Saturday, 10 March 2012

A Whaler's Christmas and Another


This is our first posted story by Kathryn Verrill, wife of Hyatt, a surprising find in Everyland. There is even mention of daughter, Dorothy. The southern location could be Trinidad.
A Whaler’s Christmas and Another
By Kathryn Verrill
From Everyland magazine, Dec 1915. Digitized by Doug Frizzle, Mar 2012.
 
Where would you rather spend Christmas— with the thermometer at 40 degrees below zero or more than 90 degrees above? The pictures shown with this article were taken at the time of the two Christmas celebrations. The Eskimo pictures were developed inside a skin sleeping-bag, but the water froze so rapidly it was impossible to wash them properly, and the Captain was able to save only a few of the many taken. The small boat shown at the beginning of the story is the one that was rigged up for a Christmas tree.

THE whalers who sail to the ice-bound Arctic seas in search of whalebone and oil, lead the most lonesome and monotonous lives of any class of seamen. From early autumn until late spring the ships are frozen fast in the ice, and the crew, with no neighbors save the Eskimos, find it hard indeed to pass the long and dreary polar night. No wonder that these brave and hardy men welcome even the simplest pleasures, and show an almost childish delight in anything that reminds them of the holiday season in their far-away homes.
The following extracts from the log of a whaling captain, who spent three years in northern Hudson Bay, will show the readers of Everyland how one Christmas was kept among the Eskimos in that frozen land.
"Monday, Dec. 23d. To-day we commenced to rig up a small boat with masts and ropes as we intend to use this for our Christmas tree. I have roasted 20 quarts of peanuts and popped a lot of corn.''
"Tuesday, Dec. 24th. To-day we strung pop-corn all through the rigging of the small boat and loaded the ropes with presents. The presents consisted of 'comfort bags' for each of the crew. These bags were sent aboard before we left by a ladies' club of Andover, Massachusetts. Each bag contains buttons, thread, wax, thimbles, combs, bandages, and salve, and are much appreciated by the men. There was also a bag for myself, a big box of candy, and other treats. We put on a small present for each Eskimo—for the women a few yards of calico, for each boy a jack-knife, for the girls some bright dress goods with thread and thimbles, and for each man a file. There were about fifty presents in all, besides a bag of peanuts and pop-corn for each of the crew and each Eskimo."
"Wednesday, Dec. 25th. The thermometer registers 40 degrees below zero today. The sun rose at 9.30 a.m. and set at 2 p.m. Our Christmas tree was a great success, as we had kept it a secret from most of the crew, and it was a complete surprise to the Eskimos. Our mate acted as Santa Clans and made a fine one, in his fur suit, with polar-bear skin for whiskers.
"The Eskimos and crew were as delighted as children over their gifts, and nearly all of them gave us presents in return. We were loaded down with beautiful furs, skin clothing, fur-lined moccasins, carved ivory ornaments and other native stuff.
"These Eskimos are very poor, and prize any piece of iron or steel more than we do gold, for all their own tools are made of bone or ivory. They will trade any amount of rare furs for a few matches, and are mightily afraid of wasting any. They never scratch a match, but split off slender slivers until one ignites, so that by the time fire is made they have quite a bundle of slivers each with a lucifer tip. These they make fast to small bone splints, to strengthen them, and in this way they gain, instead of lose, matches every time they make fire.
"After the presents were given out, we had music by the men with singing and dancing, and the fun was kept up in great shape until six bells (11 p.m.). The Eskimos did their part, by showing us a lot of their games. Some of these were right funny and must be hard on those in the game. In one game, two of the men would have their heads made fast together with rope, and would get down on all fours and shove and push, to see which one could get his mate over a line. After the other sports all hands had a tug of war, — crew against Eskimos, — and then all had dinner. Instead of turkey, cranberries, and the other truck we would have at home, we had reindeer-roast, bear-steak, ptarmigan and salmon, with dried potatoes and canned fruit. The Eskimos like tinned milk and fruit better than anything else except oleomargarin, so that sort of things were served to them. All hands had a right good time and everything went off shipshape."

NOW that I have told you how whalers spent a Christmas among the Eskimos in the Arctic, perhaps you would like to hear how some northern children celebrated their Christmas in a little West Indian island not far from the equator.
It seems strange to think of Christmas when trees are covered with leaves, flowers are in full bloom, palms are rustling in the breeze, birds are singing in the shrubbery, and the thermometer is in the nineties. How dear old Santa Claus was ever going to find his way to that little out-of-the-way corner of the world was as much a mystery to the children's mother as to themselves, and how she managed to induce the jolly old saint to visit the tropics is best told by extracts from her diary.
"Dec. 22d. With the thermometer at 94 it seems almost impossible to get the Christmas spirit. I can hardly expect the children to believe in Santa Claus' reindeer, sleigh, fur coat, and whiskers. Why even his whiskers would be too much for this climate! However, we must do the best we can, and this evening, when it's cool, we will make a tour of the shops to see what can be found."
"Dec. 23d. As Christmas is more of a Church feast than a holiday here, there was little to be obtained in the stores for the children's Christmas. There are lots of lovely Christmas cards, books, and calendars,—it is by these that the English people exchange greetings,—but very little for children, Mr. Jones, the curator of the Botanic Gardens, will loan us a small cedar tree in a pot and we plan to decorate this as a surprise. No colored candles can be bought here and the children's father will have to make the candles out of native wax cast in home-made molds,"
"Dec. 24th, a.m. It rained a perfect deluge all night and the roads are deep with mud while the temperature is 92. William has come with the carriage and I am going with Dorothy to do our Christmas shopping. I cannot really believe it is holiday time. There is no hurry or rush, no wreaths nor holly, nor anything that looks the least Christmassy, but the servants have caught our Christmas enthusiasm and are planning a real American Christmas such as we have tried to describe to them. We have killed the turkey, but I can scarcely think of eating him; he has been one of the family so long I shall feel like a cannibal. However, we've been keeping him for just this occasion and I hope he'll bear no ill will toward me."
"Dec. 24th, p.m. Much to our surprise and joy we found many odds and ends for the tree and stockings—things that were poked away in corners and boxes and dusty shelves that the shopkeepers had forgotten all about. As soon as the people understood our needs they came to our rescue and found toys, fancy paper, netting for stockings, little flags, and dinner favors. We have invited the wife of one shopkeeper who is English, to bring her children to see our tree and I expect they'll come and bring all their friends. The home-made candles are ready and the children's father has made cute little candle-holders from old milk tins. The children could scarcely be induced to go for their walk for fear they'd miss something; there is so much mystery about everything and there are so many bundles arriving and so much whispering.
"The whole island is in festival array to-night ready for the great event of the year — midnight mass — after which the real merry-making begins. We have put the children to bed and have decorated the tree. It looks so little and forlorn after the beautiful big ones we have had at home in the north, but we're glad to have even this. The children hung up their stockings as usual. Their nurse, Charlotte, has dressed a cunning doll for baby, and William, the groom, has fitted up a box with compartments to form rooms for a doll's house. We have made a set of cardboard furniture for it and it is really very cunning."
"Dec. 25th. The great day has come at last and such a welcome as old Santa received! The bells in all the churches began to ring before midnight and kept it up at intervals until midnight mass was over. Then it seemed as if the Fourth of July had arrived. Cannons and guns boomed, fireworks of all kinds were set off, people cheered and shouted greetings to one another, and no glorious Fourth was ever noisier for an hour or two. Then every one quieted down until sunrise, when the cannons and firecrackers were again started and kept going until noon. In the afternoon a great dinner was given in the market-place by the government, and every poor person,—man, woman, and child,—was given all he or she could eat as well as the plate, cup and saucer each used. From all the villages and countryside the people flocked into town on foot, on donkeys, and by boats, and the streets were filled with crowds dressed in their bright-colored best clothes, gaudy turbans, and long, trailing skirts. The children woke early and were just as delighted and surprised as ever with what they found in their stockings, but the tree is to be kept a secret until this evening."
"Dec. 26th. It was really the queerest as well as the most interesting Christmas we ever spent. The little tree was splendid in its odd trimmings, the dear little lights, the funny-shaped packages,—and the perfect delight and enjoyment of the children and servants was best of all. After looking it all over one of the servants ran out to call in the neighbors, and they called their friends, until the house and yard were filled with gay-clad figures and black and brown faces all gazing awestruck at the very first Christmas tree they had ever seen or heard of. Later in the evening the people from the Government House called with their children, and after each child had received a gift from the tree they all joined hands and danced about it. Then they gave a long blow, a strong blow, and a blow all together, and out went the tiny, twinkling lights, and our first Christmas in the tropics was over."

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As an armed forces brat, we lived in Rockcliff (Ottawa), Namao (Edmonton), Southport (Portage La Prairie), Manitoba, and Dad retired to St. Margaret's Bay, NS.
Working with the Federal Govenment for 25 years, Canadian Hydrographic Service, mostly. Now married to Gail Kelly, with two grown children, Luke and Denyse. Retired to my woodlot at Stillwater Lake, NS, on the rainy days I study the life and work of A. Hyatt Verrill 1871-1954.