal decorations in Toronto
Celebrating the 12 days of Christmas in old Newfoundland
Link to the Home Page for this blog: https://tayloronhistory.com/