Ever have a few alcoholic beverages to celebrate Tibb’s Eve? Many people along the province’s south coast may have, but you might not know how it originated.
Although the term itself is quite old, according to Dr. Phil Hiscock of Memorial University’s Folklore Department, the idea of Tibb’s Eve as a particular day on the calendar – the day before Christmas Eve – is specific to Newfoundland and Labrador.
As he explained it, sometime around World War Two, people along the south coast began to associate Dec. 23 with the phrase ‘Tibb’s Eve’ and deemed it the first occasion it was acceptable to have a few Christmas tipples.
In many of the outport communities, it became a day where the men would visit each other’s homes for a taste.
“For someone who thinks of it as a day to get tipsy, then Tipsy Eve is perfect. There’s nothing wrong with that. That’s a good way of calling it." - Dr. Phil Hiscock
Because Christmas Eve was still a part of Advent and that observance was almost as sober as Lent, Dr. Hiscock indicated most traditional Christians would never consider taking a nip before Christmas Day prior to World War Two, which was even then perhaps a little early.
Tibb’s Eve became a lighthearted means to extend the season – an idea Dr. Hiscock acknowledged is not unlike when workers in the 19th century would lengthen their weekends by taking ‘St. Monday’ off from work.
“So, it’s very much a modernist thing, but just when that modernist thing kicked in I don’t know.”
Tibb’s Eve is sometimes known by several different names depending on the community. In some places, it’s called ‘Tipp’s Eve’ or ‘Tipsy’s Eve’ – an evolution of the name in characteristic folkloric fashion.
He laughed, “For someone who thinks of it as a day to get tipsy, then Tipsy Eve is perfect. There’s nothing wrong with that. That’s a good way of calling it.
“And, of course, it’s all based in the kind of humour that people have had for hundred of years. So, there’s no reason why people should not make humourous adjustments to it in the present.”
That explains how Tibb’s Eve became associated with Dec. 23 along the south coast, but the phrase itself holds the key to its Christmastime connection.
Dr. Hiscock hinted Tibb’s Eve became sort of an old-fashioned way to say ‘never’, as in ‘a day that doesn’t exist’.
He noted there’s an interview in the Folklore archives at Memorial with a man from a community in Placentia Bay, born probably in the early 1900s, who asks the student who’s interviewing him when she plans to get married.
“She says, ‘Oh, probably never’ and so he kind of winks his eye and says, ‘Oh, on Tibb’s Eve, hey!’ and on the tape she has no idea what he’s talking about. For him, that’s a normal way, a joking way, but a normal way of something that not going to happen.”
Dr. Hiscock explained several hundred years ago in England, tibb was slang for a woman who was sexually promiscuous – a direct reference to a female cat. He noted many English plays throughout the 1600s would feature roles with the name.
When a character named Tibb would walk onstage people would laugh because they knew what was about to happen
“Tibb was a kind of loose-moraled girl and to say there was a Saint Tibb was clearly a joke for those who were in the know, but for children it wasn’t a joke at all. They just treated Saint Tibb as they would St. Mary or St. Catherine or whoever else, but adults would always know there is no Saint Tibb.”
Because it didn’t exist, Tibb’s Eve was a non-time. Dr. Hiscock noted there are several similar silly phrases in the English language, the ‘twelfth of never’ and ‘when two Sundays fall together’ being others.
And thus, the Christmas tie in.
“One of the traditional ways of reputing what Tibb’s Eve was when a kid would ask ‘When’s Tibb’s Eve?’ was to say, ‘Oh, it’s neither before nor after Christmas’ or ‘It’s neither before nor after New Years.’”
*This article was originally published in the Dec. 22, 2009 print edition of The Southern Gazette.