Although happiness escapes many people, it is not terribly difficult to come by. To a person, the seniors who shared early Christmas memories with us — all residents of St. John’s senior care facilities — exuded real happiness, even inner peace.
They recounted the simple things that made the season special when they were young. And although all agreed things have changed radically, there was no censuring today’s approach to the season.
“I remember Squatum!” exclaims Mary King with a mischievous smile, challenging me.
I did a double-take — “Huh?”
“Do you know what that is?”
“Well, you take partridgeberries and boil them until the juice is all out of the berries. Then you strain the juice and add sugar. Not very much sugar, mind you, because we didn’t have much to spare. It was bitter — but what a treat!
“Mother used to pour out a little at a time.”
The recipe was simple enough. I asked if her mother allowed it to ferment. No. It was simply a berry juice. I visualized a bright Christmas red colour in the glass and King agreed.
But I puzzled over the name. “Did you say Squat-um?”
“Yes,” she replied. “You took the berries and you squat ’em.”
Georgie Thorne remembers that as a child, Christmas brought a special warmth.
“It meant father would be home,” she recalled.
“My father was a sea-going captain and for most of the time, he was away.
“But no matter where he was when Christmas approached, he would always make an effort to be home.”
Thorne spoke of the special magic of Watchnight Service at her family’s church in Grand Bank. Held on the evening of New Year’s Eve, the church fell silent as the new year approached with the stroke of midnight.
“After service, we would go home and have a meal,” she recalls.
I asked her about the Christmas meal. Turkey was not the staple.
“Father kept livestock — pigs and cows — and we had horses, too, and they were my responsibility,” she laughs. “I was a bit of a tomboy!”
Christmas dinner for her family was roast pork or beef.
Georgina Fry experienced a sort of collision of cultures when she married a Newfoundlander who was serving as a forester in the United Kingdom during the war. They were sailing to his island home as Germany collapsed:
“The war ended when we were about halfway across the Atlantic,” she remembers.
Her husband’s home was Charleston, Bonavista Bay, and slipping away behind her was Liverpool. Even farther away now was her home in County Angus, Scotland.
Her first Christmas in a Newfoundland outport?
“I remember Jacob cut a tree and set it up in the kitchen. I thought, my, what a waste!”
She would have preferred that it remain in its natural environment.
“And we didn’t have any decorations!” she says with a laugh.
“We never had a tree at home,” she recalled, going back to her childhood.
“We had holly and ivy, but no tree. But we did have a tree at school — a big one — and there was a gift under it for each child.
“I remember one Christmas, parents and children were at school and all of a sudden, Mother missed me. She looked everywhere. Finally, she found me sitting up in the front row. Just sitting there — waiting for my gift! I think I was four at the time.”
That little escapade 83 years ago still brings a smile.
“And what about Christmas dinner?” I asked her.
“Steak and kidney pie!”
Another new experience for Fry was the coming of the mummers to her Bonavista Bay home.
“Oh my! They wouldn’t leave! They wouldn’t go home!”
She describes how they danced and danced, and she realized after a while that they were not ready to leave until they had been given a drink (as is the tradition of mummering).
But she wasn’t about to concede.
“I wasn’t going to give them what I wasn’t having myself” she says, laughing at her Scottish background’s reputation for penny-pinching.
But she admits to good fun all around.
And how did she adapt to her new life? Snippets of memory come tumbling out:
“I thought Charleston was a nice place ... there was no electricity there when I first arrived. ... I learned how to spread fish on a flake. I didn’t even know what a flake was when I came there at first! And I learned, when in Rome, do as the Romans do.”
Thaddeus Buckmaster was a St. John’s boy, through and through. The family home was in the centre of town, in the Flower Hill area.
He recalls the opening of Toyland at the downtown department stores — Ayre’s, Bowring’s, The Royal Stores. He remembers taking his new sled out onto Flower Hill, getting himself and the sled stuck in deep snow on the street, and a large truck coming down Flower Hill with minimal control. He remembers the sled being run over and flattened.
“I cried and cried and brought the sled home, afraid to tell my father. But when he did find out, he understood.”
Barter’s Hill was also a favourite sliding place for young Thaddeus.
“We would jump on our slides and go belly-buster all the way down.”
And Barter’s Hill was longer then than it is today. The wonder is that so many children survived street-sliding in that hilly region behind where City Hall now stands.
The raffles with their constant bells, rapid click of the wheels of chance and their floors strewn with discarded tickets were also a part of Buckmaster’s Christmas.
Violet (Nicholl) Hodder remembers as a small girl in Carbonear, hearing bells, and her father advising her to hurry off to bed because Santa was on the way.
“But,” she says, “I always thought those bells sounded an awful lot like the bells we had hanging in the house. But I didn’t let on!”
She also didn’t reveal the identity of Santa Claus when he appeared just before Christmas.
“I knew it was Father, but I wouldn’t say.”
Hodder stops her Christmas reminiscences abruptly. She smiles:
“We had a very happy home life. I never once saw Father and Mother vexed. These were times when a lot of people were on relief. ... I can remember mother baking a cake and father saying, ‘My, what a lovely cake. We should have one like that for Christmas.’
“And then I can remember the cake was nowhere to be found. Gone. The same as some of the clothes in my closet. Missing. Of course, these things were given to people in need.”
And then she quietly expressed the kind of simple, spontaneous comment that today stops you in your pre-Christmas tracks:
“We were very happy in my time.”
When you ask an older person for Christmas memories, you will get more than memories of Christmas. Likely this will not be expressed in the way of a sermon, but if there is a valuable lesson there for you, it will find its mark.
King spoke of growing up in Pouch Cove. She would have been 10 years old the year before war broke out. These were not good times for Newfoundland:
“Christmas time for me wasn’t like it is today. We were poor, but what we had, we were happy with. I was the youngest — my two sisters were in service, in town. My brother had died at 19. We had no tree but I liked socializing with my friends in the community and none of us had anything very much.
“Of course, church and school were very much a part of what we did. At Christmas there were plenty of visitors to our house and there were the Janneys.
“When I was 13, I went to work at The Brownsdale on Brazil Square (St. John’s).”
Thorne makes the point that Christmas stockings were not filled with gifts like today.
“We would get a scribbler, a pencil, perhaps a box of crayons or even a bar. ... We felt we had all the world then.
“I think for all of us at Grand Bank in my day, the school concert was the big thing. I’m
not downing today, but we would spend months preparing for it and there was a tree with presents for everyone and that would be our biggest gift.”
“For Christmas,” Violet Hodder recalls, “you would always get a little doll. As I was the youngest of six children,
“I grew up pretty much alone, but I can remember playing with that doll all the time — and I would play school.”
Buckmaster recalls the milkman bringing Christmas trees to his customers.
“Our milkman came from St. Philip’s area. ... I remember he would bring mother a tree as Christmas got nearer ... and it was a gift ... you didn’t have to pay for it.”