BY PAUL HERRIDGE
The Southern Gazette
“Everything was centred around community. Everybody took part in it.”
That’s how Meta Shirley, 85, recalled Christmases growing up in Lamaline in the early 1930s.
The Marystown resident indicated with Advent, a month-long period before the big day, came a preparation time when everyone would start to get ready for the season.
School children would begin practicing for concerts and church choirs readied for carol services. A couple of weeks before Christmas work would start on decorations.
“You’d gather up all the coloured paper, make your bottle of paste, and make your rings and paste them altogether.
“Almost all year long, you see a piece of aluminum foil or anything like that, that was kept. You’d make out the ‘Merry Christmas’ in cardboard and cover it.
“About a week before Christmas, the men, I guess, would go in the woods and get the bows, and we’d cut them and trim them and tie them. This was to do all the decorations in the church for Christmas.”
In the final days before Christmas, she said it would be a hectic time for mothers in the community.
“Toys were precious few, so there would be mitts and socks and all those things, and it’d be always the last minute rush to get it done so they’d have something to put in your stocking.”
Before bed on Christmas Eve, Mrs. Shirley – nee King, and her siblings would place their note to Santa Claus in a small hole in the old iron stove.
It was a tradition she recalled that once led to a funny story, according to her uncle, who on one occasion found the note on the ground outside the next day, having blown up through the stove pipe.
Christmas itself began with midnight Mass at church.
“Of course, it was only adults could go there, and it was at midnight, so the children had to be all tucked away and warned to go to sleep, whether you could or not.”
Mrs. Shirley remembered there would be no Christmas tree in sight before bed.
“And see, you found it so hard to go to sleep and you’d try and try to stay awake, but there was no way.
“Nobody saw the tree until Christmas morning when it’d be all decked out.”
Because gifts were hard to come by, if you got a particularly beautiful toy, it would be packed away in a box after Christmas until the following year.
“It was almost the same as if you was just getting them all again. It was just like getting them new.
“I can remember them calling my name, and I went up, and they passed me this box. When I opened it up, it was a beautiful doll, all dressed up in pink. My dear, I dreamt about her for years.” - – Meta Shirley
“There was no way, no matter how much you hunted, you could never find that box. We used to call it the Christmas box.
“We’d search. The house wouldn’t that big but there were hiding places in it we didn’t know anything about.”
Mrs. Shirley explained Boxing Day was another very important occasion for children and also responsible for one of her fondest memories even to today.
Each year, there would be a children’s program at the church, where a tree was decorated with the only set of coloured lights in the whole community, and a gift awaited every child.
In a low whisper, she recalled one special present she received when she was about six years old.
“It almost makes me teary. I can remember them calling my name, and I went up, and they passed me this box. When I opened it up, it was a beautiful doll, all dressed up in pink. My dear, I dreamt about her for years.”
Mrs. Shirley indicated all 12 days of Christmas were celebrated back then and each one was full of activities, whether it was the children’s concerts at the Parish Hall or the highly anticipated annual parties by organizations like the Orangemen. Because you had to be 16 to attend those, she said the wait could be agonizing for youth who were not quite old enough yet.
“That was really special. Those parties that they had. Everybody looked forward to them.”
And, of course, there was mummering, even for the children, who would dress up in “some old rags” and go in the afternoon, when it was still light out, returning with a bag of candy or other sweet treats.
“It was a beautiful season. Even though we were poor and we didn’t have very much, that didn’t matter. That had nothing to do with the way we felt about Christmas. Nothing at all.”
Mrs. Shirley, whose husband, Bill, passed away several years ago, was expecting four of her five children home for the holidays last week, including daughters from Norway and Kingston, Ontario.
It will be the first time in 30 years so many of them will spend the occasion together.
“So this is a special Christmas for me.”