Christmas at Forteau, Labrador in 1916

This is a wee detour from my grandmother’s journey to L’Anse au Loup in 1915, in honour of the Christmas season. I’ll continue with her journal very soon.

After my grandmother’s initial summer in Labrador in 1915, she returned home to Westmount, Quebec, and then spent the winter in New York City to train in arts and crafts. The next year she took her new skills back to Labrador to teach the women handicrafts they could sell for additional income. She spent another full year in Labrador–the summer in L’Anse au Loup again, and the winter in Forteau with Sister Bailey at the nursing station where there was a “furnace.” Apparently, a luxury. Not sure how the folk in L’Anse au Loup got through the winter, but it seems it wasn’t quite up to snuff for my granny.

This is a letter Isobel wrote that was published in the International Grenfell Association magazine–Among the Deep Sea Fishers-Vol-15-1-p14, and also in the book, Grenfell and Christmas in Northern Newfoundland and Labrador by D.W.S. Ryan. Unfortunately, the only section I was interested in–this letter by my grandmother–the publisher screwed up big time–they are two blank pages in the book, followed by the last three paragraphs of her letter. What’s that all about?? Very disappointing after ordering the damned book from a special book seller. But here it is from the Among the Deep Sea Fishers. Which I found free on internet.

Christmas at Forteau in 1916    by Isobel Millen

Dear Miss Demarest:  (I’m still trying to figure out who Miss Demarest is, if any readers have any ideas….)

Is it not fortunate that we are having such mild weather and expect another mail-boat? Now I can tell you about our Christmas. For I know you want to hear about it and Sister is still too busy.

I will be discreetly silent about our own frivolous doings in the morning. But how you would have laughed had you seen us emptying our stockings and the sheepish look on Sister’s face at being discovered in such childishness.

The actual preparations for the feast began a week beforehand with the killing of the bull. They continued through six busy days in the doing up of boxes of candy, the careful sorting out of gifts, and the mixing of puddings and pastries. In all the corners one came across basins of raisins and currants and suet and bowls of chopped nuts and candied peel. Up in the ward were piled the toys, dolls, games, books, and other lovely things. The house was filled with the indescribable bustle of Christmas-tide. On Friday I came home to find Sister mixing the puddings. What do you think she was mixing them in? Our discarded bathtub. And what do you think she was mixing with? A crutch. You see, there were twenty-two puddings and no other receptacle was large enough. No assurances of repeated scourings will stop me teasing Sister about her sanitary ideas. Would you not tease her too?

Everything else being done, we went down on Saturday night to prepare the schoolhouse. The little schoolmaster and several of the men helped us. When it was finished it looked awfully nice. The tree, that one of the men had hauled from the woods far inland, stood a-glitter in one corner. It was far more heavily laden with gifts than ever it had been with snow.

Tuckermore boughs were wreathed round the windows; paper festoons, hug with Christmas bells, hid the beams; flags and pennants covered the pine walls. The men gaped at the transformation. Then the rude tables, hastily constructed of planks, were nailed into place, the lights were put out and we departed for home and bed secure in the knowledge of fourteen huge roasts of beef, and pork and onions to go with them, a barrel and a half of potatoes – and another one of potatoes and the puddings, already distributed and waiting in the various houses for Christmas day and the moment of cooking.

Now comes the part that was really such fun. Every married person in Forteau and L’Anse-au-Claire was invited. All day, echoes of barking dogs floated from Forteau Hill and komatiks dashed by at a “stretch gallop.” One began to wonder whether our tables would seat them all. However, we were prepared for eighty, and we found there was plenty of room when at six o’clock the doors were opened and our guests filed in.

When grace was sung and all were seated I look around with a good deal of interest, and, in between moments of serving, stopped to wonder at the change in some faces. Have you ever observed what a difference a clean shave, a good scrubbing, and a white celluloid collar make in the appearance of a man usually too busy for such amenities?

The dinner was a princely feast to men and women who mostly had never tasted fresh beef and some of whom have not even enough salt beef to see them half-way through the winter. But I think everyone enjoyed the games and fun afterwards, even more. We played games, ancient and time-worn at home, but new and exciting here. How we laughed at Uncle Joe with black streaks on his bald head. He had not known the mesmerizing game. Uncle Rube afforded us inexpressible delight as he clumsily side-stepped books that were not there. And when Abe, blind-folded and bewildered, singed his hands in his effort to blow out the candle, we exploded – rather, should I say with Aunt Mary Ann, “explored” with laughter. A riotous game of musical chairs did not calm us down. I loved to listen to the rhythmic shuffle-shuffle of feet clad in skin-boots and watch the changing expressions on faces pathetically unaccustomed to fun and relaxation.

We had had the organ brought down on a komatik and they hushed, for Sister was going to sing. The L’Anse-au-Claire people had never heard anything like it and even the more favoured Forteau people, in awed silence, drank in the Christmas songs and carols. Then we stood for “God Save the King.” Lingeringly the men and women, each with an apple and a box of candy, said “good-bye” and “thank you.” Christmas Day was over. I think Sister felt repaid for the money, the thought, the energy she had spent in planning a happy time.

It would but weary you to tell about the children’s tea the next day. Such affairs are the same the world over, do you not think? They loved their supper and ate, and ate, and ate. They stared in awe at the tree and in half-frightened curiosity at Santa. They hugged their generous presents to them and departed in a state of repletion almost unknown on the Labrador.

Well, Christmas comes but once a year. I am getting almost old enough to be thankful. All the same I can wish you no better, though tardy wish, than that you spent as happy a day as I.

Sister and I join in sending you love and all good wishes for a cheerful and a happy New Year.


Isobel Millen

P.S. The bathroom is great. I had hoped to have a picture of it for you. I will send it by winter mail.

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10 Responses to Christmas at Forteau, Labrador in 1916

  1. Joy Buckle says:

    My brother just shared this. Delighted to have found it! I am from Forteau and have heard many stories of Sister Bailey. This is a fantastic and I’m so pleased to read about this. My parents will be overjoyed as well.

    • admin says:

      My grandmother wrote many details about Sister Bailey’s personality in her 1915 journal. I’ll slowly get excerpts up on my blog so stay tuned! I’m so excited you’re reading from Labrador 🙂

  2. Gladys Wellman had says:

    It was a n excellent read being from Forteau Labrador

    • admin says:

      My grandmother spent a lot of time at Forteau, as well as L’Anse au Loup and the Lighthouse, so there’s lots more to come from her 1915 journal on my blog! Thanks so much for reading 🙂

  3. Robert Dumaresque says:

    Miss Demarest is probably Dumaresq(ue) which is a common name in L’Anse au Clair.

    • admin says:

      That’s an interesting thought. I was pretty sure that Miss Demarest came from Quebec also, and was a volunteer, but I’m sure as I delve deeper into my research it’ll become more clear. Thanks for the comment. I’ll watch for the Dumaresques in the journal…

  4. Phyllis Gibbons says:

    This is a wonderful find! So happy that you decided to share her journal! I hope to read more of them in the near future. I am from L’Anse Au Claire. And, my grandmother was a mid wife who worked often with the nursing staff at the Forteau Nursing Station.
    Thank you! As I stated, I will be looking forward to reading more!

    • admin says:

      What was your grandmother’s name? If we’re a similar age maybe my granny knew your granny! I’ll look for her name in the journal….

  5. Maggie Linstead says:

    Your granny paints a beautiful picture of how she and Sister Bailey transformed the lives of the labradorians that Christmas….thanks so much for sharing this journal

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