Newfoundland Christmas Traditions

Lighted Fishing Boats, Salvage, NL
Lighted Fishing Boats, Salvage, Nfld.

Everybody has traditions. Some are personal and some are cultural. I often find myself wondering which is which. It is with that in mind that I offer you this edition of Random Island. I wanted to share with you five of the Christmas traditions I grew up with in Happy Adventure, Newfoundland. Some of these traditions may be shared throughout the island and the world. Some of them may live only in my parents’ and grandparents’ kitchens. I’m not certain.

If any of these sound familiar to you, I’d love to hear about it.

It seems like Tibb’s Eve was always coming up in conversation when I was a kid. Loosely it meant ‘a day that will never come’ and it was used a lot like ‘from now til kingdom come’. If I were stacking firewood — a chore I didn’t much enjoy — I might say ‘I’ll be at this from now til Tibb’s Eve.’

Unlike ‘kingdom come,’ Tibb’s Eve had a very definite calendar date, though — December 23. It was the start of the highly anticipated Holiday season… the season that, to my Santa-letter writing self, seemed could not come fast enough. I don’t know that I ever commemorated it in any special way, beyond remarking on it and making one last-ditch effort to be absent from the naughty list. Still it was exciting.

If you research Tibb’s Eve you will likely find references to Tipsy Eve and alcohol. I cannot state emphatically enough that no one I knew ever called it Tipsy Eve or saw it as an occasion to drink, at all. That may be the reference and experience for some but certainly not for all. That’s the thing about Newfoundland culture, there is no singular Newfoundland culture.

With Tibb’s Eve out of the way, the season was underway and the next big holiday event was Christmas Eve supper which was always salt fish, homemade raisin bread and tea. And while Newfoundland may not have a singular culture, we do have a shared understanding that fish, unless otherwise specified, means cod.

Well ahead of Christmas Eve supper, the cod was soaked in several changes of water (to remove the extreme saltiness) before being boiled. The raisin bread was served with butter or, and no complaints here, Eversweet margarine.

I guess it was supposed to be a ‘fasting’ meal ahead of the Christmas ‘feast’. As a teenager I despised it. As an adult, I’ve come to appreciate it… maybe even look forward to it.

If I’m truthful, in recent years we’ve expanded the offerings a little — boiled potatoes and scrunchions often accompany the cod and I’m not opposed to a little cheddar cheese with the raisin bread. When I’m in my own house on Christmas Eve I tend to nod to tradition rather than bow — I make fish and brewis.

After Christmas Eve supper it was time to cut the Christmas cake — not to eat it — just to cut it. I always went to a midnight Christmas Eve church service when I was growing up. When I got home it was technically Christmas so the cake was fair game. It was great to know it was standing by, ready.

Christmas cake was always, implicitly, fruitcake. Fruitcakes, actually. There was never just one. At a bare minimum we always had a dark and light fruitcake and everybody had a preference. Dark fruitcake relies on molasses/brown sugar, spices and sometimes jam to give it a rich flavour and deep brown colour. Light fruitcake omits the molasses and is a pale, altogether less-appealing, baked good. I’m a dark fruit cake kinda guy, in case you couldn’t tell.

When I watch TV and see Americans joke about ‘another Christmas fruitcake’ I feel bad for them because, I suspect, it means they’ve never had good fruitcake. A good dark fruitcake is a beautiful thing. It’s sweet, moist and spicy. It’s like the best gingerbread turned up to 11 and studded with delicious, rum-infused fruit. My mother has a dark fruitcake recipe, which I have attempted with modest success, that calls for 18 cups of fruit and nuts. For me, it is the cake by which all other cakes are judged. It’s not stodgy, it’s not dry, it’s just about perfect.

The Newfoundland-centric Christmas tradition that everyone loves to talk about is mummering. While I do have memories of mummering it’s probably even a stretch to say I grew-up with it. To be clear, I have never mummered and I don’t remember any mummering in Happy Adventure. Which is not to say it didn’t happen. I just don’t remember it. My memories of mummers come from my earlier childhood, in Bay d’Espoir on the south coast of the island.

I remember one year in particular, we were visiting some friends of the family and mummers showed up. They were wearing sheets, pillow cases and odd hats. They didn’t speak. And let me say, it’s one thing to experience your peers in Halloween costumes and completely another for pillow-cased adults to turn up on the doorstep with weird voices and mis-matched boots. It was terrifying.

I’m still not completely over it. Any mummer’s ‘llowed in? Um, no please.   When I wrote this story, I was definitely picturing myself as one of the children running to mother's arms for comfort:

Mummers, aside. I definitely loved being social at Christmas. There were always lots of visiting and visitors right up to January 6th — Old Christmas Day. Much like TIbb’s Eve, I don’t remember that we did anything different to mark the 6th, what I do remember is that it was definitely the day it all came to a grinding halt. It was the last day for the Christmas tree, the last day for the Christmas lights and, saddest of all, the last day of the well-stocked Christmas cake and cookie tray.

I still, mostly, keep this tradition. I’ve eaten so much by that point that my waistband, if not my tastebuds, is pleased to see the cake and cookies disappear. And, after a certain point, I don’t enjoy my Christmas decorations, anymore. They just remind me that it is all over so I’m good to put it away by the sixth.

I’d love to hear about any Christmas/holiday traditions that you have. Are your experiences like mine? Am I the only one who loves dark fruitcake?

Any questions or comments? Love to hear them.


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