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Commissariat House and the fighting spirit of Christmas

8 Dec 2011 by Clare-Marie Grigg in Culture and History
Region: Avalon

It’s almost Christmas. Have you heard?

I for one tend to get a bit twitchy when November starts to gallop towards December and public places set their sound systems to Jingle Bells 101. So I find it helps my Christmas spirit (or lackthereof) to remind myself of the good things about the season. The things that don’t involve frantically running around malls full of people mowing you down to get better spots in cash register line-ups so long there should a surprise pop-up concert by Adele waiting at the end.

For the last few years, I’ve been going to The Once and For all Christmas Time in early December, which has become a St. John’s seasonal tradition – a sell-out concert put off by the beautifully talented NL folk trio The Once. I’ll be writing a post about that soon. But just over a week ago, I discovered yet another way to ease gently into the warm and fuzzy glow of Christmastime: Christmas in the Colony. An 1800’s-style celebration of the season at historic Commissariat House in St. John’s.

Over the course of a weekend, Commissariat House, which generally operates May-October, opens its doors and shows people how Christmas in the golden olden days was done. Those blissful days before malls, when Santa really did deliver your presents (he did!). All two of them. And little boys ran around in flat caps and tall socks and said charming things like “Roast chestnuts missus? Just a penny a bag.”

A list of some of the things that attracted me to Christmas in the Colony:

- Homemade traditional pudding makings and tastings
- Free hot chocolate and cider
- The sights and sounds of an 1800s Christmas household by candlelight
- Carols sung by the Cathedral Choir
- Free entry with a food bank item

So, yes, I was going for the Christmas ambience, but I’d be lying if I said the refreshments didn’t sweeten the deal. I was also genuinely interested to wander around the grand old Georgian house and investigate its history.

Commissariat House was built between 1818 and 1820 as the home and offices of the Assistant Commissary General – the supply officer for British forces in the Colony of Newfoundland. At that time, the politics of the day were somewhat volatile and unsettled. Newfoundland was still under British military rule, but St. John’s was buzzing with the idea that Newfoundlanders should have the same rights as other Englishmen, and that they should be able to manage their own affairs through their own government.

The Carriage House

Wandering around Commissariat House, which looks now, much like it must have then, you get an interesting sense of contrast between the character of the beautiful house, and the heated politics of the day. The home itself is like a cozy snapshot back in time, but the Carriage House, which stands next door, has recently been transformed into a stylish, multi-media experience that takes you through the political power struggles leading up to and around the first elections in 1832. Drawing often from local newspapers, which covered so much of the vitriol, the exhibit uses quirky charm and flawless design to help people relive the rhetoric of a time when politics played out in churches, pubs and street corners – and was often settled with fists.

Inside the Carriage House

Shadow puppets tell stories of turbulent politics

Speaking of getting in fights, let’s get back to Christmas.

Walking into Commissariat House the first thing I smelt was old wood, foliage and baking. If you captured that smell and put in a candle, you could sell it as The Smell of Christmas. The old wood smell is pretty self-explanatory. The foliage smell was coming from a room where people were making kissing boughs. They’re a traditional decoration originally from England. A ball of evergreenery containing winter fruiting mistletoes, holly and ivy that you hang up in the hope Mr Darcy will innocently pop by for tea so you can ambush him under it.

Making kissing boughs

The baking smell was coming from the kitchen where two costumed cooks were whipping up bread pudding and plum pudding, served with a choice of cream, hard sauce or custard. I ate as much of all variations as I could and was suitably impressed. Coming from England, where we love our puddings almost too much, I often pine for a bit of goo and custard after a meal – or as an actual whole meal, I’ll be honest.

By this time I could hear wafts of Christmas carolling emanating from… somewhere. It sounded like a recording, but when I made my way up the staircase I discovered a large room, with a choir and a jam-packed, rapt audience. There wasn’t a seat to be had.

Next door, sitting like a mirage from the past in a little alcove, was a costumed, white-haired lady making beautiful intricate lace swatches from scratch. She was spinning them with ornate, antique hand bobbins that rested on a lace roller pillow that she said was about a hundred years old and that she had acquired from England decades ago. Watching her, accompanied by strains of Good King Wenceslas, made me wish I was a better photographer – and that I could sit and chat for hours.

But I didn’t want to be a pest, so, determined to give all areas of the house a good chance to imbue me with the spirit of the season, I continued exploring, all the while accompanied by the choir.

Making Christmas decorations

Then I went back downstairs for more pudding. And headed over to the Carriage House to drink hot cider and learn all about politics, pub brawls, hangings and one outspoken 19th-century journalist getting his ear cut off. What? That’s what you do at Christmas. You eat too much, drink (er, just a wee bit) and then challenge someone to a fight.

Ah, turns out my Christmas spirit was there all along. It just needed a bit of coaxing.

Commissariat House is located at the corner of King's Bridge Road and Military Road, St. John's, next to Government House. Its usual season runs from May to October, 10 a.m. - 5:30 a.m. every day including weekends and holidays