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48 - The Christmas Spirit



from The Treasury of Newfoundland Stories published, by Maple Leaf Mills Limited, in 1961

It is a well-known fact that Newfoundlanders are noted for their friendliness and hospitality. But also, they are noted for their willingness, and even desire, to help those in need. In our community we have had a classic example of this. Although this happened well nigh a hundred years ago, it is a story that has been handed down from mother to child, and is part of the local history of our little settlement.

Because the descendants of many of the characters involved still line on our fair isle, I shall change both the names of the community and the characters., though I dare say the main characters will instantly be recognized by all those who know this story. But a tale like this needs telling, so, as I heard it from my mother, here is my story.

Our little settlement of Golden Bay is practically a carbon copy of hundreds of other Newfoundland outports. We have the same fish flakes, the same country school with the inevitable pot-bellied stove, the same men who fish, and the same women who anxiously scan the horizon for sight of the first sail which means the safe return of the men. Most of all, we have the same wonderfully kind-hearted people who inhabit every corner of this island.

Life was much the same a hundred years ago, except for the lack of a few modern conveniences. Of course, most of the young folk nowadays gravitate to the more densely populated areas for employment. Even so, simple Golden Bay is "home".

Years ago, people lived, loved, and died here, and were quite contented. they lived each day as it came, and brought up their children, as they had been raised themselves, in the love and fear of God. And, as in every closely-knit community, they were an integral part of each other's lives. That is why misfortune or tragedy in one family affected all of Golden Bay.

Early in 1862, an English parson, his wife and four-year-old twin sons moved to Golden Bay. Nothing definite was known, but it was rumoured that their move had been motivated by his physical breakdown. Rev. Drake's parish in England had been a hard and rigorous one, and it had more than taxed the strength of the frail man of God. So he moved his family to Golden Bay so that the peaceful atmosphere and fresh air of the place would help him recover. When he was able, he intended to take over a parish in St. John's.

The people all admired the courage of this stranger in their midst, but they were a little in awe of him. The Drake family was from another world. The villagers were anxious and eager to make their acquaintance, but neither ot the Drake boys was of school a age, so the children did not meet them. all the families of Golden Bay belonged to the same church, not that of the English family, so they did not meet at church. Several of the ladies called on the family and all the men offered their services in any way needed, but it seemed as if the Drake family wanted to be left alone. some felt their attitude may have been because of the Reverend's ill health, but most people thought this wasn't the reason, for in their book, as indeed is true, illness carries no shame.

So, through the summer, the men of Golden Bay fished; the women knit, baked, spun wool and visited. Their children played and swam and trouted. On Sundays the women, glad of the excuse, proudly wore their best dresses and hats - their hair visible evidence of the curling iron. The men, some grudgingly, donned Sunday suits and ties. The children, after Saturday night's thorough scrubbing, were slicked up as much as childhood would allow. So the days drifted by . . .

This doesn't mean to say that the people had found their "place in the sun" and just basked in it. Far from it! The inhabitants of Golden Bay were hard-working and industrious, but because they enjoyed their work, it was no drudgery. Every cod caught and every fish stage filled with salted fish for winter use meant more money "in the sock". Every hour spent wooding and digging meant more vegetables to fill the barrels in the cellar. Every day spent mowing meant more hay to feed the cattle. Shearing meant more warm woollies for the frosty winter; carding meant more wool to knit. And every hour of work meant security and happiness. All in all, it added up to a good life.

While they didn't understand it, they respected the English family's apparent wish for privacy. The Drakes kept to themselves. The tall, gaunt parson and his plump, sweet-faced wife often went for a stroll with their boys, and often could be seen, with pails and lunches, headed for the berry-picking grounds. They were pleasant and courteous enough when spoken to, but they would never take the initiative. They could never, by any stretch of the imagination, be called "one of the bunch".

In December, the fishing season over, everyone planned for the long-waited community affair, the annual carol-singing and Christmas tree. It has long been a tradition, and still is, for the people, young and old, to gather at the school-house on Christmas Eve to sing the glorious carols and visit with Santa. that year, as for ten years past, Angus Brown was Santa Claus, since his proportions amply filled the bill. Angus was commonly known as "Well" Brown, a name derived from the habit of inserting the word "well" into every sentence he uttered.

The suggestion was made to invite the Drakes to the festivities, but nobody wanted to be rebuffed, and they felt sure they would be. As Fred Wheeler put it, "They don't want to be with us anyway".

So, rather uneasily, everyone agreed to leave the Drakes out. Deep in their hearts they tried to smother their feelings of guilt.

Christmas Eve was bright and clear. As one of the women put it, it was much the same as it must have been in Bethlehem. The Wise Men had certainly followed the star in a sky just as clear and cloudless.

Every home was full of the Christmas spirit - the rich fruit cakes, the gaily decorated tree, the stockings by the chimney, the cards and gifts scattered about, and the bottles of rum and screech. The latter were sometimes hidden in the wood-box. But Christmas comes only once a year, and most wives conveniently looked the other way when the bottles of liquid joy were passed around. And who's to say that the Mrs. didn't pour off a wee dram to mix some punch when the Mr. wasn't around?

At eleven that night, every man, woman, and child who was able trooped to the school-house.

The tree at the school-house was a seven-days' wonder. The decorations were contributed by each family, and none but the very best would do, for no housewife wanted her offering to be outshone by that of her neighbour. Mrs. Mary Peters' star was hung proudly on the lofty top of the magnificent evergreen, and if her eye gazed upon it with proud possessiveness, who could blame her?

The presents to be distributed by Santa were on a large table, and many a child longed to investigate to see just which lumpy or smooth package bore his name. but nobody went near the "present" table; it was Santa's job to distribute the gifts. Santa would place each gift in its owner's out-stretched arms, with a cheery greeting and a kiss of the young children. A kiss from Santa would be a topic of conversation for months, and the subject of many a letter to far-away pen pals.

But that night, though they waited and waited, there was no sign of the jovial Santa. Several of the very young children suggested that he may have been stuck in the snow and unable to get off the North Pole. The oldsters had some misgivings too, for it certainly was not like "Well" Brown to be late.

Then, at midnight, Santa arrived amid a cheer that threatened to deafen all. After a wave to the children, he strode over to the grown-ups. Everyone could see that despite his comical get-up, "Well" had more on his mind than being Santa.

"Look here, folks", he began, "about the Reverend and his family. Look, well, I sort of got to thinking on my way over here, and well, it just didn't seem fittin' for them to spend Christmas alone. So I plucked up my courage, and well, I went up to their house. Mind you, I didn't know what I was going to say, but I meant to ask them if they'd like to share our Christmas. Well folks, the door was open, and I didn't get any further than the porch, because I could see the whole lot of them before a "crib" that stood on the table. I turned around to sneak out, when I heard the Reverend pray. Well, folks . . . " he paused.

"Never mind you 'wells' Well", burst in his wife. "Tell us, . . . what did he say?"

"Well", he continued, "I head him say. "Little Infant, we kneel here tonight to give you thanks for your blessings of this year, especially for my own remarkable recovery. Thank you for giving me my health to continue Your work. Dear Lord, bless the people of Golden Bay, may they always find joy in simple things, the true things, just as You did. They are celebrating Your Birthday in a wonderful way, much as we used to.' "Then", continued Angus, "he sat up and put his head in his hands and said, 'Mother, children, I hope our next Christmas will be a happier one, I know you all understand how much my illness has cost us. But it is all over now, and this year we must be content with the spiritual blessings God has given us. At last He has opened my eyes to the fact that we should have become closer to the people of Golden Bay but alas, in my ignorance, I thought they would look down on me, and ordained minister, for just doing nothing, while they are so industrious. I overlooked the depth of their understanding, I know it's too late now. I know they have their own services. But I would dearly love to lead a congregation in prayer, in this of all days.'"

When Angus finished, everyone's eyes were bright with unshed tears. Nothing was said, nothing decided, but there was no need of it. All the merry-makers left the school-house and climbed the hill. They stood at the front of the Drake house, and with Theresa Lang's true soprano leading, they all joined in the haunting melody of "Little Town of Bethlehem".

Slowly the door opened, and the Rev. and Mrs. Drake stood illuminated in the lamp-glow. The man's eyes slowly filled with tears, and his eyes spoke a message that his tongue could not utter. "My friends", he choked, "my friends."

Angus cleared his throat. Reverend, we were wondering, well, do you think you could join us at the school? We're having a little party, and well, Sir, we thought that maybe you could give us a few words. Being a minster, Sir, I'm sure you could make a darn fine Christmas speech", he finished soundly.

"Thank you, friends, for your invitation", replied Rev. Drake. "We would be only too glad to come. How many people are at the school?" "Oh, not many", was the answer, "just us Golden Bay-ers. You know, Sir, no outsiders come to our Christmas party."

So it was that the Drake family became "Golden Bay-ers".

Yes, Newfoundlanders are kind, but in every friendship one receives as well as gives, and the people of Golden Bay certainly benefitted from knowing the Drakes. They never did leave Golden Bay. The Rev. Drake conducted informal prayer meetings, and in the following year he became the schoolmaster as well. Yes, certainly the Drakes were "one of the bunch", sharing the wonderful community life.

At his death in 1911, everyone in Golden Bay mourned. On the day of his funeral, the glorious sun rose in a sky that hitherto had been cloudy for two weeks. Many felt this a sure sign the the Reverend Drake was above, watching over his loved and loving friends.



Back to: The Treasury of Newfoundland Stories Menu

This page transcribed by James Butler, 2000
REVISED: August 2002 (Terry Piercey)

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