Yule and Misrule in Early Newfoundland and Labrador: Why fires and firearms roared every year

Stephen Hay

When we think of Christmas in Newfoundland and Labrador, mumming comes to mind, the famous tradition of visiting in disguise.[1] Yet, this is just one of many Christmas customs that Newfoundlanders and Labradoreans enjoyed. Newfoundland and Labrador holiday customs during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century included burning the Yule log and shooting firearms. This dismayed at least one merchant who wrote about how his servants’ customs ruled on Christmas eve. These Yule customs happened at both the margins and the core of the fisheries and appear to have been fragments of English traditions that fishing people brought to the Americas. Did these customs reflect underlying conflict between the unruly fishermen and anxious merchants, or did these customs mediate those conflicts? Disagreements about that question burn as hotly as any Yule log ever has.

Capt. George Cartwright, a merchant and British Army Officer, claimed he had no choice but to tolerate the custom of Yule as servants practiced it. Cartwright employed servants at fishing, sealing, furring, and trading stations and published his version of Christmas eve, Dec. 24, 1770, in Lodge Bay, Labrador:

At sun-set the people ushered in Christmas, according to the Newfoundland custom. In the first place, they built up a prodigious large fire in their house; all hands then assembled before the door, and one of them fired a gun, loaded with powder only; afterwards each of them drank a dram of rum; concluding the ceremony with three cheers. These formalities being performed with great solemnity, they retired into their house, got drunk as fast as they could, and spent the whole night in drinking, quarrelling, and fighting. It is but natural to suppose that the noise which they made (their house being but six feet from the head of my bed) together with the apprehension of seeing my house in flames, prevented me from once closing my eyes. This is an intolerable custom; but as it has prevailed from time immemorial, it must be submitted to. By some accident my thermometer got broke.[2]

When this merchant steamed and sputtered about the rowdy servants in the house next door, he was at the edge of his abilities to regulate those workers. The merchant could have tried to punish the servants if he dared, but the servants could have fought back against him – the way they sometimes did on other days. Those physical confrontations were at one end of a continuum of ways that servants and master negotiated the terms of work. This continuum also included each group’s belief in customary perquisites and obligations, including the custom of celebrating Yule as these servants had done, in the words of Cartwright, “since time immemorial.”[3] As intolerable as Cartwright complained this custom was, tolerate it he did, shooting, hard drinking, blazing fires, sleepless night, and all.

Early residents burnt the Yule log in both the North, at the margin of the expanding fisheries, and in the South, near the core of Newfoundland. In the South, Louis Amadeus Anspach wrote about Yule logs and shooting after he had been a teacher and Church of England clergyman in Conception Bay on the Avalon Peninsula between 1799 and 1812,

The ancient British custom of the Yule, or Christmas log or block, is universally observed by the inhabitants of Newfoundland. On Christmas-eve, at sun-set, an immense block, provided on purpose from the adjoining woods, is laid across on the back of the fire-place, to be left there till it is entirely consumed: the ceremony of lighting it is announced by the firing of muskets or seal guns before the door of each dwelling-house.[4]

Anspach explained that “this custom is said to be of very great antiquity and still prevalent in the north of England.” He suggested that Yule had Saxon and Celtic roots and noted that early Newfoundlanders also celebrated with music, candles, presents, dinners, and mumming, although this mumming was not universal.[5] A simple explanation for the demise of the Yule log is that it ended when freestanding stoves replaced open fireplaces.[6] Yet, the reason this was significant is not only because technology had changed.

Nets at Battle Harbour, NL. Photograph by Stephen Hay.

The technology of how people heated and cooked changed, but who owned the boats and nets of the fisheries changed as well. Anthropologist Gerald Sider argues that Christmas customs changed when the servant fishery in which merchants owned the boats and fishing gear became a family fishery in which extended families owned the boats and fishing gear. When the family fishery grew during nineteenth-century, mumming waxed, and when the factory fishery grew during the twentieth-century, mumming waned.[7] Other historians, anthropologists, and folklorists disagree with Sider, often vigorously.[8] For the earlier period, the burden of proof restricts us to the burning Yule logs that roared from the Avalon Peninsula to the Strait of Belle Isle and how these celebrations kept awake property-owning merchants such as George Cartwright. These merchants might have owned the boats and nets, but servants ruled on the night of Yule.


Stephen Hay is a PhD Candidate in the Department of History at the University of British Columbia. You can follow him on Twitter at @Hay_Stephen.


[1] See, for example, Gerald Sider, “Christmas Mumming and the New Year in Outport Newfoundland,” Past and Present 71, no. 2 (May 1976): 102–4; Karen Szala Meneok, “Christmas Janneying and Easter Drinking: Symbolic Inversion, Contingency, and Ritual Time in Coastal Labrador,” Arctic Anthropology 31, no. 1 (1994): 105–9.

[2] George Cartwright, A Journal of Transactions and Events during a Residence of Nearly Sixteen Years on the Coast of Labrador (Newark, U.K., and London: Printed and sold by Allin and Ridge, sold also by G. G. J. and J. Robinson in Paternoster-Row, and J. Stockdale, Picadilly, London, 1792), 1: 74; On Cartwright, see: John C. Kennedy, “Captain George Cartwright,” in Encounters: An Anthropological History of Southeastern Labrador (Montreal, Que. and Kingston, Ont.: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2015), 81–98; Marianne P. Stopp, “An Account of George Cartwright’s Life,” in The New Labrador Papers of Captain George Cartwright, ed. Marianne P. Stopp (Montreal, Que. and Kingston, Ont.: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2009), 24–33; M. Stopp, “George Cartwright’s ‘Ranger Lodge’: The 2003 Archaeology Project at the Site of Lodge-1, Lodge Bay, Labrador,” 2007, http://www.labradorcura.com/arch/RangerLodgepresentation25-9-06.pdf; G. M. Story, “Cartwright, George,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 5 (Toronto and Quebec: University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003).

[3] Cartwright, Journal, 1: 74; Jerry Bannister, The Rule of the Admirals: Law, Custom, and Naval Government in Newfoundland, 1699-1832 (Toronto: Published for the Osgoode Society for Canadian Legal History by University of Toronto Press, 2003), 246–48; Jerry Bannister, “‘A Species of Vassalage’: The Issue of Class in the Writing of Newfoundland History,” Acadiensis XXIV, no. 1 (1994): 143; Sean Cadigan, “Power and Agency in Newfoundland and Labrador’s History,” Labour/Le Travail, no. 54 (Fall/Automne 2004): 235–37; E. P. Thompson, “The Patricians and the Plebs,” in Customs in Common: Studies in Traditional Popular Culture (New York: New Press: Distributed by W.W. Norton, 1993), 24.

[4] Lewis Amadeus Anspach, History of the Island of Newfoundland (London: Printed for the Author, and sold by T. and J. Allman, Princes-Street, Hanover-Square; and J. M. Richardson, 23, Cornhill, opposite the Royal Exchange, 1819), 475; On Anspach, see Frederick Jones and G. M. Story, “Anspach, Lewis Amadeus,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 6 (Toronto and Quebec: University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003), http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/anspach_lewis_amadeus_6E.html.

[5] Anspach, History of the Island of Newfoundland, 475–77.

[6] J. K. Hiller, Peter Narváez, and Daniel Vickers, “Panel Review: Newfoundland’s Past as Marxist Illustration,” Newfoundland Studies 3, no. 2 (1987): 272.

[7] Sider, “Christmas Mumming and the New Year in Outport Newfoundland,” 103–4; Gerald Sider, Between History and Tomorrow: Making and Breaking Everyday Life in Rural Newfoundland (Peterborough, Ont.: Broadview Press, 2003), 129–30, 171, 305; See also, Bannister, Rule of the Admirals, 8–11; Sean T. Cadigan, Hope and Deception in Conception Bay: Merchant-Settler Relations in Newfoundland, 1785-1855 (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1995), 33–34, 49–50, 65; Willeen G. Keough, The Slender Thread: Irish Women on the Southern Avalon, 1750-1860 (New York: Columbia University Press, 2008), 153–55.

[8] Cadigan, “Power and Agency,” 225–33; J.K. Hiller et al., “Roundtable Discussion of Gerald M. Sider’s Culture and Class in Anthropology and History” March 27, 1987, Centre for Newfoundland Studies, Memorial University of Newfoundland, St. John’s; Hiller, Narváez, and Vickers, “Panel Review”; Ian McKay, “Historians, Anthropologists, and the Concept of Culture,” Labour/Le Travailleur 8/9 (1981): 206–11.

Featured image:  Ann Le Marchant, “Sleighing at St. John’s,” ca. 1848, watercolour / aquarelle,  Library and Archives Canada, Acc. No. R9266-470, Peter Winkworth Collection of Canadiana. Copyright: expired.

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