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ARCHIVAL MOMENTS: Colcannon Night — A Lost Newfoundland Tradition

Archival Moments
Archival Moments

By Larry Dohey

Long before Trick or Treating or Halloween got established in Newfoundland, in many communities the night of October 31 was referred to as Colcannon (also Cauld Cannon) Night.

On what is now All Hallows’ Eve or Halloween  – friends would be invited to a dinner of colcannon, a  mixture of hash of various vegetables, and sometimes meat.   The surprise of the dinner was that there were four objects hidden in the large dish of colcannon, a ring, a coin, an old maid’s thimble, and a bachelor’s button.  Each object had great symbolic significance. Whoever found the ring would marry soon. To the coin-holder, riches would accrue, while celibacy awaited both the thimble-getter and button- holder.

A Colcannon Party was to be an evening of fun but for young ladies finding the button, it was most distressing,  it doomed them to be spinsters or for the young men to irrevocable bachelorhood.

The St. John’s newspaper, The Daily News in 1896 reported about such a party:

“ a Cauld Cannon party given by Miss O’NEIL of the West End (of St. John’s)   was a most enjoyable affair – over 20 couples sat down to the repast. A young lady in a Water Street book and stationary store, found the ring. Though nobody acknowledged finding the button, it is affirmed that a certain young lady, not a mile from Queen’s Street, got it but would not own it.”

Imagine the teasing that young lady had to endure.

Previous to the 1930’s Colcannon parties were as big as St. Patrick’s Day parties are today. Every fraternal organization hosted Colcannon Party that tended to be followed by a dance.

The St. John’s newspaper the Evening Telegram reported on November 1, 1902:

“ The town was lively last night with cauld cannon parties.  The young folks were entertained with snap apple, while older ones enjoyed themselves at the altar of Terpsichore, the clear cold air resounding to the musical strains till early morning.”

Just in case you are naive enough to think that George Street closes late – the newspapers report with great frequency that patrons of the Colcannon or Cauld Cannon Parties were often seen staggering home as late as 4:00 a.m.

New Word:  In Greek mythology, Terpsichore  “delight in dancing” was one of the nine Muses, ruling over dance and the dramatic chorus. She is usually depicted sitting down, holding a lyre, accompanying the dancers’ choirs with her music. Her name comes from the Greek words (“delight”) and (“dance”).

Recommended Archival Collection: Search the online database at The Rooms  for descriptions of our archival records and to view thousands of digital photographs. https://www.therooms.ca/collections-research/our-collections

Recommended Exhibit: Feast and Famine draws on the permanent collection to explore the changing relationship between cultural identity and food in Newfoundland and Labrador, as portrayed by artists such as Grant Boland, Ross Flowers, Jamie Lewis, Mary Pratt, and Helen Parsons Shepherd.

Recommended Reading (on Halloween): Santino, Jack  ed. Halloween and Other Festivals of Death and Life. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1994. [Philip Hiscock, “Hallowe’

en Guys Come to Newfoundland,” The Folklore Round Table 9 (Fall 1989): 28-36]

Recommended Halloween Traditions:  Particular to Ireland and Newfoundland:  http://www.ireland-information.com/articles/irishhalloweentraditions.htm

Recommended Song:   “Colcannon” comes from the album entitled “The Black Family” which was released in 1995. Mary Black sings this in such a playful manner. A true delight of a song! Enjoy! http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TCQbksGz67U

Larry Dohey is the manager of Collections and Projects with The Rooms Provincial Archives Division. For more of his Archival Moments, visit http://archivalmoments.ca.

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