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Bill Thayer

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Part IV
Chapter 2
This webpage reproduces part of
Angry Island

by Margaret Mackay

published by Rand McNally & Company,
Chicago • New York • San Francisco

The text is in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
If you find a mistake though,
please let me know!


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Part IV
Chapter 4

Part Four
Missionaries and Barter

 p158  3 Feasting, Mumming and 'Dawncing'

The customs of the island Christmas and New Year festivities have changed very little from the days of sail to the present.

Before the year‑end holidays the Tristanians always hoped, often in vain, for a gift-laden man-of‑war — a Father Christmas's sleigh. There was usually a fortnight's vacation, a week before and a week after  p159 Christmas. The late spring brought warmth and burgeoning, with the tall red‑budded flax, the tame roses and wild berries — along with muggy north winds and heavy mists from the sea. On the common there was the yellow blur of the gorse thicket which Mr Barrow had planted. Even the mountain shed its wrapping of cloud and donned a fabric of green scrub, bright with streaks of furze.

Boys fetched the first early 'taties' while the Patches were still whitish with bloom — a twenty‑acre sight which Mr and Mrs Barrow pilgrimaged to see. The plants were, however, infected with caterpillars. The lack of birds — killed or frightened away by the wasteful colonists and the predatory rats — meant that these insects were free from enemies and had to be picked off, if at all, by hand.

Many days before the holidays, the houses were scrubbed, painted and whitewashed — though the Tristan lime came off in heavy rain. Ceilings and walls were freshly re‑pasted with so‑called 'wallpaper', pictures cut from newspapers and magazines. Curtains were starched with finely grated potato. Mrs Barrow reported that when the Repettos' had furbished their sitting-room, no one was allowed in it before Christmas.

Official naval crews often arrived at these spruce times which may have affected the estimates of island cleanliness. Others who turned up unexpectedly at times other than Christmas or Easter (the next most likely occasion for a warship), have found the house and people more unkempt.

Even sheets and nightgowns, used only on great occasions, were washed and laid down to sun‑dry with stones at the corners against the wind. Since Christmas was in hot and often sticky weather, everyone wanted to be dressed in white. Bits of lace or ribbon were begged from the mission wife to trim dresses, blouses or the panties protruding under little girls' be‑sashed frocks, which were topped by frilly white kappies. Everyone hoped for shoes instead of moccasins. But if one must be content with a new pair of the latter, for Christmas as for other special holidays these must be black. One woman begged for enough cloth for a sleeve; another said she could knit a shirt for her husband if only she could be given a piece of calico for the collar and cuffs. Lengths of braid were begged for the boys' sailor suits. Ingenious scraps of material were made into the neckties which men wore only on dress‑up occasions.

Men roamed long distances with donkeys and bullocks to cut island tree or to haul driftwood for the Christmas cooking-fires. A special  p160 oven was erected of flat sheets of tin and big stones, with the fire inside.

Children went to Seal Bay or the Plantations to pick crowberries for the berry pudding or tarts. The heavy, football-like potato puddings were mixed and boiled. Housewives had long hoarded bits of tea, jam and sugar, and butter was churned. Men and big boys went eight miles to kill a sheep, vying with each other for the fattest, to show off, hanging outside the hut. This would provide the inevitable traditional stuffed mutton, with its filling of mashed potatoes, onion, parsley and pepper — though sometimes there was the even greater delicacy of a suckling pig.

On Christmas morning the women rose in the small hours to start cooking. Most people went to eight o'clock communion, and later all but the most necessary cooks dressed up to go to morning service. The church room had been specially decorated with greens and simple bunches of flowers. Appropriate hymns had been learned by the choir, schoolchildren and congregation — even the words having to be memorized by those who were illiterate. After dinner there was Sunday School and cricket, and then evensong. ('The singing was not good,' wrote Mrs Barrow. 'I drew my own conclusions.')

Over-eating was the Christmas habit of the otherwise sparsely fed islanders. There was a tale of one man who had to be rolled over and over, and another who had to be helped to bed by his family.

On Christmas or Boxing Day afternoon, or both, there was a 'dawnce' for the children in the schoolroom. And on Christmas Night there was another for the elders. Boxing Day and New Year's Day were more or less a copy of Christmas Day. But New Year's Eve has always been celebrated on Tristan with great gusto from the Scottish tradition of Founder William Glass. The archaic custom of the Mumming play has continued to the present.

For several days before New Year's Eve, the men and boys whispered and giggled together. Then, in the late afternoon of December 31, they disguised themselves in grotesque costumes, and started a house-to‑house tour of the whole village. Any household omitted would feel hurt. Many men put on women's clothes and headgear. In the Edwardian days of the Barrows they shaved off the moustaches which were generally worn. They blackened their faces with soot, and pinned on cows' tails. Some put on masks or false noses. Others donned black spectacles, and all wore gloves to hide their hands. They altered their voices and their gait while they capered about. So fearsomely bizarre  p161 did they look that the girls screamed and ran up to hide in the lofts as the mummer appeared. Then the onlookers tried to guess the identity of each one.

The early summer day was long, and at first the late afternoon sun was hot as the excited figures set out among the low walls of the flax gardens. The light lay green-gold on the gulches, with the shadows of the bushes on the mountain, and the white dots of sheep above. But when the sky faded, the merrymaking went on all night. The procession moved by torchlight or moonlight, to the accompaniment of fiddle, accordion, banjo and thunderous drum.

At each house the mummers halted with a great show of dancing and singing, cavorting about, making passes with mock swords, and firing guns. Shrieks, wails and whistles echoed from hill to sea.

Then each housewife invited all the performers to take tea and potato puddings or potato cakes, as far as the food supply would allow. When there was no tea, there was the usual substitute of 'milk‑tea', or milk-and‑water. Women and girls scurried gaily back and forth to help serve or to borrow crockery.

There was little sleep for anyone. The Barrows were awakened by the banging of the three old Martini guns at intervals through the night.

Wardrobes, female and male, were anxiously furbished for weeks before one of the 'dawnces', held on holidays and feast days and for special birthdays or wedding celebrations. They took place in the largest available living-room (until the present generation, when there has been a village hall). The proceedings have remained much the same since pioneer days.

White became the customary fashion: white dresses for the women, with coloured sashes and kerchiefs; and white sailor trousers for the men, who were usually coatless, with their white stockings pulled up over the trousers to the knees, displaying the rings of coloured wool at the top.

The missionaries or any other important outsiders were enthroned on a couch at one end; and as the small rooms got very hot and dusty, it made them 'rather a trial to visitors'. Family groups arrived with formal greetings, the girls strictly chaperoned. Babies were parked in the bedroom or held in the arms of older women. The women and  p162 girls sat primly on rows of benches, while the men and boys stood about in a knot with gawky talk and laughter.

Husbands and wives danced the first number together, after which partners were freely changed. The atmosphere was simultaneously solemn and boisterous. A male approached a seated female, bowed awkwardly, and crooked an elbow. She made a coy show of reluctance, but after a suitable moment she rose, and off they sprang into the thick mêlée, stamping and whirling. Shadows pranced on the walls in the dim yellowish glow of the bird‑oil lamps or a couple of candle stubs.

'They dance very well,' observed Mrs Barrow, 'around and backwards and forwards.'

The dances, like the tunes, were grafted into traditional island patterns. They were compounded of waltzes, fox‑trots, barn dances, hornpipes, Scottish reels, Irish jigs, a so‑called schottische (pronounced 'shorty'), and other mixed forms. There was not much sense of rhythm: one hopped along strenuously whether on the beat or not. The dances bore such names as the 'Dawnkey (Donkey) Dance,' 'Heel and Toe Polka', 'Handkerchief Dawnce', 'Hook Legs', 'Tapioca's Big Toe', 'Black Tom', and 'Break 'er Down Dawnce'. 'Annie Rooney' was the melody for the "Sweethearts' Dawnce'. The 'Step Dawnce' was rudimentary but exhausting. Everyone stepped as fast and as long as he or she could move his or her moccasined feet, with much noise and thumping and swirling of white skirts.

With all the vigour, however, the partners held each other at arm's length and leapt about with hardly any conversation and almost expressionless faces, like marionettes. Each dance ended with two loud stamps, followed by a silence. Then the women retired to their benches and the men to their groups, with self-conscious laughter.

Amid such segregation and decorum, sailors or other bachelor visitors were surprised to learn that many island romances began at the 'dawnces'. They were cautioned that it would have been improper for men and women to sit together, and shocking for a youth to seek out a girl. To dance three times with the same girl was a sign of courting. No young man was permitted to escort a girl home unless they were publicly engaged.

Even the elders were astonishingly nimble. In later years the redoubtable Mrs Repetto, long a grandmother, was seen to demonstrate the island dances for outsiders as briskly as a girl.

The climax was always the last dance, the 'Pillow Dawnce', which grew into a sort of chain dance, to the lively squeak of accordion or  p163 fiddle. First a man shuffled around the room, clasping a pillow. He plumped it down on the floor before the lady of his choice and fell to his knees. Amid guffawing and shrieking, they exchanged a pecking kiss. Then the girl rose and received the pillow, now the first man trailing behind her, it was her turn to repeat the performance before another gentleman. The modest maiden usually hastened to dump her burden before her nearest male relative. He then took his place at the head, and gradually the queue lengthened until the whole roomful was jogging along after the latest custodian of the pillow.

In the very lean times Mrs Barrow found cold water to be the only refreshment. There was even a little real tea — 'hot drink' — if the mission stores had arrived.

The dances usually ended at about ten o'clock, though there are a few records of noisy prancing until the wee hours. Then everyone scattered homeward through the dim village, with boys carrying torches which blazed and smoked in the wind, and the vastness of the sea and the darkness.

'The prettiest dancing,' the missionaries decided, 'is by the children.'

The children's dances, held on holiday afternoons, especially at Christmas stime, were replicas of the grown‑ups'. So were their costumes, on the whole, with the little girls in white frocks with ribbons and beads, and the little boys in white sailor suits and long white stockings. The same musicians wagged their cheerful instruments, and the missionaries provided sweets when any were available.

'They love dancing,' remarked Mrs Barrow. Even the youngest stood up in pairs. The girls were openly eager and adroit, but the boys were shy and diffident.

'It was amusing,' said the diarist, 'to see how their different characters came out.'

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Page updated: 13 Dec 20