Published January 10, 2008 by
A great many of the sports and ceremonies had long ceased to be performed at the time I was ushered "into this breathing world", still I was fortunate in having for parents those who dearly loved old Terra Nova and whose memories were well stored with anecdotes and history of ye olden time, handed down from sire to son for many generations. Consequently, on each Christmas Eve, when the Christmas votive candles were lighted, and the chairs drawn up in front of the Christmas "back-junk", the yulelog of Newfoundland and as the "mighty flame went roaring up the chimney wide", we were told the oft-repeated stories of early life in Newfoundland - some enchanting, some too sombre to be repeated at this glad time. It is no wonder, then, that I take as much boyish delight on each return of this festival, amid the worry, hurry and scurry of this busy city, as I did some years ago in my island home, when I pleaded with all of a child's persistence to be allowed to "sit up" on Christmas Eve that I might attend the mid-night mass.
For the commemoration of this day we are certainly all the better.
Although the younger generation of St. John's, indeed the whole island for that matter, will probably never realize the great mirth that once attended the return of this glad season, when the ear was' 'cocked" to hear the gun that announced the first family who had partaken of dinner on Christmas Day; when the "I wish you a Merry Christmas" was the "open sesame" to all the good things in the larder; when the Christmas gift box was bestowed; when the poor and needy were made, at the hands of the charitable, to forget the misery and toils of the past year. I remember, when a boy, playing one Christmas Eve in the basement of the Church of England Cathedral, where my father was cutting a "gang" or rigging for the church-ship "Hawk". In running around the basement, chased by my companions, my way was suddenly blocked by boards placed upon empty barrels, and upon these boards were stored "mountains" of beef and loaves of sweet white bread. Running back to father, I asked what it meant, and he told me it was to be distributed among the poor on Christmas morning.
The younger generations remember the "fools." Their time of appearing was the Twelfth Day. They had full sway until the disguise was made a cloak by which to revenge some petty spite. Then they were ordered to be numbered and finally, were allowed out only on condition that they should appear unmasked. This was the command that terminated this old custom in St. John's. It was not, I believe, a statutory law, but merely the will of a stipendiary magistrate, the late Mr. Justice Carter. Some years after they had ceased to appear, one came out on the "Cross" on Christmas Day. He struck right and left, and finally ran into the arms of a policeman who locked him up.
But what I most particularly want to speak about is the "Tragedy of St. George", which was another of the sports of the season of Christmas. Those noble fellows, who, perhaps, all the week were culling or stowing fish, stride and strut as King George, the Turkish Knight, Valentine and Orson and other characters of the tragedy. Acceptably well, too, as I am informed, they read their lines. Old Newfoundlanders who have lived here in Boston 40 or 50 years will repeat the lines of the tragedy today with as much fire and pride as Edwin Booth would the lines of Richard the Third.
Much the same as the "fools" of more recent times, Father Christmas was personified as a very old man, whose face was completely covered by a mask. Each character in the play differed in dress, to describe which would consume too much valuable space.
The following is the cast of characters: - St. George, The Doctor, St. Patrick, Turkish Knight, Dan Donnelly, Father Christmas, Valentine and Orson, and Alexander the Czar of Russia.
Enter Father Christmas:
St. Patrick: - I swear by George, you lie, sir.
St. George: -
St. Patrick: -
St. George. -
St. George: -
Turkish Knight: -
Enter Orson: -
Dan Donnelly: -
No one I do insist, For I have conquered nations with my mighty fists.
I have given a few of the 36 verses of this "powerful" tragedy; sufficient to show one of the good old customs prevailing in
St. John's years ago.