Our Last Outport Family Christmas

By Daphne Belbin Tumlin

Houston, TX

In 1952, Christmas crept into New Chelsea, NL, in the dead of winter when nothing was moving but the rabbits. The short, narrow path from our house to Adelaide and Bill Mansfield’s house looked like a canyon with its tall, white side walls. But the snow and bone-stabbing cold did not keep their two boys, Lester and Billy, at home that Christmas Eve. By 4:00 when it was nearly dark, they arrived at our house to listen to the BBC Christmas Eve programming on the battery-powered radio. Ours was one of only four households in New Chelsea that had a radio.

By 5:00 we were ready for our traditional Christmas Eve meal of salt fish and sweet raisin bread, but Lester couldn’t tear himself from the radio. After each carol he would beg to stay for “just one more song.” He was so caught up with the music that when he heard the first sound of jingling bells, he thought it was coming from the radio. But then he caught a glimpse through the window of the bright red suit and white beard, and he fled to his own house without stopping even to put on his coat and boots.

Santa’s bells sent my siblings and me scrambling, too, without having eaten our meal. We jumped into bed and covered our heads in fear and excitement. Santa, perhaps overly eager to play his role, had arrived early. Through the bed clothes we could hear him say, in a low, rumbling voice, “A doll for Daphne, a pencil box for Evelyn and Eleanor, and a gun for Calvin.”

Evelyn started to say, “But I don’t want a pencil box – until Eleanor pulled her under the covers and told her to be quiet or we wouldn’t get anything at all.

Next morning we spread the contents of our Christmas stockings on our parents’ bed. There were wooden spin tops, chicken wish bones, hazelnuts and walnuts, peppermint knobs and candy canes, and right in the toe of each stocking there was an orange. 

When we looked under the Christmas tree, Evelyn and Eleanor discovered that it wasn’t just a pencil box that Santa had left, but a brand new double-long sled. Daddy had always had his eye out for a juniper tree with the perfect curve that he could cut down the middle to make symmetrical runners for a slide, and this year he’d found the perfect tree. Calvin got a gun, a set of wooden blocks and a big store-bought spin top; I had a doll and a set of marbles. Santa had never left so many presents before.

Christmas Day began with our mother and father sitting by the radio to hear the “Message from the Throne.” The connection to the British monarchy was strong. We were by now a part of Canada, but except for the “baby bonus” cheques, nothing had changed.

At 10:00 that morning, while the beef and vegetables roasted in the oven, Daddy went out with his friend, Elliott Button, to make the traditional Christmas rounds. While the kids played with our new toys, Mommy brought out from the pantry and placed on the table the globe-shaped, sweet-smelling English plum pudding that had been steamed days earlier in a tin mold. Then she prepared a plum sauce.

By 1:00 Daddy still had not come home. Mommy fidgeted with the table setting, poked at the fire and paced between the pantry and the kitchen, looking outside each time she passed by the window. Finally, about an hour later, Daddy came stumbling up the steps. Clearly, he had over-indulged in Christmas cheer while on his rounds. He headed straight for the daybed in the corner of the kitchen.

Mommy quickly pushed the children up the stairs, but we could still hear everything that was happening. “You can throw up in this pan,” Mommy said, “but it’s the last time you’ll throw up in that pan or in any other pan.” Then we heard the sound of the big white enamel pan whizzing across the kitchen floor. Mommy believed that drunkenness was the lowest form of depravity, and she would not tolerate it in her house. I wonder now whether my father made a promise to her that Christmas Day because after that he never touched another drop of alcohol for as long as he lived.

Despite Daddy’s inebriated state on Christmas Day, Mommy wouldn’t let anything spoil the remaining 12 days of Christmas. We all participated in the voluntary madness of janneying every evening. We went from house to house as soon as darkness fell and the oil lamps in the kitchens were lit. Like every janney, we entertained our hosts until our identity was guessed, then we stayed on for food and drink. Everyone was full of good humour and song. That year my parents seemed to need the hearty laughter and strong music. Or perhaps what they needed was the security and certainty of their customs as a shield against the unknown world that was slowly encroaching upon them.

Years later when my mother recalled that Christmas, I was surprised to learn that she had experienced an aching sadness that was as uncharacteristic as my father’s insobriety. They must have known then that we would leave the outport a few months later, the first of many migrations to come that would take my family farther and farther from our roots. Yet the traditions and love embodied by that Christmas would never leave us. We will always have that outport Christmas in our hearts.

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Downhome Magazine

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