By Benson Hewitt
I am writing this piece on Feb. 2, Candlemas Day, as it would have been known by everyone a generation or so ago. True, our pronunciation may have corrupted ‘Candlemas’ to a two-syllable word, but it was never known as Groundhog Day.
I doubt if many of us had any idea what a groundhog was at that time. In fact, I can recall that as a kid we had a similar myth about the bear. It was also believed that if the bear, like the groundhog now, emerged from hibernation and coming out of his burrow on Feb. 2, found that the weather was not good, would choose to stay in his burrow for 40 more days. (Incidentally, Feb. 2 is exactly 40 days after Christmas Day, ‘40’ being a mystical number.) Meanwhile, we all knew the rhyme, “If Candlemas Day be rough and grumb the worse of the winter is yet to come.” And, as far as I can remember it was always ‘grumb’.
There were other rhymes and some were somewhat contradictory. (Just incidentally again, did you know that the word ‘grumb’ is not found in most dictionaries today, being replaced, I suspect, by ‘grumpy’. Remember when we would say that a certain person was ‘grumb’ looking?)
Meanwhile, because it was a special church day, “The Presentation of Jesus in the Temple”, and we were aware of that, the Society of United Fishermen, an organization under the aegis of the Anglican Church, always held their annual parade and time, good weather or bad. It was one of the most looked-forward-to social events of the year.
There was a time when there were three branches of this organization on Fogo Island – Barr’d Islands/Joe Batt’s Arm, Fogo, and Seldom-Come-By. Men from Island Harbour and Deep Bay were members of the Fogo Branch. I did a little research for the year 1894, for no special reason, and came up with this bit of information. It was reported in the press that as in former years, St. Andrew’s Lodge, S.U.F. of Fogo had their anniversary on Candlemas Day. First, it was reported, they left their hall high on a hill over-looking Fogo, and proceeded to St. Andrew’s Church, singing as they entered the church, “Onward Christian Soldiers”.
The sermon was preached by the rector of Fogo at the time, Reverend Charles White, who would a few years later be elected the first native-born Bishop for the Diocese of Newfoundland. He chose as the text for his sermon, “And Simon answering said unto him, Master we have toiled all night and taken nothing. Nevertheless, at Thy word, I will let down the net.”
After the service, the Society went first to the residence of the Magistrate to salute him as the representative of Government; then they marched around Fogo Harbour, and returned to their hall. For some reason not given, it was decided that they would not have their usual tea this year but instead spend more time dancing. (Perhaps they had had ‘a poor voyage’ the past summer.) Reverend White and his wife had been invited, as well as Mr. Cook, who was the new magistrate on Fogo Island, and others who were no doubt considered the elite.
At that time Henry Earle, Esq., was manager of Earle Sons and Company in Fogo, and it was noted that one of his daughters had recently returned to Fogo from England . It was alluded to that she had learned a few new steps in dancing, and with her partner, a Reverend Tarran, did the ‘light fantastic step of several polkas’, and Scottish dances. As well, Mr. Earle himself outdid himself in the quadrille, it was so reported.
They did not mention, mind you, anyone doing ‘the single step’ but my guess is that there were a few local people, some of the Payne’s perhaps, who could certainly excel Mr. Earle in that dance. We’ll never know, because the reporter, Mr. Martin Stone, teacher at the Meek Memorial school did not consider it all that newsworthy.
A final note on this organization: Austin Hart was the last Worthy Master of the Society of United Fishermen in Fogo.
By the time you read this, if you do, the lowly penny will be no more. I remember when we called it the ‘copper’, and I do remember once buying an apple with a copper, admittedly most likely the apple was a ‘barrel’ apple, and no doubt had a bit of rot on it.
I would have thought, come to think of it now, that the ‘copper’ might have been especially minted for Sunday School. I doubt if people like Owen Coffin (Now ‘Venerable’, mind you!) carried a five-cent piece to Sunday School. But, I want to share a story from my family that we still laugh it: Many of us can still remember when a pack of gum was five cents. It had been five cents for years and years, and the word inflation had not yet been coined. There were five sticks of gum in a pack, so how could it be anything else but five cents? You could buy a stick of gum for one cent, a copper; a penny if you will, certainly in Barr’d Islands.
My sister, Mabel, had made her first trip to St. John’s at the age of 16 or thereabouts. One day, as she was getting ready to come home, she discovered that she had all of five coppers left and intended to splurge it on a whole pack of gum, the first time ever. Such extravagance does boggle the mind, doesn’t it? She approached the storekeeper in a store on a street near the house where she boarded, and putting the five coppers on the counter, announced that she wanted a pack of gum, ‘Juicy Fruit’, as she was to recall later. The storekeeper looked at her and the five coppers, and told her that a pack of gum cost six cents. Try to enter my sister’s mind at this time. How could this be? There were five sticks of gum in a pack, and one cent a stick equaled five cents. My sister, now in a quandary, because of this fixed concept, blurted out blushingly to the storekeeper, that she would then take only five sticks, as she was thinking that this would solve the problem somehow or another. The storekeeper, silent for a second or two, shook her head in dismay, and gave my sister the full pack, without opening it. This wasn’t a good day for that storekeeper, and she was heard to mutter, “Stupid Baywop!” Chewing gum remained five cents a pack at Earle Sons and Company until it closed, I am sure. There might have been a riot if anybody tried to charge six cents for five sticks of gum.
At the outset of this piece, I mentioned the religious significance of Feb. 2, in Barr’d Islands several generations ago. We were very much aware that Joseph and Mary upon bringing Jesus into the temple, encountered Simeon. St Luke’s gospel records that he had been promised that he would not see death before he had seen the Messiah, and so in recognizing Jesus as the long-promised Messiah, prayed a prayer that would become known as the Nunc Dimittis. As a child I must have heard it chanted in plainsong thousands of time, so much so that it must be part of my DNA. Sadly, by now, it is considered by some to be too rich for our souls. Still though, the world over, in monasteries and churches, and on a daily basis, the Song of Simeon, as it is sometimes called, is still chanted, and sometimes in Latin, at Evensong or Compline. In whatever way or order, Old Simeon said these words, it was probably in Aramaic, but I am going to end with a Latin translation of the chant. Forgive me if you think I am being pedantic, as I probably am.
Nunc dimittis servum tuum, secundum verbum tuum in pace;
Quia viderunt oculi mei salutare tuum
Quod parasti ante faciem omnium populorum
Lumen ad revelationem gentium, et gloriam plebis tuae israe