Newfoundland warms hearts and lifts wintry spirits with Irish charm, bonhomie

December 20, 1992|By Richard Carroll and Donna Carroll | Richard Carroll and Donna Carroll,Copley News Service

ST. JOHN'S, NEWFOUNDLAND — St. John's, Newfoundland--The local musicians known as Newfie fiddlers, in a joyous Christmas mood, play a festive up-tempo Irish jig, while the small, friendly crowd claps its hands and taps its feet. The old pub in downtown St. John's, the capital of Newfoundland, is rocking with rosy-cheeked good cheer. If the world were tearing apart at the edges, you would never know it. Lilting Irish accents and turns of phrase that haven't been heard since Shakespeare's day remind visitors that they are encountering one of the continent's oldest surviving folk cultures here on this island at the tip of eastern Canada.

Swirls of snow sweep past Christmas lights on Water Street, North America's oldest shopping district, lightly dusting festive wreaths and enhancing a lonely snowman with outstretched arms. The historic city, reminiscent of Dublin, is built on rolling countryside around a small, narrow-mouthed bay, and has been a place of legends for almost 500 years. Brightly painted wooden houses, steep-roofed buildings connected by stepped sidewalks, and formidable stone Gothic- and Romanesque-style churches dating from the early 1800s reflect the heritage of the Irish and English people who settled here.

For more than 400 years, tough-minded fishermen in weather-beaten boats braved the long, hard winters and the whims of the ocean to fish for cod in the rich Grand Banks. Almost every old-timer has a story or two about fishermen lost in the fog and heroic feats of lifesaving. And in every leaded-glass window, brick building and wooden door along the shop-lined streets, there's a little piece of St. John's legacy.

The port city has seen everyone from ragtag buccaneers and swashbuckling pirates to Captain Bligh and the HMS Bounty. Because of its strategic military location and rich fishing grounds, the town has fought off marauding pirates and the Dutch and French. Its citizens also cleverly blocked invasions by stretching a chain across the narrow channel and, during World War II, used nets to prevent German submarines from entering the harbor.

This instinct for survival has formed a --ing Old World charm of humor and zest, and Newfoundlanders are at their best at celebrations. A Newfoundland saying is, "We come home for a wedding, a wake and Christmas." When the calendar touches Dec. 1, they set off the holidays with a nip of grog, a pinch of their classic dark-fruit Christmas cake and visits with friends.

Houses are lighted, Christmas parades strut, Santa is out and about, church bells ring and carolers sing. The celebration is carried through to New Year's Eve with a splendid program designed for visitors in conjunction with Air Canada and the Hotel Newfoundland. The traditional St. John's New Year affords the opportunity to meet the Townies, as they are affectionately called.

It all begins with a memorable New Year's Eve gala, a black-tie ball at the Hotel Newfoundland, featuring an eight-course dinner with fresh Atlantic salmon, marinated Alberta strip loin, chocolate pear walnut terrine and champagne.

After dinner, guests can dance the evening away to the music of the Commanders, a big band, and watch the ball drop at the hotel. They also can slip up to their rooms, bundle up in warm clothes and, champagne in hand, stroll in the invigorating 25-degree night air to the waterfront and join 15,000 townsfolk for a fireworks display over the harbor. The sound of foghorns and ships' bells is hard to forget -- and so is the camaraderie.

The Townies will inquire about your hometown, offer a sip of their beverage and invite you to a party. New friendships could keep you busy writing postcards for a lifetime. It's great fun, but civilized and orderly.

After waterfront fireworks and the birth of a new year, you can return to the hotel and carry on the festivities at the open bar until 3 a.m., or go downtown and dance an Irish jig to the strains of a fiddler, sip a glass of a local rum drink called Screech, and, for a run of good luck, try at least one plate of cod tongues. You are hours ahead of everyone else on the continent, and it's a safe bet to challenge anyone to catch up.

The city is in a unique time zone, which places it a half-hour ahead of Atlantic Time, 1 1/2 hours ahead of central Canada and 4 1/2 hours ahead of the west coast of the country. Newfoundlanders are the first North Americans to greet the new year, and, as they proudly say, they are also the first to see the sun each day.

St. John's, the most eastern point in North America, was the last landmark sighted by Charles Lindbergh on his solo flight to Paris in 1927. Newfoundland is closer to Ireland than it is to Los Angeles, and it is the same distance from Italy as it is from Canada's westernmost province, British Columbia.

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