CHRISTMAS ON TRISTAN DA CUNHA
WHEN we came out to Tristan we brought with us a collection of seeds from all parts kindly obtained for us by Sir David Prain, at that time director of Kew Gardens, with the idea of introducing new plants helpful to the island. William Rogers lent my husband a plot of ground out at the Patches to get them started, but though the soil was carefully prepared for sowing the result was a heavy disappointment, as practically nothing grew. Seeds often fail to germinate at Tristan, for either the seed is too old when it reaches the island or the climatic conditions are unsuitable. Efforts of this kind had been made before. The Rev. J. G. Barrow planted gorse and blackberry, but after twelve or fifteen years they are only small bushes, and have not spread at all. A few gum-trees were introduced, but they are small and gnarled, and have made little growth, as the winds destroy them. Willow-trees and apple-trees, however, will grow, and many more could be planted profitably.
There are many flower-seeds that will grow, but the people are not much inclined to cultivate flower-gardens. The best flower-garden on the island is that round the house of Arthur Rogers. He takes great pains over it, and it is sheltered by a wall, and as it is nearly the last house in the Settlement, and not much troubled by animals or children, it does pretty well. Mrs. Arthur Rogers generally supplied flowers for the church altar vases, and had quite a variety, including stocks, geraniums, wallflowers, sweet-williams, hollyhocks, sweet-peas, and garden daisies.
My husband was fond of gardening, and as we had a fair-sized garden in front of the Parsonage given by Tom Rogers, he set to with some vigour to get it into good order. He laid it out in beds and paths, and paved the paths with flat stones and planted flax for shelter. He sowed part with vegetable-seeds and part with flower-seeds. A good variety grew, and soon it was gay with marigolds, sunflowers, poppies, and some beautiful South African flowers the seeds of which were given by the Archbishop of Cape Town from his own beautiful garden at Bishop's Court, Claremont. We had carrots, onions, leeks, lettuce, radishes, beetroot, vegetable-marrow, and pumpkins. Tomatoes and cucumbers would not grow, and kidney-beans and peas were killed by the wind. White flies destroyed the cabbages, but the other things were doing well.
My husband, however, at last gave the gardening up. As he said, there were so many enemies to contend with it was almost a hopeless job, for pigs, dogs, children, donkeys, chicken, and even cows all invaded the garden and did immense havoc. I fear the children were hungry, and the sight of growing vegetables was a temptation too great to be resisted. Anyhow, our leeks, onions, and carrots disappeared rapidly.
All dodges to protect our crops failed: stone walls, tin covers, wire-netting were of no use. But of course the climate alone would depress the most enthusiastic gardener. A flourishing garden to-night may be a desolate ruin by to-morrow at daylight from wind and rain. No wonder the islanders in general say, "They have no time or ground to spare for gardening; the potatoes need all their care and labour." Most of the garden space is directed to growing flax and tussock, plants required for thatching sheds and houses and therefore valuable and necessary. It takes a thousand bundles of tussock to thatch one roof, and they have to be thatched at regular intervals, and often repaired in the meantime. A few like Old Sam Swain, Henry Green, Bob Green, and some others do try and grow vegetables if they can get the seeds, but mails are so seldom they cannot even do what they would. Those who had vegetables were delighted to send up a few every now and then to the Parsonage, and were pleased to be told that "people at home in England cannot grow better vegetables." Root and bulb crops seem to grow very well at Tristan.
Old Sam Swain is the island patriarch, a notable figure with his dark face and long beard. He is the oldest man, all the rest of his contemporaries having been in the boat that was lost in the great disaster when sixteen men were drowned. Old Mrs. Sam Swain is very deaf, poor soul. There is another Sam Swain on the island who, by the way of distinction, is spoken of as "little Sam Swain," "little" at Tristan meaning "junior."
On November 2, 1922, there was a great excitement. Before we had breakfast I was in the kitchen making some coffee for my husband and two of the men who were working at the new church building, and I had taken the cups in my hands through the garden and over the brook and was returning to bath the baby, when there was a cry of "Sail Ho! Ships from the east'ard!" Some women rushed out of the houses with their hair down and no handkerchiefs on their heads, and a tribe of half-dressed children just tumbled out of their beds, all screaming at the top of their voices, "Ship! Ship!" Men ran from house to house in frantic haste to get oars and boat-sails preparatory to pulling out the small boats. Boys came climbing over every wall till almost the whole island was gathered outside our house shouting with joy and excitement, "Three ships from the east! It will be the mails at last! " Some women whose husbands had already gone out to the Patches or across Big Beach lit fires as signals or sent boys on donkeys to call them back. Soon two men were seen rushing along towards the Settlement, hot and dirty, but crying out, "Boys, get the boats down sharp and hurry up with your trade stuff."
By this time it was clear that our visitors were three small whaling steamers apparently bound from Cape Town to South Georgia, but evidently they were intending to call in at Tristan en route, for they were heading in towards the Bay. My husband put off in one of the three biggest boats, all of which were launched speedily, and with a glass we could read the names on the little steamers: Truls, Barroby, and Southern Cross. They had each some small cases of stores on board, but told us that one more little steamer, the Storm Vogel, was coming along with the mails and some further stores. In about an hour the Storm Vogel was also at anchor in the Bay. Old Martha Green said to me: "Ma'am, this will be a happy Christmas, like old times, with four ships at Tristan at once." My husband and his boat's crew rowed round, boarding each ship in turn for a talk with the captain. One of the steamers took our mail on board, promising to post it at South Georgia.
At three o'clock my husband came ashore again, rather tired, but full of news. "The church harmonium has arrived at last, and some much-needed stores for us and lots of letters," were his first words. Mrs. Fred Swain and Mrs. Charles Green came up to the Parsonage to bring us some bread that their men had got by trading. Bread is much esteemed at Tristan, and is usually spoken of as "cake." When they say bread they mean ship's biscuit. At first I did not want to take any of their bread, but, being pressed, did not like to hurt their feelings by refusal, so I gave a small present of flour and sugar of our own in exchange. We both sat up till midnight reading our home letters and talking over the home news. The whale ships had been gone several hours, but we were too excited to sleep. We kneeled down before going to rest and said prayers of special thanksgiving to God for all His goodness, especially for the coming of these ships.
There were many parcels and stores of letters, with kind messages of encouragement and sympathy for us in our lonely life. The next day we were kept busy distributing gifts and mails to the people.
The islanders were delighted to listen to the letter from Princess Mary thanking them all for their good wishes to herself and Viscount Lascelles on the occasion of her marriage. Two other letters told us that an effort was on foot to send a schooner down to Tristan to bring stores and mails and offer a passage to any young man who would like to visit South Africa, also that the British Trade, the proposed Exhibition ship, would call at Tristan on her itinerary. For many weeks the islanders talked over and prepared for these wonderful happenings, but, alas! they were doomed to disappointment. No British Trade and no schooner ever reached us at Tristan, and at length we gave them up, but one of the big boats that belonged to Bob Glass was named British Trade in remembrance of the ship which never came. The boats all have their names; there is the Canton, the Quest, the Rammer, the Long Boat, the Morning Star, the G.P.O., the Dublin, and so on.
Christmas is always a great time with the people of Tristan da Cunha, and some weeks before the real holiday time active preparations for the festival are begun. December being a hot month and close on midsummer, everybody wants to be in white, and the women and children wish for the prettiest dresses possible. The mothers are soon busy making new underclothes for the little ones, and there is a great demand for coloured ribbons and lace, without which no petticoat or frock is thought to have any style. Men and boys are equally anxious to appear in new white shirts and trousers, and also curtains have to be washed and starched and put away carefully until Christmas Eve. The starch is cleverly made from potatoes grated fine, and the same useful vegetable will have to serve for the foundations of the Christmas dinner, being used as stuffing for the meat, also fried, roasted or boiled, and serving yet again for the pudding. Potato pudding is undoubtedly the Tristan dish, above all. It is made from a mixture of raw and boiled potatoes cooked several hours, and it is very solid. We called it "footballs," from its appearance. It is eaten with fat or jam, if obtainable.
Old sheets and nightdresses, articles dispensed with except on great occasions and carefully stored away in the family sea-chest with the best clothes (and without one of these chests no Tristan house is considered properly furnished), are bleached by being laid on the grassy common for several days in the sun. Stones have to be placed on the corners to keep the articles from blowing away, for there is almost always a strong wind. Tristan is the home of all the winds that blow.
This year old coats carefully hoarded were brought out, and, after being pressed neatly with a hot iron to remove creases, a pair of trousers to go with them had to be sought for, and there was much consultation as to getting a new suit, or at any rate a new pair of trousers, from somewhere when it was discovered Jack or Tom had quite outgrown his old ones. Many visitors came shyly to the Parsonage to beg for tape to trim the sailor jackets which are the favourite garb for the younger boys, or lace for the little girls' frocks or big girls' blouses. Soap was also much in request, and our little store of blue was soon exhausted. One anxious mother appeared with a half-finished shirt, and asked me for materials to make a sleeve; and another woman said that "she could knit a shirt if I would give her a piece of calico for the collar and cuffs." A fine variety in men's collars and neckties is soon to be seen on stones and walls. The men seldom wear collars except on Sundays, birthdays, and great festivals, like Christmas and Easter, or at weddings.
Little bits of sugar and tea are also most carefully put away in the house loft or stored in some secret "cubby" hole for Christmas, and perhaps a little flour or a pot of jam will be brought out from the same secret hiding-place, where the housewife conceals it so long from the hungry family. I would often make little presents of such commodities to some aged widow or pretty baby, or to someone who had done me a special good turn, and the things would be put by for the Christmas dinner. The housewives save up their eggs, and make little cups or jars of butter for the holiday week, and for two or three mornings before Christmas the men and boys can be seen riding off early upon donkeys, or driving the patient bullocks in carts, out to the Patches to fetch the sacks of Christmas potatoes. They will have to go some eight miles out to the Bluff to drive up the sheep and pick the fattest in the flock for the Christmas dinner. There is much friendly chaff and laughter over choosing the Christmas sheep, for each one is anxious to get a finer beast than his neighbour, and will display it to his friends as it hangs up in his hut and expatiate on its merits. A few families owning more stock will kill off a couple, and those are thought lucky who have a sucking-pig to vary the menu, as this is thought a rare delicacy.
On Christmas Eve all will have to be up long before daylight, for the whole house must be scrubbed, floors, windows, paint, pictures, chairs or benches, and tables all rubbed down. The walls and ceiling will have been repasted over with fresh pictures or advertisements, cut out for the purpose from newspapers and magazines. My husband used to say that "when on a visit he enjoyed studying the walls, as it reminded him of a bill-posters' hoarding in England."
The Christmas decoration of the houses include big nosegays of flowers, chiefly pink roses and white dog daisies, with much greenstuff, set about in vases, or indeed any sort of jars, for vases are scarce.
The children were all given a fortnight's holiday for Christmas, about a week before and a week after, but we had some extra choir practices, for though the children learned the carols in school, the choir and congregation had to be taught the words as well as the tunes, for so few can read. They all loved the carols, and we often heard the lads singing the "First Noel" or "Good King Wenceslas" on their way to work. The church was always decorated elaborately for Christmas by the choir girls and myself. My husband and endless Boy Scouts and school children ran round to every house begging flowers and greenery, and the girls made them into garlands and wreaths to be hung up. Altar, reading-desk, font, pulpit, and windows were all bedecked gaily with blossom and greenery. The girls seemed very proud of their efforts, and resolved to come to church early in their Christmas finery of white frocks and beads, sure of admiration from all beholders. Relations often club together for the Christmas dinner party, as there is rather a marked shortage of tablecloths and kitchen utensils, as well as glass and china. The lucky possessors of large tins or pots boil several big potato puddings, their own and those of their less fortunate friends. I gave away all my big tins for cooking pots.
During the afternoon and evening of Christmas Eve every woman and girl used to be engaged in peeling potatoes and getting the stuffed mutton ready for cooking. Christmas Day would start at one in the morning, the women getting up early to put on dinner. They would all come to early Celebration in church at eight o'clock. The men and boys would get up early also, as they often sleep in the kitchen and are awakened by the bustle. The potatoes have to be grated with a tin pierced with holes and then strained through a cloth and mixed with mashed potatoes and boiled, and the result is a very indigestible pudding.
Just before Christmas many of the girls and boys walk over to Seal Bay or the children go to Plantations to pick cranberries to make pudding or pie. Berry pudding, as it is called, is quite a traditional Christmas dish, but without "sweetening," as they call sugar, it is very sour. It is eaten with milk or cream. The mutton or little pig having been stuffed with mashed potatoes, pepper and onions and parsley, the "berry" pudding and potato pudding made, and the difficulty of pudding cloths and cooking tins solved, the housewife has to see if her menfolk have provided an adequate supply of firewood. They usually have plenty fetched from the other side of the island and ready stacked and chopped in the potato hut next the house.
An oven is specially erected, made of flat sheets of tin and big stones, and a fire is lit inside and removed like the old ovens in the country in England. When the cooking is well under way everyone has a special wash and puts on the very best clothes they have, and proceeds to morning church, save a cook or two left in charge, and they will return to dinner ready for serving. After dinner the little ones are sent to Sunday School. The girls have new moccasins and white stockings, long white knickers coming well below their frocks, white petticoats with lace and tucks under their best dress, which will be threaded with ribbon through the neck and sleeves, the front having as much lace and insertion as it is possible to get in, and over this a fully laced pinafore, with a wide bright blue or red sash, the hair being combed and covered with a new Tristan " cappie," or sun-bonnet, which has a knot of coloured ribbon on top. A handkerchief and nosegay and beads and bow-tie added make a fine little girl indeed. Small boys will wear striped socks, new moccasins, white three-quarter trousers and sailor jumpers with a broad collar, trimmed with buttons and white tape, a red tie, and a handkerchief and nosegay, and a home-made cap of any colour. Very likely a medal, toy watch, or badge will be added. They do not join their sisters, but stand about in groups till something happens, church, dinner, or a dance. At church boys sit on one side and girls on the other, and women and men usually sit apart.
If a ship had visited the island recently the Christmas menu would be much grander, cakes and real plum pudding and jam tarts. Supper would be almost like dinner all over again: meat, puddings, pies, and cakes, with tea and coffee. When there is no ship and no tea, they drink milk and water. They often eat to excess at Christmas, and we were amused at a yarn about one man who ate so much that he had to be rolled over and over to cure him, and another who had to be helped to bed by his relations to sleep off his gorge. The majority of the people go to see the children dance in the afternoon when church is over and dinner cleared away.
A number of the men are able to play on the accordion, but Tom Rogers is the best player, while Andrew Swain plays the violin and Bill Rogers the banjo. The prettiest dancing is by the children. Every little girl has on her prettiest frock and ribbons and beads, and is ready to perform, but the boys are rather shy and will only dance a few sets with the girls. We always went to watch the children dancing, and it was amusing to see how their different characters came out.
The dances for grown-ups were generally given in Charles Green's house or at Mr. Hagan's or the big schoolroom, and it was Bob Glass who conceived the bright idea of decorating the rooms for the occasion, and pressed the island flags into the service. The flags were draped gracefully over the walls, and the big couch reserved for us at the head of the room in the place of honour. The rest of the folk sat round on forms, or rather the women and children did so, for the men and boys, by Tristan etiquette, all stand apart at the far end of the room, except a few of the elders and the members of the orchestra. Tom Rogers, his brother Bill, and Andrew Swain, are the inevitable performers, and play the favourite airs until the small hours of morning. Very often the only refreshment served is cold water, but when we had our stores we usually provided some tea. One or two women and girls were specially deputed to boil the tea, and cups were handed round to all the grown-ups, the first being given to us and the next to the oldest people present.
As the rooms are too small for so many and they get very hot and there is much dust, it makes them rather a trial to visitors. The method of conducting the evening is quite amusing. The ball opens by each married man dancing the first dance with his wife. After that there is a change of partners. The men advance to where the girls are seated and each stands in silence with arm crooked before the lady of his choice, who at first shyly averts her head, but at length rises majestically and takes the proffered arm and is led to her place in the dance ready to begin. Waltzes are the favourite dance, and next a sort of barn dance, a step-dance, also what is called a schottische. The step-dance goes on noisily till everyone is tired, each stepping as fast as she or he can move the feet. A few fancy dances with local names are danced, such as "Tapioca's Big Toe," the "Heel and Toe," the "Donkey Dance" and the "Handkerchief Dance," or some Scottish dances. The regulation costume is white for women and white trousers for men. All who can, beg or borrow boots and shoes for the dance party, moccasins are not the thing. The man holds a handkerchief over his hand instead of gloves so as not to soil the white frock, and often dances in his shirt-sleeves. Coats are discarded as too hot.
It was amusing how the younger generation went to work to get a room to dance in. Three or four little girls and some shy boys would approach my husband, while the whole school stood afar off to watch results and beg him to try and get Charles Green's room, or some other place, for them. The deputation usually consisted of Margaret Lavarello, May Glass, Alice Swain, Hilda Green and Elsie Swain, with Godfrey Glass, Victor and Paddy Rogers, and Norman Swain. "Please, sir, will you come and watch us dance, and we could get Charles Green's room, and Andrew Swain would play for us if you would ask him and give him a packet of cigarettes or a pipe of tobacco." No one could have resisted such arguments. The elder girls, my choir girls, were much more shy, and took a long while to pluck up courage to approach me. I must be persuaded to beard the dragon, this time Andrew Hagan, in his den. Mr. Hagan is the smallest man on the island, quite a kindly person in reality, and he and his wife were always most obliging to us. "He'd never refuse you, marm," volunteered Lizzie Rogers, who was not so shy as Violet Glass and some of the other girls, as she always worked for me in the Parsonage. "But why not go and ask him yourselves?" I reply. "'He says we only break his floors and keep him awake,' is the answer; so we said, 'What if we fetch the Missus to you?' He talks very slowly, 'If the Missus comes I shan't say no to her. I wouldn't be so insulting as to refuse anything she asked me after she come so far as out here, but you'll get the room no more after she's gone back.' " Encouraged by these words, and being escorted as far as the end of his house, I am left to persuade the old man. I find him only too willing to lend me the room at any time, and, thanking him, I depart to be told by my anxious dancers that "I am the best Missus in the world, and they were real scared what he would say."
We were always invited out to dine on Christmas Day and during the Christmas week by leading islanders. At Tristan if you go to dinner you always return later to have supper, and some prepared breakfast for us also. The menu of the feasts does not vary much, being usually roast or fried meat, fried eggs, potatoes boiled and roast, and potato pudding. A long list of visitors marks the day, as all call in some time to pay their respects to the Missionary and his family, and to exchange the compliments of the season and bring presents. I always thought these presents were given to show their gratitude for my Christmas gifts to each family. I gave 1 lb. of tea and 1 lb. of sugar on Christmas Eve to each household. Edward's godparents and our five godchildren were all given a cake of scented soap in addition, and the four old widows a special parcel to themselves. Christmas and New Year are kept up very much together, the festivities intermingling, but the New Year's Mumming Play deserves a special description.
Tristan da Cunha is the home of old-world songs and customs and styles of dress. Many of the dances are like the dances of old and merry England, and perhaps the Mumming Play is a survival too. For a few days before New Year's Eve the boys and men may be seen conspiring mysteriously with much laughter and chatter in corners, and dark hints are thrown out of great things in store. Every man and boy is hard at it hatching up quaint costumes and disguises in concert with his particular friends and cronies, the aim being to conceal the identity so well that the public will not be able to guess who's who on the night itself. There are torchlight and moonlight processions from house to house of all the mummers to the accompaniment of drum, fiddle, concertina, and banjo. The drum is very noteworthy, making a terrific din under a rain of thwacks. At each house a halt is made and a grand demonstration of dancing and capering about of queer-looking characters in weird dresses takes place. Shrieks and wails and whistles fill the air, and then, after the band has played for a bit, the householder invites all the performers inside and refreshments are handed round and some sort of drinks. In prosperous years we gave them tea and cakes, but last year only tea, as our flour was all exhausted. The other island houses had potato puddings or potato cakes ready. Open house is kept on New Year's Eve all over the Settlement, for there is much running to and fro of cooks and performers, and the mumming goes on all night, as it takes quite a long time to get round to every house, but any island housewife would feel deeply hurt if her hospitality was not claimed.
My husband quite won the hearts of the men and boys by joining in the play one year. He and two of the young men, Jack Rogers and Joe Repetto, arranged to go along together, being nearly the same height and build, and so disguised that it was hoped no one could detect which was which. They called themselves "the three noble brothers," having dyed their faces and arranged humps on their backs, put on strange and weird suits, and obtained awful pipes; they were scarcely recognizable, and were held to have scored distinctly when one woman got so confused over identities that she handed her cup of tea to Jack with a polite speech, "Really, sir, you are so nicely dressed up I wouldn't have known you for the Minister!" She was overwhelmed at the delighted roars of laughter, but soon recovered her spirits sufficiently to join in the laugh against herself, and good-naturedly brought out fresh tea and cakes.
The mummers usually come early to the Parsonage so as not to keep us up late, but they stayed long enough to go through the entire programme of songs and dances. All the older men were invited indoors, and there was quite a lot of nice speechifying to thank us. The Boy Scouts were out in full force as usual, and a good many lads had come with blackened faces and looked very droll under straw hats decorated with wreaths of flowers. Most of the younger married men had shaved off their moustaches, which are generally worn, and looked strange and unfamiliar. Others had added black spectacles and long skirts and women's headgear, looking like the famous " Charley's Aunt," and the irreverent Scouts immediately dubbed these " Aunt Sarah," after a local lady of uncertain age and temper. As a rule my husband and I merely accompanied the players to a few of the principal houses and had light refreshments, listened to a few songs and returned home, but the noise of the jubilations is so considerable that one does not get much sleep that night. Ted, our dog, went with us to a few houses, but seemed to grow rather discontented with the noisy performance, and, returning home, turned in under our window as usual.