Labrador History - 2.3 FIRST CHRISTMAS

In those early, less complicated times, Christmas involved the ., whole community and preparations were under way months before the event. Kind donors from Canada and the United States sent the Mission barrels of clothing and toys, wool caps, mitts, sweaters, dolls, balls, etc. and we made good use of these things, especially at Christmas. Women, who regularly did a lot of sewing to support the Mission, prepared parcels for children in each community, using lists we drew up of both names and ages. We tried to match the things, which had been sent, with each respective child and when the parcels were all ready, and wrapped in brown paper, they were dispatched to the various communities by coastal steamer.
In the community hall in each small settlement children gathered round the Christmas tree on Christmas Eve and Santa Claus arrived by dog sled to give out the gifts. He came in with a merry, “Ho, ho, ho!” and many of the children were a little bit afraid of him, as they had to kiss him when they got their gifts! In Forteau, we made doughnuts and cocoa at the nursing station and served them at the community hall, and the children liked them.
I put on a nativity play on Christmas Day. This had not been done in recent years, so the children were very excited as they rehearsed. An older girl was designated narrator and other children were given various parts to act out, and we made a lot of Costumes from old clothes and other treasures found in the attic and the clothing store. The wise men, in particular, were memorable with their eastern costumes and headgear, further decorated with broaches and necklaces found with the other riches of the attic. Their faces, to their delight, were blackened with burnt cork, and they looked the part.
Christmas or not, life went on and three or four days before the holiday we admitted an expectant woman who gave birth to a little boy during the night. It was her first baby and I was somewhat anxious, but all went well and she called the boy Joe, after his grandfather whom he closely resembled. On Christmas Eve I admitted yet another woman in labour, this one with her third. She had a baby girl that evening so we ended up with two mothers and two babies with us that first Christmas. This made me think of the Babe Who was born the very first Christmas and whose birthday we celebrate on Christmas Day.
On Christmas Eve, after the new mothers and babies were made comfortable and tucked away for the night, some of the Sunday School teachers took me carol singing, as was their cus9m. We walked from one end of the harbour to the other, calling into different homes on the way to warm up and have a “mug up”, which meant a cup of tea or cocoa and some cake or cookies. It was a very cold night with snow on the ground, so an invitation was really appreciated as we went on our way singing. We had great fun as we sang of the Saviour’s birth, and by the time we returned to the nursing station in the early morning hours of the 25th, I was ready for bed.
On Christmas morning, after we exchanged gifts, I bathed the two babies and attended to their mothers, and we set up a table in the mother’s wards for the two new fathers to eat dinner with their wives. Christmas dinner, it turned out, was roast pork. At that time there were no turkeys available on the coast, and most people had duck or partridge (if they were lucky) for Christmas dinner. The pig was part of our winter meat supply and was brought over from St. Anthony on the schooner Nelly Cluett before Christmas, and Stewart, our handyman, killed it. The children, I might add, took a great interest in the whole proceedings!
In the afternoon the children put on their play. This was judged to be a great success and was enjoyed by the youthful performers just as much as by their audience!
A custom that was new to me was that of “mummering” or “jannying.” During the twelve days after Christmas, people dressed up and covered their faces with an old stocking or sheet. Speaking or singing in a squeaky voice to hide their identities, they went from house to house in a game where the householders in turn tried to guess who they were. I went out a couple of times and enjoyed it, especially as no one knew who I was. One night James, one of my Sunday School teachers, and I dressed up and went out together. We went to this one house and, after we had done our dance and jig the woman said to us “Go on you two fools!” Later when she discovered one of the jannies was the nurse she was quite embarrassed!
A highlight at Christmas was the station party for staff, husbands and friends. I cooked dinner so Winnie could enjoy a day off and after the meal we played games and presented gifts The Labrador folk were very shy, not having had much contact with outsiders, but as we played games they forgot their self -consciousness and began to enjoy themselves. Those were simpler times, before the coming of television, and people everywhere enjoyed “parlour” games.
We would play games like “Flinch” or, one of their favourites, pinning the tail on the donkey, the tail ending up in the most unlikely places! One time I thought of a party game called “Gossip”. When we were at the table, I turned to the person sitting next to me and whispered, “Roses are red and I love you. Pass it on.” In this way the message went from one to the other around the table amidst much mirth. When the message got back to me I repeated what I had heard, and it was nothing like the original message. People loved this one.
The Springdale arrived with Christmas mail three days later. What a happy time I had reading cards and letters and opening parcels from friends and loved ones. I remember one parcel from two friends I had met at camp, because it contained a number of small items that were difficult to find in Labrador. Each item was individually wrapped with tender love and care and placed in a larger parcel. It was like having a Christmas stocking to open and was a lovely surprise. It showed the love and thoughtfulness of others and helped to alleviate some of the pangs of homesickness that would strike me from time to time.
I received a card from one friend asking me how I was getting on amongst the Eskimos! I did not put that one up on the mantelshelf with the others as I thought some of my new Labradorean friend might be offended! Many people do not realize that, although a land of ice and snow, Labrador is inhabited by a variety of peoples.
A few days after Christmas I had my first dog team trip, to L’Anse-au-Clair, a small settlement of a few dozen homes about seven miles west of Forteau. There was quite a bit of snow on the ground by that time, so I dressed warmly in pants and parka, trying to hide my combination of excitement and nervousness as I prepared for the trip. I had been told that it was best to sit astride the box on the komatik, rather like sitting on a horse. The problem for me was that, as in the case of horse riding, I could not sit down comfortably for about a week afterwards!
I had heard stories of people being attacked by doss, and in particular one story of a woman farther to the east of us who had been attacked and killed while her husband was in a neighbour’s house. Thus, although I have always loved dogs, I must confess I was a little anxious before Henry, my driver, came to pick me up. I had to admit to myself, however, that the dogs, being quite excited as we set off, certainly looked attractive in their harnesses.
A team of dogs consists of a lead dog followed by six or seven others hitched to a wooden sleigh, or “komatik.” The driver sits on a box that is attached to the komatik, or on the front of the komatik itself, if there is a passenger on board, and steers the sleigh by calling to the dogs, “Ack! Ack! Ack!” or, “Udder! Udder! Udder!” depending on which direction he wishes them to turn, to the right or left.
When the “going was good”, dogs could run quite fast and many were the times I had to hold on tightly in order not to be thrown off. Going downhill, a piece of chain called a “drag” is put on each side of the runners at the front, or just one side, depending on conditions of travel. Sometimes, if it is a very steep hill, the dogs are detached from the komatik altogether. Climbing a hill can be tough on dogs, so the driver and sometimes the passenger need to jump off and walk in order to lighten the load.
Husky dogs are big and beautiful but can be quite dangerous as many of them are part wolf, and we saw many medical cases caused by entanglements with dogs. There were many dogs around Forteau in the early days and as recently as 1961 dogs were virtually unchallenged for overland winter travel. By 1967, however, motorized Skidoos had replaced them and another colourful era was gone. Often I travelled to various settlements by dog team in those days, carrying my medical supplies in a box that we took into each home where a clinic was held.
On this occasion, going to L’Anse-au-Clair, we had to go round the edge of cliffs over “ballacaders” (rocks covered with ice and Snow,) so the “going” was rough. This made it difficult for me to stay astride the box, but I enjoyed it, and the cold wind cut into our faces whenever we gained a little speed over the snow. It was a rugged way to travel.
We arrived safely after an hour and a half and my hostess, Mrs. Jones the postmistress and storekeeper met me with a nice cup of hot tea! She invited me to take off my socks and warm my feet on the oven door before the clinic began - this was another warm kitchen welcome. Married to a fisherman, she was a lovely lady and we became good friends in later years.
By this time word had got out quickly that the nurse was in the settlement, and patients came crowding into Mrs. Jones’ front room. It took most of the day to see everyone and it was already dark before we set off for home. Being a bright, moonlit night we were able to follow a trail made by others over the snow and frozen lakes, so the trip home was much quicker and I enjoyed my ride as the runners squealed over the snow. Reaching the top of Forteau Hill, we slowed and my driver put on his chain “drag”. Soon we were racing down the hill to the station and home. The lights of the nursing station were a welcome sight and after a nice hot bath that both thawed me and soothed my aching limbs I sat down to a wonderful hot meal that Winnie had prepared I slept well that  night!