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Christmas was a Special Time
in Trinity a Century Ago

Michael Harrington

from The Evening Telegram, December 24, 1982, page 4

The town of Trinity is one of the most picturesque and secure in northeast Newfoundland. It is believed to have been discovered by the Portuguese navigator, Gaspar de Cortereal, who entered it on Trinity Sunday, 1500, hence its name. Other authorities claim it was so called because of the three large "arms" of the sea that form it.

But the English influence was soon in evidence and quickly became predominant. English life-style, customs, traditions and folklore were transplanted from the Old Country to the small community which evolved somewhat along the lines of an English village, clustered around the church, rather than following the "ribbon"development of many Newfoundland outports, i.e., straggling along both sides of a long indraught.

Nowadays, numerous well-trained researchers, historians and archivists are deeply engrossed in preserving the Newfoundland historical and related heritage, but they owe much to a small band of very dedicated persons who, many decades ago, began to process and kept it going largely as a labor of love. None deserves more credit than Canon W. R. Smith who, as a child, lived at Trinity in the 1850s, where his father, also Canon Smith, was the incumbent of the Anglican mission, and rural dean of Trinity and Bonavista bays.

Canon Smith wrote and published many articles on various Newfoundland topics, and one of them describes in some detail, the observance and celebration of Christmas at Trinity more than a century and a quarter ago.

Canon Smith made one interesting observation about the religious aspect of the feast, namely, that the practice of the Church of England in the outports at that time, was not to hold services on Christmas Eve; but full services were held on Christmas Day. The church bell at Old St. Paul's would ring at 9 a.m. notifying the congregation that there would be a service there at 11 a.m.

Just in case the congregation might not hear the bell, a signal was also given by flag Old St. Paul's had a square, wooden tower with a flat roof, surrounded by a wooden parapet. The bell was in the upper chamber of that tower. There was also a high flagstaff near the belltower on which the flag was raised half an hour before the service was scheduled to begin. Actually, there were two flags. One, a plain, red St. George's cross was used on ordinary occasions. On the greater festivals, i.e. Christmas, a larger flag, also a St. George's flag, but with the Union Jack in the upper quarter near the staff, was hoisted.

On Christmas Day, at 9.30 a.m. the children assembled in the school where religious instruction, dealing with the hold season, was given. Questions were asked on the course, but no prizes awarded for correct answers. Then at 10.45 a.m. directed by the teachers, the "Sunday School" class was marched off to the church in solemn procession.

But, before the community got to Christmas Day, many traditional preparations had to be made. Before and up to Christmas Eve, the housewives worked like beavers to get their homes "tidied up" for the great day. They had to put the finishing touches after the Newfoundland equivalent of the Yule log, the so called "back junk" was dragged into the house and placed in position across the dogirons in the large, open fireplace, where it was left to burn althrough the season. The placing of the "back junk" was signalled by the blast from a sealing gun in every instance, so that Trinity, and many other coves and harbors re-echoed with a fusillade on Christmas Eve.

The art of church decoration had not made much progress in Newfoundland outports up to the mid 1830s. In fact, few of them made any attempt at dressing up the churches of any denomination. Trinity, according to Canon Smith, was different. On Christmas Eve the men carried in a large quantity of pine and spruce boughs intermingled. To this was added some leaves of palm that had been left over from Easter, and which were brought to the church by the sexton and his family.

The sexton then took a gimlet and made a small hole in the top of each of the long, high pews, the pulpit and reading desks, as well as the communion rail. Into these holes he and his family "dibbed" sprigs of the various boughs. The result of this work was that the church looked like a mass of greenery, and it remained that way until after New Year's Day. One can also imagine, the aroma that pervaded the place of worship all that time.

Central heating was something far off in the future, and St. Paul's had to depend on two stoves on the main floor and, in the natural process, most of the heat from the stoves rose up into the galleries. The parishioners on the floor enjoyed very little warmth, and Canon Smith recalled how envious he was of the white muff that his mother shoved her hands into to keep them warm. The lad longed to be able to take off his boots and slip his cold feet into the cosy muff.

The choir was in the gallery at the west end of the church, in 1857, it received a large harmonium from London, made by a firm names Alexander. Up to that period, the church music had been supplied by a violinist and a 'cellist. In the days of Rev. William Bullock, who, while at Trinity, wrote the well-known hymn "We Love The Place, O God," the church musical ensemble also included a second violin.

However, as one source noted in The Evening Telegram some years ago, Christmas at Trinity "wasn't all prayer and no play." The townfolk went coasting on sleds; and if the snow was of the right texture, they staged snowball fights. In the mid-1850s the Crimean War was raging with the British and France battling with the Russian armies. When the accounts of the great battles, e.g., Alma, Balaklava, Inkerman, reached Trinity, snowfall fights were common with one side represented by Russians, and the other formation defending the Allied cause. The latter always won, for the "Russian" aggregation felt it was up to them to run away.

The harsh winter conditions, the snow and ice, may have inconvenienced parents and the older generation, but they didn't bother the young folk, as long as the weather was fine enough to skate, slide or otherwise frolic in the winter wonderland.

Canon Smith further noted that the flagstaff near the church was also used in connection with a unique organization, the Trinity Benefit Club. This was a benevolent group, founded in 1833 by one of the earlier merchants, with a social conscience. It was a hind of insurance association. There was a "joining" fee and an annual subscription of $2. When a member died, the other paid in an additional 20 cents each so that the round sum of $40 could be given to the widow and family to pay the cost of the funeral. Members who fell ill were allotted $2 a week.

Every year, on Candlemas Day, the club members walked to the church in procession to mark the anniversary of its formation. The club had "a very pretty flag" that was flown on the church flagpole when they held their annual service. It bore the English rose, the Irish shamrock and the Scottish thistle, embroidered on a white ground. It is not known if one of those flags is still in existence.

Mr. Harrington, former Editor-in-Chief of the Telegram retired in September but continues to write about Newfoundland history.




Transcribed by James Butler, (2000)

Page Revised: February - 2003 (Don Tate)

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